Here’s a fun — albeit a little geeky — way to kill a few minutes in any well-stocked record store. Comb the racks until you’ve amassed discs by 10 different Texas artists. Now check the producer credit on the back of each album. Amazing, ain’t it? You’d almost think this Lloyd Maines character had a monopoly on the studio scene in Texas. In fact, Maines has produced so many albums by Texas-based artists — ranging from veteran mavericks like Jerry Jeff Walker and Terry Allen to relatively newer kids on the block like Wayne “The Train” Hancock and Bruce Robison, that a pop-culture savvy smart-ass might be tempted to dub him the “Lone Star Puff Daddy.” Of course, said smart-ass would then have to be shot, because Maines also happens to be one of the most acclaimed and in-demand pedal-steel players in contemporary music, both within and beyond the far-flung Texas borders. He’s played and recorded with Texas mainstays Walker and Joe Ely on-and-off for decades, and slides his way through literally dozens of other sessions a year. Alt.country kids, here’s one y’all can play at home by consulting your Bible (that’d be Uncle Tupelo’s 1993 swan-song Anodyne, of course). Sure enough, there he is playing on several tracks. Tupelo veteran Jeff Tweedy even called Maines back to play on his first Wilco album, 1995′s A.M. Closer to the mainstream, he’s all over the Dixie Chicks’ CMA winning Wide Open Spaces. That’s even his daughter Natalie as lead vocalist for the Chicks, but that’s beside the point. Simply put, if you want to play with the big boys in Texas, you seek out Maines’ seasoned hand to help you shape your record to the best — if not better — of your own capability as an artist. And if you’ve already picked another producer and just want a little killer steel to round out your sound, well, Maines is the man you want to call for that, too.
Needless to say, Maines is a busy, busy man. At the time of this interview, he was in full-blown “Chick Support” mode, hard at work laying down his steel parts for their next album and set for a flight to New York the next day to play with the talented trio on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Then he’d be returning to his home in Austin to resume work on the handful of projects waiting for him: a second time around producing Texas critics darlin’ Terri Hendrix; an album with a young, Tyler, Texas wunderkind named Adam Carroll; and the overdubbing on a record by two Connecticut women called the Wiggins. And those three were just the ones he could think of off the top of his head, mind you.
Ask Maines exactly how many albums he’s appeared on over the last 30 years, and he seems hesitant to even hazard a guess. “I could probably sit down with calendars reaching back pretty far, and maybe get pretty close,” he says. “But as far as producing and playing on, I probably do maybe 50 a year. But those are not all production. A lot of times I’ll be producing a project and somebody will call me up and say, ‘Can you do one song on such and such project’, and I’ll say, ‘OK’. So, 50 may be stretching it. A lot of these smaller label projects usually take about 10 to 12 days, so 50 may be pushing it — that may be an asinine projection. It may be more like 35 a year — which to me is still a lot.”
Two and a half-odd decades, thirtysomething or more albums a year. Do the math, and eat your heart out, Puffy.
Let’s start at the beginning. You were born and raised in Lubbock, from whence also sprang Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, the Flatlanders, and Terry Allen. Did you come from a musical family yourself?
Yep. Four boys, one girl. Everybody played. My dad was a farmer, and my mom raised us, which was a full time job. My dad played guitar — he and his brothers had a band called the Maines Brothers, and then me and my brothers came along and continued that Maines Brothers band situation. We played together from the time we were kids, and then when we got out of high school went our separate ways, and then reconvened in about 1978. I was actually still playing with Ely at the same time, and did both things, but we did some Maines Brothers records — we did four records on our own, and then signed with Polygram and did two records for them. It just didn’t really jive with the Nashville country scene at that point, so we got off of Polygram and then I think we did two more records on our own. That was us four brothers, and we had three friends. It was pretty much originals, with a lot of Terry Allen music and songs from other people we felt were good writers. I played steel and guitar. My brothers sang — Kenny, Steve, and Donnie. I was the oldest. Steve was next, then Kenny, and Donnie was the youngest, he played the drums.
When did you first pick up the steel guitar?
Well, I had already learned to play guitar from my dad and from watching his band, but the steel player had this old, homemade steel that he didn’t want anymore because he’d gotten a new one. So he brought it over to my house and set it up — I wasn’t even there, I was at football practice or something. And when I got home I sat down to it, and it really made sense to me because I could apply some of what I knew on guitar to the steel, and it just really intrigued me — all of the different variations of sound that you could get off of it. I was about seventeen then. And it sort of became my musical passion, to play musical steel.
So what was the first album you ever played on?
The very first one — now this is going to be funny — it was a group out of Brownsfield, TX, which is about 30 miles from Lubbock, and it was an artist called Bob Fuggs. I think it was called Bob Fuggs’ Country Revue or something like that. It was just a farmer who decided to make a record, and they got me to play steel on it. I was about twenty one or twenty two.
When did you first meet and start playing with Joe Ely?
