Is Mickey Jack Cones one of the busiest producers in Nashville?
And in the words of another, Dustin Lynch: “Yep, yep.”
Both artists climbed to No. 1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart in 2014, and “Yeah” and “Where It’s At (Yep Yep)” were rewarded with gold certifications. Although the productions sound modern and fun, Cones took care not to wipe out the artists’ natural country leanings.
Lynch, for example, broke through in 2013 with “Cowboys and Angels,” a true country ballad, but he felt like he needed more energy in his live set — especially while on tour with Keith Urban. As a result, Cones was brought on board by Broken Bow Records to crank things up.
“In Dustin’s case, it was tricky because he wasn’t known for that,” Cones says during a conversation at his Nashville recording studio. “He’s a country act, he’s had one album out, never had a No.1. He’s got a huge fan base and they love ‘Cowboys and Angels’ — and I do, too. I really think traditional country’s coming back. I’m into that. I also didn’t want to be known as that guy who took all the country out of Dustin, either.”
At the song’s No. 1 party in Nashville in November, Lynch told CMT, “Mickey was a big part of helping me create a vibe in the studio for the ‘Where It’s At’ recording. When you’re producing a song, you’ve got to get in the musicians’ headspace: ‘OK, guys, we want this song to feel like this.’ And the feeling we were going for was that laid-back, California, top-down, man-it-feels-great-outside, arm-out-the-window, Sugar Ray rock thing. He was genius.”
Cones credits Lynch’s upbeat personality for making the single a hit, as well as that “yep, yep” hook and the song as a whole. He says he encouraged Lynch to record something that could be instantly identifiable and arena-ready, and that’s where the introductory “wa-waaah, wa-waaah” guitar riff comes into play. Within seconds, audiences know exactly what they’re about to hear.
Now 41, Cones grew up in a musical family in Texas. He’s a capable singer, songwriter, musician, bandleader and engineer, but he says he’s been building toward a career in music production his whole life. Still, it takes a lot of people to make one recording happen — something he’s learned since he moved to Nashville in 1996.
“When I got up here, I didn’t know all of those details,” he admits. “I was like, ‘Put me in the studio. I know what I’m doing. I can program stuff, I can play things, I can sing, I can record and mix.’ Now I’ve found that happy medium of all that. It’s got to be balanced. For a producer’s job, that’s another good term — he has to keep everything in balance and make sure the result is what’s best for the artist.”
Tony Brown, the prominent Nashville producer, is one of Cones’ biggest supporters. When Nichols was between record deals, he decided to record some tracks independently. Brown recommended Cones for the job. Nichols took Brown at his word, and things moved quickly.
“I think his amazing attention to detail is the first thing that caught me,” Nichols says. “And he’s a very musical person, too. Sometimes, producers can be the kind of guy who just stands in the room and watches everybody else do the creating — and then takes the credit for it. Mickey is the opposite guy. He actually listens to every note that’s played and can dictate where to go.”
“You’ve got to keep the musicians’ vibes good, keep the label happy, make sure the artist feels good about you being the producer and that he’s confident in the musicians you pick,” Cones believes. “It’s a big game that a lot of people don’t know about.”
Nichols’ rebound was quick, thanks to the comeback single, “Sunny and 75.” With a much-anticipated album to finish, Cones spent 15 consecutive days in his studio, sleeping on the studio couch for a few hours a day and working the other 20 or so. Despite that, he’s maintained his cheerful demeanor. By his own admission, he’s neither jaded nor burned out.
Indeed, Nichols has already cut six sides with Cones for an upcoming album, and four of the tracks have the potential to be the lead single.
“I look at a producer’s job, first and foremost, to showcase the artist’s strength and hide all of their weaknesses. As many as you can,” Cones says. “And then it’s about making sure that the songs really fit the artist, and the artist really fits the songs.”
So, what does a producer look for in a new artist? Cones cites the regular stuff — talent, looks, charisma, etc. But there’s one thing that trumps it all.
“At the core of every single thing is that soulful quality,” he says. “It’s when somebody has that natural talent, but you feel it from their soul. I don’t mean rhythm and blues, like ‘soul.’ I mean, it can be bluegrass soul. It’s anything that can be felt. They can be ditzy or fun and charismatic or serious, but when they get on that mic or in that room, you feel like, ‘This is undeniable.’”