If we were in a world where liner notes were more widely read, it’s unlikely David R. Ferguson would need much introduction. The veteran record producer and audio engineer has played vital roles in bringing to life widely loved recent albums from country and country-adjacent artists. With Sturgill Simpson, he co-produced Tyler Childers’ Purgatory and Country Squire, and with Simpson and Margo Price, he co-produced Price’s rocking That’s How Rumors Get Started. He’s also co-produced several albums with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, including Early James’ Singing for My Supper, John Anderson’s Years and Kendell Marvel’s Solid Gold Sounds. Ferguson mixed Simpson’s Grammy-winning 2016 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and produced both of the Kentucky-born songsmith’s Cuttin’ Grass bluegrass LPs.
“It’s all about the performance — every bit of it,” says Ferguson one recent unseasonably warm winter morning. He’s got one arm propped on the mixing console in the small studio on his property in Goodlettsville. “Just keep doing it until they get it right.”
How do you know when it’s right?
“Well, that’s something that takes time,” he says with a laugh.
Before Ferguson was born, his family moved to the Nashville area looking to get into the music business, and as a youngster, he played bass and guitar in a variety of bands. In 1981, around the time he turned 19, he took a job running errands at Cowboy Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. The studio — which was badly damaged in a 2011 fire but rebuilt prior to Clement’s death in 2013 — takes up the top floor of the legendary producer and songwriter’s Belmont Avenue home. Currently owned and occupied by Clement’s nephew Bob Clement, Cowboy Arms has been beloved since the 1970s for its combination of purposeful design and relaxed atmosphere.
Within a year of Ferguson taking that job, he found some empty time on the studio’s calendar and recorded a band. On hearing his work, Clement fired him. But he immediately rehired him to work under Cowboy Arms’ chief engineer Jack “Stack-a-Track” Grochmal, a tape-machine wizard who’d worked at big commercial studios in Los Angeles like The Record Plant. As Ferguson learned on the job from Grochmal over the following decade, the top-tier songwriters and players who frequented the studio — like Johnny Cash and John Prine — grew to like and trust him.
“There was not too much ‘traditional’ about Cowboy Clement’s except scheduling and being on time and that kind of stuff,” Ferguson recalls. “But there’s the unspoken rules of how you conduct yourself in a studio situation and communicate with musicians, knowing how sessions work. Just knowing musicians and how to use them is a real key. You just work and work and work, and hope something happens [laughs] — or you get lucky. If all else fails, get lucky.”
In the 1990s, Ferguson began working with Cash on his American Recordings series under producer Rick Rubin. Sessions continued until just before Cash’s death in 2003, and the sixth and final volume was released in 2010. In the early 2000s, the Music Row building housing Ferguson’s studio Naughty Pines was sold, and he had to move out. Prine asked if he’d like to go in with him on a space in the former Neuhoff meatpacking complex in Germantown.
Prine mostly used the facility, which was named The Butcher Shoppe, as an office and a place to keep his pool table. But Ferguson and his trusted engineer Sean Sullivan made many records there, including Kurt Vile’s Speed, Sound, Lonely KV. One of Ferguson’s favorite memories of the spot is working on Standard Songs for Average People, a 2007 album of duets between Prine and bluegrass hero Mac Wiseman. The two recorded their verses casually, seated across the studio’s kitchen table from each other.
But the building was sold, and following Prine’s death in April, Ferguson had to close up shop again. At least Ferguson and Simpson got to bring in an all-star bluegrass band to make Simpson’s Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 before the gear had to be packed up and moved out to Ferguson’s house.
As work slowed down during the pandemic, Ferguson began to put the finishing touches on an album of his own that he’s been working on for years. Nashville No More spotlights his gently weathered voice and performances from some of the A-list players he’s worked with, and is expected to be released by Fat Possum Records sometime in 2021. It’s a collection of songs that caught Ferguson’s ear during sessions with other artists. Some were released but have been forgotten; others were recorded but left off of the other artists’ albums because they didn’t fit.
The songs all exemplify a spirit of collaborative creativity encouraged in places like Cowboy Arms and The Butcher Shoppe that Ferguson sees fading away as the city changes. He’s hopeful, however, that the musicians and producers working here can cultivate something new that’s just as good.
“Someone’s going to add something to it. It’ll evolve.”