Born c. 1947 in Greensboro, NC. Addresses: Record company--MCA/Nashville, 60 Music Sq. E., Nashville, TN 37293.
In 1978, when Tony Brown left his keyboards behind and joined the artists and repertoire (A&R) ranks at RCA, few would have suspected that within 15 years he would assume the presidency of MCA/Nashville. But with Brown's on-the-road experience and many hours spent in the recording studio, he had his hand firmly on the pulse of the average country music listener. Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, and Trisha Yearwood are only a few of the many artists he discovered--and all three have helped country music rise to unprecedented popularity during the 1990s. Brown's understanding of the traditional country sound, combined with the pop influences of the present, have made him a significant force in determining the future of the Nashville recording industry.
Brown was raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, and grew up in a family heavily influenced by gospel music. He took to the piano as a child and played in his family's gospel group; when he went on the road as a professional musician, one of his first jobs was as keyboard accompanist for the then-gospel sounds of the Oak Ridge Boys. Over time, Brown's musical tastes broadened beyond the restrictions of gospel. He worked for a while with the Sweet Inspirations Band; then, in 1975, he played with the Stamps Quartet, a career move that allowed him an incredible opportunity: the Stamps were hired as backup vocalists by none other than Elvis Presley, and Brown was able to perform onstage in Las Vegas with the King himself. After Presley's tragic death in 1977, Brown signed on with country-folksinger Emmylou Harris and performed with her Hot Band, a stop along the road to success for such high-caliber, innovative musicians as guitarists Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Albert Lee, and Vince Gill.
During the year that followed, Brown began to reconsider his role in the music business; he decided to try his hand at other facets of the recording industry. In 1978 he accepted a leadership role in the A&R department of Los Angeles-based Free Flight Records, a pop subsidiary of RCA. (A&R representatives are responsible for recruiting and nurturing talent at the record label.) When the label was discontinued two years later, he was given the option to remain in California or to transfer to RCA's Nashville office. The choice was easy: Brown's roots were in country music, so he returned to Tennessee, where he signed such talented acts as Alabama and Debra Allen to the RCA label.
After a year in Music City, Brown decided to return to the studio as a musician. Along with Gill and bass player Emory Gordy, Jr., he played keyboards with the Cherry Bombs, the backup band for Roseanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, who were married at the time. Working full-time with such musical talent sparked Brown's interest in the production end of the industry. Calling upon his extensive background knowledge of gospel music, he worked with gospel artist Shirley Caesar on three albums that would culminate in Caesar's winning the 1984 Grammy Award for best female gospel/soul performance.
After proving his skills as a producer, Brown returned to RCA later in 1983. That same year he produced Steve Wariner's hit single "Midnight Fire." Then, shortly after signing former bandmate Gill to RCA, rival MCA/Nashville made Brown an offer he couldn't refuse: he joined the label in 1984. "I wanted to produce," he noted in an MCA profile. "MCA was then reorganizing, starting an in-house A&R department with in-house production. In hindsight, it was a good move on my part."
If it was a good move for Brown, it was certainly one for MCA/Nashville. The list of stars he has signed to the label reads like a who's who of "Young Country": Rodney Crowell, Marty Brown, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Marty Stuart, the Mavericks, Tracy Byrd, Trisha Yearwood, Mark Chesnutt, and Gill--whom he wooed from RCA in 1989. And Brown has produced top-selling albums like Reba McEntire's Rumor Has It; I Still Believe in You by Gill; Wynonna's self-titled solo debut; Patty Loveless's Honky Tonk Angel; Marty Stuart's This One's Gonna Hurt You; and western swing master George Strait's Pure Country.
But Brown wasn't always such a strong force in the country music industry. As Peter Cronin noted in Billboard, "The Nashville powers that be had Brown pegged as a bit too edgy for the mainstream" in his early days with MCA. Brown drew folksinger and songwriter Nanci Griffith to MCA in 1987 and produced Lone Star State of Mind, an album that would become her biggest country hit. Lyle Lovett was another of Brown's finds; the idiosyncratic musician's self-titled debut was produced on MCA's Curb label in 1986. And songwriter-guitarist Steve Earle was signed by Brown in 1986; their work together on that year's Guitar Town introduced one of the most exciting new Nashville-based talents of the decade. While each of these releases proved to be a watershed for the respective performers' careers, they showed little, if any, movement on the all-important sales charts for MCA.
