Over the years, women have made slow, if incremental, progress in the country-music industry. First, thanks to Kitty Wells, they carved out a niche as performers. Then, in the years that followed, they began to be recognized as songwriters and occasionally as instrumentalists. But it’s only recently that women in Nashville have begun to shatter the glass window that has kept them behind microphones and out of the studio control room. More than four decades after ”It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,“ women are finally beginning to take control as producerstraditionally a male role in Music City, and in the music industry in general.
Reba McEntire, Anita Cochran, Martina McBride, Alison Krauss, and Kathy Mattea have all served as coproducers on their own recording projects, and Deana Carter will do the same on her upcoming release. Pam Tillis, meanwhile, took over all the production duties on her last studio album. In each of these cases, however, the women were artists working on their own projects; only a very few women, most notably Wendy Waldman, have worked as producers on another artist’s release.
Add to that short list Stephony Smith, whose efforts will come to light with the Feb. 24 release of Melodie Crittenden’s self-titled debut on Asylum Records. Smith is a highly respected songwriter who penned ”It’s Your Love,“ ”Go Away, No Wait a Minute,“ ”What Do I Know,“ and ”How Was I to Know.“
”I think Stephony is going to show other women, åHey, you can get your break,’ “ Crittenden says. ”I’m sure there’s a bunch of women who want to produce; they just didn’t know they could have an opportunity. Stephony is stubborn enough that no one could tell her she couldn’t do itand gosh is she good.“
Smith, who moved from Memphis to Nashville 10 years ago, stresses that no one discouraged her. ”When I was cutting my demos, I didn’t realize that I was producing,“ says the soft-spoken songwriter. ”I didn’t realize that I had a vision, and that’s what producers have. They see the end result before it’s there, and they take you to it. The most important thing is learning how to explain it to the players, knowing the right thing to say at the right time, and knowing when it’s right.“
Crittenden, a former backup singer for Kathy Mattea and a local demo singer, met Smith when she got a call from the songwriting trio of Sunny Russ, Cathy Majeski, and Smith. Russ was losing her voice, and they needed someone immediately to sing the demo for ”What Do I Know.“ Crittenden listened to the song once, learned it by following the legendary Nashville numbers system, then sang it. She did two run-throughs, and her third try was a keeper.
Shortly thereafter, Crittenden landed a production deal at EMI, for whom she had cut the demo. ”[Crittenden’s manager] Jimmy Gilmer said, åDo you want to cut a record on her?’ “ Smith recalls. ”I was like, åWhat?’ I thought it was five years down the road for me, if at all.“
The two polished up another set of demos, and Smith contacted Asylum’s John Condon, who liked what he heard and signed Crittenden to a record deal. ”I was dead set that Stephony was going to produce me,“ Crittenden says. ”We created a sound that was unique and caught people’s attention. I knew I had to have something like that to set me apart.“ Since Smith had little production experience, Byron Gallimore, who produces Tim McGraw, was named coproducer.
Smith says BlackHawk producer Mark Bright gave her tips on how to talk to musicians. ”I realized there was a way of communicating, a kind of diplomacy that you should have with the players,“ she observes. ”They have a way of interacting with each other, so you don’t just come in and say, åCan you play this or that.’
”I can see where women might not know how to interact that way, and that’s key. I feel like I’ve gotten to know the players. I know what they do. I’m interested in how they play; I’m not interested in playing for them. I’m interested in knowing what they do best.“
Producing a successful album may be one of the most lucrative jobs in the industryproducers take home 3 percent of record sales. It makes sense that this job has typically gone to males, since producers usually came out of the ranks of musicians or music publishersareas where very few women have been in power. But that has changed over the last decade, so the elevation of women to producer is just a logical evolutionary step.
For her part, Smith doesn’t really see gender politics as much of an issue. ”I don’t see anyone stopping me. Maybe some people who came before me felt a wall, and if I run into one, I run into one.“ Since she took on the job, she says, she has gotten only one discouraging comment. ”Someone said to me recently, åThis record has really got to do well.’ I asked why, thinking he might say that Melodie would lose her deal. He said, åYou may not get to produce anything else for three or four years if this record doesn’t fly.’ I said, åWhat? No way. I’m already doing other things.’ He said, åPeople are looking at you,’ and I said, åSo what? I’ll keep writing songs. I’ll do demos.’ “
Crittenden has nothing but praise for Smith, who made her feel comfortable in the studio and helped coax the best performances out of the singer. In one instance, Crittenden was oversinging, so Smith suggested she sit down, place a pillow in her lap, and hug it. ”She put me in an awkward situation where I wasn’t thinking about singing,“ Crittenden says. ”It made me be real. She said, åI want you to sing like you are telling someone a story,’ and I nailed it the first time.“
The singer says she was comforted to have Smith as her producer, but she doesn’t think that gender was necessarily the decisive factor in their working relationship. In the end, she notes, ”It’s a sensitivity thing. I’ve worked with men who’ve had it, but there’s a special connection between her and me.“
Smith, meanwhile, remains focused on songwriting, but she’d like to do more production as well. ”I don’t want to do 12 acts at a time. I would just love to find special singers and writers and really devote some time to them instead of being a factory. I really want to do some writing with them and create a sound,“ she says, citing as inspiration Carole King and James Taylor. ”I think all too often labels today don’t spend enough time on that. They just throw something out there.“
Searching for the album’s songsthe hardest part about producing, even in Nashvilletaught Smith a little something about her own writing. ”I’ve learned to write in those little nuances,“ she says. ”Don’t do the same 1-4-5 intros. From hearing so many songs, I learned everybody is doing the same intros, so you should spend time on the intros, endings, and bridges. Make them more interesting.“
Smith remains optimistic that her work will be judged on its merits. ”I want to think positive things: Just keep doing great work, and the cream will rise to the top and the rest will go away. For women who aspire to do this, just do it. Practice it. I really worked hard. I studied records, I studied sounds, I studied the way people put the words together.
”People who make it have that type of determination. Ask anybody, and they’ll tell you. Few will say, åI was walking down the street and I handed this tape to somebody and now I’m a millionaire.’ "
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Wonderful! We're hoping Knoxville puts something like this together, too. It's a fantastic concept!!