Buddy Cannon is the classic story of someone who comes to Nashville with one musical goal in mind but ultimately finds fulfillment in doing something radically different.
Best known these days for producing Kenny Chesney‘s multi-million-selling albums, Cannon moved to Nashville in 1972 to play bass for Grand Ole Opry star Bob Luman.
After three years in Luman’s band, the Lexington, Tenn., native went to work for Mel Tillis, primarily as a songwriter for the singer’s publishing company. But he also played in Tillis’ band for more than a year.
It was during this period that Cannon experienced his first success as a songwriter. He and co-writer Glen Dunlap had written a song called “I Believe in You” with the specific aim of getting Glen Campbell to record it.
Campbell kept suggesting changes, Cannon says, and never committed to using it. Finally, Tillis decided to cut the much-revised tune on one of his own albums. The result was heartwarming for a beginning songwriter. “I Believe in You” went to No. 1 in 1978.
In the years since, Cannon has co-written hits for Vern Gosdin (“Set ‘Em Up Joe”), Sammy Kershaw (“Anywhere but Here”), Billy Ray Cyrus (“She’s Not Cryin’ Anymore”) and George Strait (“I’ve Come to Expect It From You” and “Give It Away”).
However, it was the job of producing that really caught Cannon’s eye. It began in the 1970s when he began watching sessions Tillis was recording under a young producer who had moved from Los Angeles to try his chops in country music. His name was Jimmy Bowen.
Bowen would later become famous for producing such megasellers as Hank Williams Jr., Reba McEntire and Strait and for colorfully heading the country music divisions of Warner Bros., MCA and Capitol, among others.
“I hung out in the studio with Bowen through all those albums he produced on Mel,” says Cannon. “I owe him a big debt of gratitude because he never once told me not to come around. Between that and all the many, many demo sessions we ended up doing for Mel’s publishing company, I kind of refined my production abilities and how to interact with musicians.”
Cannon stayed with Tillis for 12 years, until Tillis sold his publishing company to PolyGram, the corporation that also owned Mercury and Polydor Records. Because Cannon knew the Tillis catalog so well, he stayed with it and went to work for PolyGram.
“When I got to PolyGram,” Cannon recalls, “I was really pumped up about that opportunity because my main goal at that point was to make my way from the publishing arm to the record company side. The focus of that was to get closer to produce records.”
By this time, Harold Shedd, who had produced Alabama‘s breakthrough albums, had been brought in to oversee Mercury’s country division.
“He and I had a good relationship,” Cannon says. “I’d been pitching him songs and getting lots of cuts on Alabama and everybody else he was producing. So he moved me from publishing into the record side.”
There’s where the rub came in. Cannon says the label head just wanted him to find songs for Shedd and other people to produce.
“That’s not what I wanted to do,” Cannon asserts. “But I was content to do that until a stepping stone appeared in front of me.”
That stepping stone materialized when one of Cannon’s friends brought him a rough demo of a singer from Louisiana named Sammy Kershaw.
“Sammy’s voice — even though it was on a crude, cheap demo — just threw me,” Cannon says. “It jumped off the cassette.”
Cannon played Kershaw’s demo for Shedd, who was sufficiently impressed by what he heard to have Cannon bring Kershaw to Nashville to do a showcase for the Mercury staff.
After the showcase, Cannon says, “Harold told me, ‘OK, I’m going to give you a budget to cut some demos on Sammy, but I want you to work with [producer] Norro Wilson.’ He’d been wanting to help Norro. They knew each other from [working together at] RCA. I said, ‘Hell, I’ll do it with anybody.’ I didn’t really know Norro. All I knew about him was that I’d pitched him hundreds of songs and never got a reply from him.”
The demo sessions turned out so well that Shedd assigned Cannon and Wilson to produce Kershaw’s first album for Mercury. The result was the platinum-selling Don’t Go Near the Water. “Cadillac Style,” Kershaw’s first single from the album, debuted in 1991 and peaked at a respectable No. 3.
Kershaw’s achievement attracted the attention of Tony Brown, who was then in charge at MCA Records. He asked Cannon and Wilson if they would be interested in producing an album on George Jones.