Brown, however, remained confident that his musical tastes reflected those of the record-buying public, particularly the country radio audience. "I really, really thought I could make an impact on country radio with those artists. I didn't end up making an impact on country radio, but I did make an impact on country music." Artists like Lovett, Griffith, and Earle helped blur the distinctions between country music and the genres of jazz, folk, and rock--and paved the way for an influx of new styles into the country music mix. Finally, Brown's first big commercial production--Rodney Crowell's Diamonds and Dirt in 1988--led to a succession of top-selling records that made the producer a key player in Music City circles.
After five singles from Diamonds and Dirt charted, more successes were quick to follow. Country crossover artist Lovett's 1989 effort, the Tony Brown-produced Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, received that year's Grammy Award for best vocal performance by a male country artist; Brown's production of Gill's "When I Call Your Name" won the Grammy Award for song of the year in 1990, and together the Gill/Brown duo took the same award the following year for "I Still Believe in You."
In addition to expanding the boundaries of country music, Brown bucked the conventional wisdom that women buy records mainly by male artists who wear hats and look cute. Vocalist Wynonna--a member of the Judds until her mother, Naomi, retired from the duo because of health problems--made her debut album as a solo act with Brown's capable production. Against industry tradition, Wynonna went double-platinum in 1993. The huge success of that album came on the heels of Brown's third "producer of the year" award from Billboard; these back-to-back successes propelled him up another rung of the industry ladder.
In a contract maneuver that was preceded by a great deal of speculation in the music industry, Brown replaced Bruce Hinton as president of MCA/Nashville in 1993. While noting that Brown had been unhappy with his existing MCA contract, attorney James Mason told Billboard that the producer "wasn't looking to leave the place where he's been that successful." Brown welcomed his additional responsibilities but made it clear that he would not leave the studio, explaining to Billboard's Debbie Holley: "I'm not going to turn into such an administrative person that I will dilute my creative position."
Many music critics agree that there is no overall "Tony Brown Sound." The reason may be that Brown enters the recording studio confident in the instincts of the musicians he is producing. During studio sessions, he is noted for his light touch--his ability to give his artists the reins while offering subtle guidance. "For me, producing is a feel thing, and it's contributing to what's happening in the room," Brown told Cronin. "Country music is not a producer's forum like pop music is. Country is an artist's forum."
Respect and appreciation for a musical artist as just that--an artist--have earned Brown a reputation as both a sound judge and a prudent creative force in the country music arena. In 1994, with numerous gold, platinum, and multiplatinum albums to his credit, Brown was honored with a Grammy nomination for producer of the year, the first time a member of the country music recording industry had been in contention for that award since 1979.
by Pamela L. Shelton
Tony Brown's Career
Keyboardist for the Oak Ridge Boys and Sweet Inspirations; keyboardist for Stamps Quartet, Las Vegas, NV, 1975-77; member of Emmylou Harris's Hot Band, 1977-78; head of Artists & Repertoire (A&R), Free Flight Records (an RCA subsidiary), Los Angeles, CA, 1978-80; worked in RCA's A&R department, Nashville, TN, 1980 and 1983; keyboardist for the Cherry Bombs, c. 1980-83; joined MCA/Nashville's in-house A&R department, 1984, became executive vice-president and head of A&R, then served as president of MCA/Nashville, 1993--. Has produced records for artists including Jimmy Buffett, Vince Gill, Wynonna, the Mavericks, McBride & the Ride, Reba McEntire, George Strait, and Steve Wariner.
Tony Brown's Awards
Country Music Association (CMA) Award for production on single of the year, 1991, for Vince Gill's "When I Call Your Name"; producer of the year, Billboard, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993.
May 26, 2004: Brown won the Academy of Country Music Award for Producer of the Year. Source: Academy of Country Music, www.acmcountry.com/2004_acm_nominees.htm, May 27, 2004.
- Billboard, January 30, 1993; February 6, 1993; June 11, 1994.
- Entertainment Weekly, March 20, 1992; October 30, 1992; March 4, 1994.
- GQ, May 1993.
- Stereo Review, June 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by MCA publicity materials.