Many members of Nashville's music community are reeling after hearing news of the death of Brian Harrison, a local musician, recording engineer and producer who owned The Rendering Plant, a studio he operated out of his Donelson home. Harrison was found dead at his home on Tuesday, Feb. 18. He was 54.
Two of his close friends, Bryan Owings and Joe McMahan, became concerned on Tuesday when Harrison, who was most commonly known by the nickname "Brain," hadn't responded to phone calls or emails since the day before. They went to his house together on Tuesday, where they found him dead.
No official cause of death has been given, though several friends say they suspect it might have been a heart attack, because the last activity on Harrison's computer, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, consisted of several Internet searches for heart attack symptoms.
Owings, a drummer known for his work with Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Tony Joe White and Iris Dement, had known Harrison since the two jammed together as teenagers in Columbus, Miss.
"Brain always wanted a recording studio," Owings tells the Scene, recalling the early days of their 40-year friendship. "He started piecing that stuff together back in the late '70s, buying cool gear when nobody gave a shit about it. He had amassed quite a bit of gear. He moved from Mississippi to Atlanta and lived there for a long time, and was playing around, recording and stuff. And then he moved up here in '95 or '96."
Owings remembers Harrison as a talented songwriter who could play bass, guitar, flute, piano and drums. Harrison's projects included The Guinea Horn Quintet and The Hubcap Thieves, and Owings says Harrison played virtually all the instruments on those recordings.
"Anybody who knew Brain loved him," Owings says. "He was just a generous, hardworking guy. He loved to work. His idea of relaxing was to change the capacitors in an old amp."
McMahan, a guitarist and producer most recently known for his work with Luella and the Sun, first became friends with Harrison when they shared a big house on Chapel Avenue with a couple of other guys. McMahan recalls their first meeting with a mixture of nostalgia and awe.
"He arrived, and he's such an extreme character — he's one of these people who roll into your life and you don't know what the fuck is happening," McMahan says. "It takes a while to kind of get your mind around him. He was just a force. He rolls into the house and brings a 2-inch tape machine and a console and big-ass speakers, and he's just ate up with audio and recording and music, a million records, and the energy of a 7-year-old kid at all times."
McMahan, now one of the roots music scene's most respected producers, says he knew nothing about recording before he met Harrison. "I didn't know an 1176 [peak limiter] from a 747. I'd get up in the morning, make a pot of coffee, and we'd sit in the kitchen and talk about this shit, listen to records and talk about it some more, and his enthusiasm was contagious."
McMahan says he has many fond memories of The Rendering Plant, Harrison's studio. "We carried Kevin Gordon's 2-inch tapes for Down to the Well over there and did guitar and percussion overdubs over there." And he says that's where Lucinda Williams came to sing her duet with Gordon on the album's title track.
"[Williams] immediately loved it there," McMahan says. "So then she wanted to record over there, so she and Bo Ramsey went over there and did the demos for the Essence album. Somewhere those [recordings] circulate. I think I've still got a copy, and they're amazing, just two guitars and vocals."
Guitarist John Jackson, a veteran of Williams' and Bob Dylan's bands who now plays with Minton Sparks and Amelia White, tells the Scene that Harrison had been his closest friend for some time. "We shared a room on tour with Shelby [Lynne] for however many years that was. Most of the recording I do in Nashville is at his house. He was the best musician I ever played with. He just touched so many people. Everybody he touched felt like he was their best friend."
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