Since MCA was a competitor to Mercury, Cannon had to ask Shedd’s permission to take the assignment.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to tell you you can’t do a George Jones album,’” Cannon remembers. “But he said, ‘Don’t come back in here and ask me to do another one.’ So Norro and I cut the High-Tech Redneck [album] on Jones.”
In spite of Shedd’s prohibition against Cannon doing off-label productions, he did let him produce an album on a quartet called 4-Runner for Mercury’s sister label, Polydor.
“That was all the production work I got during my time at Mercury,” Cannon says.
It was at this point he first met Kenny Chesney.
“He had just signed a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose, whose offices were across the street from Mercury’s offices, over there on 17th Avenue,” Cannon explains.
“I knew Kenny as a rookie songwriter. He would walk across the street and hang out in our lobby, shooting the breeze with our receptionist. He’d be in there every day, once or twice a day. … I had no idea he was trying to be an artist.
“One day, he came in and asked me if he could see me in my office for a minute. He told me he’d just gotten signed with Capricorn Records, and he said, ‘I would love for you and Norro to produce my first album.’”
Cannon says he knew that couldn’t happen, given Shedd’s restriction.
“So I had to tell him no, which killed me,” he said.
Barry Beckett was then hired as Chesney’s producer and helmed the young artist’s first two albums.
Cannon says it gradually became clear to him that he would have to leave Mercury if he was ever going to get back to his goal of producing.
“So I quit,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m outta here. I’m getting nowhere in the direction I want to go.’ I went to Warner/Chappell. They gave me a publishing deal that would give me the ability to financially survive for a couple of years.
“Maybe a month or two months after I quit, I got a phone call from Renee [Bell] over at RCA. She said Kenny [who had by then signed to the RCA Label Group's BNA label] wanted her to ask me and Norro if we’d be interested in producing his next record. … That was about 1995.”
To date, Cannon has co-produced 20 of Chesney’s 21 singles that reached No. 1 on Billboard‘s country chart: “Live a Little,” “Somewhere With You,” “The Boys of Fall,” “Out Last Night,” “Down the Road,” “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,” “Better as a Memory,” “Don’t Blink,” “Never Wanted Nothing More,” “Beer in Mexico,” “Summertime,” “Living in Fast Forward,” “Anything but Mine,” “When the Sun Goes Down,” “There Goes My Life,” “The Good Stuff,” “Don’t Happen Twice,” “You Had Me From Hello,” “How Forever Feels” and “She’s Got It All.”
In spite of being a hit songwriter, Cannon says he is never tempted to push his own songs on the artists he’s producing.
“It’s exactly the opposite,” he insists. “If you would pick up every record I’ve produced and look at it, the number of songs I wrote on there is going to be probably not even 1 percent.”
Cannon says his distaste for this practice came from his days of pitching songs to producers who always ended up either cutting songs they had written or songs from publishing companies with which they were affiliated.
“I just never wanted to be that guy,” he says. “If I have a song that I think might fit a project I’m working on, I will bury it inside a group of eight or 10 other songs and not have my name anywhere attached to it. If [the artist] likes it, fine. If he doesn’t, fine. … I guess my focus was more on being a great producer than being a greedy songwriter.”
He observes that the sharp drop in album sales over the past few years has been “devastating” for producers whose income derives entirely from royalties paid on such sales.
“I just don’t know how up-and-coming producers are going to be able to make a living unless they find a way to become participants in the artist’s whole stream of income,” Cannon says. “In three or four years, maybe there aren’t going to be any CDs sold. … The only gauge I have is watching what Kenny’s sales have done. We’re still selling good. But relative to three years ago, we’re way off.”
Cannon’s success with Chesney has made him one of Nashville’s most sought-after producers. Last year, he ventured a bit beyond his country comfort zone to produce an album on Donny and Marie Osmond. Called Donny & Marie and recorded in Nashville and Las Vegas, the album was released recently on the MPCA label.
Mind you, he’s not complaining. “I’d sure like to have a week off,” he admits. “But I enjoy the work.”