I didn’t meet Joe until — let’s see, I graduated from high school in ’69, and I didn’t meet Joe until ’71, when I heard the Flatlanders. I heard them at a funky little bar in Lubbock. I was working at a recording studio in Lubbock, and there was a gospel project that needed some harmonica so I got Joe to play on it. Joe didn’t really have a band at the time, but he was trying to raise enough money to leave Lubbock and move to Austin. So he put together a band comprised of me and a guitar player and a bass player, no drums. And Joe booked this little gig at a place called the Main St. Saloon, just trying to get enough gas money to get to Austin. Joe did his own music, plus some old covers of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. No rehearsal whatsoever — we just got up there and winged it. And the response was so phenomenal that we decided to do it another weekend. And the second weekend was even more phenomenal, so Joe was like, “Maybe I’ll hang around here for a while and see what happens.”
So from there I played with Joe real steady all through his first four albums, and then in 1980, right about the time that we were touring with the Clash, the road work just got a little too heavy for me. Plus all that time I was doing studio work too, and really trying to get into production. I continued to play with Ely on certain gigs, but as far as any kind of long, extended road tour, I cut it out and I started concentrating more on the studio.
What was your first production credit?
I had done some local things, but as far as the record that really sort of put my name out there, Terry Allen’s Lubbock (On Everything) was it.
How did you get involved with that?
Well, Terry’s six or seven years older than me, so I didn’t know him in school. But he called an artist friend of his in Lubbock, and told him, “I was thinking about doing a record called Lubbock on Everything, and I was going to cut it in San Francisco, but is there anywhere around there I could cut?” And Paul was a big Joe Ely fan, so he said, “Maybe you should call Lloyd Maines.” So Terry called me, I lined him up some players in the studio, he came down, and that was our first meeting. We cut that entire album in two days, just pretty much live to tape. Any kind of horns or background vocals were overdubbed, but the tracks and everything went down totally live. And it still holds up. We cut it on such antiquated equipment that sonically it’s not great, but musically, I think it’s really good.
That was in ’77 or ’78. I knew then that I really enjoyed helping people get their songs on tape. I did several Terry Allen albums right in a row there. I did Lubbock (On Everything), Smoking the Dummy, Bloodlines, and one called Amerasia. But mainly what I did there for a long time was local songwriters around Texas who wanted to come in and do a record — that was kind of my groundbreaking, trial and error stuff. I learned how to do everything from country to conjunto to hard rock. I don’t really consider myself a songwriter — I can help people out on melodies and choruses and stuff, but as far as lyrics, I’m pretty lame. But it let me know that people really appreciated my talent as far as helping them arrange their songs and helping them get them on tape as good as possible. That probably kind of kindled my interest there.
What type of training did you have in the studio? Were you self-taught?
Oh yeah. I started working in a studio in 1972, and I’ve been going at it trial and error every since. I learn something new every time we go in, like maybe a different way to approach something. To be a good producer, you have to be somewhat of a psychologist, because every artist has a different personality. Some artists are really laid back and calm, and others are apprehensive and a little skittish. I think a good producer not only has to be musical, but you also have to have the ability to make your artist feel comfortable. You have to have the ability to make them feel at home and confident that everything’s gonna turn out good. So sometimes you have to use a little psychological treatment.
Ever feel like a baby-sitter?
Oh…you know, I really haven’t worked with anyone that needed baby-sitting. But sometimes it’s things, you know, like if a vocal track’s not going well, or overdubbing’s not going well, sometimes you have to take a break, let everyone take a breather to air their head out, and then come back in with a fresh start. And then usually it all comes together very well. So I’ve just been lucky to have worked with really cool people.
Can you elaborate on the type of differences you might see from artist to artist? For instance, how does a Jerry Jeff Walker session differ from a Terry Allen session?
Well, Jerry Jeff, he’s a living legend. And he has a knack for writing good songs and picking songs. But with Jerry Jeff I have to struggle with him a bit, and I think he’ll agree with this, he’s not real patient in the studio. So with him I’ll have to handle doing his vocals different from a….well, to tell you the truth, Terry Allen and Jerry Jeff are kind of the same because you’re better off getting a live performance out of them. Because when you say, “Hey, we got a good track, but let’s go back and sing this vocal one more time,” both of them kind of resist, because they like the feeling of singing it live, while the band is out there wailing away. So sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle overdubbing, but it always turns out fine.
Somebody else who’s just like that is Wayne the Train Hancock. Wayne’s that way to the extreme. He absolutely gets his best vocals live. In fact, on Thunderstorms and Neon Signs, we tried to go back and overdub because when we cut the basic tracks live, Wayne was a little bit hoarse, but I realized early on that he just couldn’t redo it. So we went back and used the rough vocals on every cut. So you just sort of have to feel out everybody’s pulse on the thing. But there are other people like the Dixie Chicks — I didn’t produce them at all — but they better themselves every time they re- sing something.
Do you take a very active role during the recording process?
Oh yeah. I’m pretty much a real hands-on guy. If I’m producing an already existing band, I’ll sit back and let it take its course, and if I feel that it might have been better if it had made a different turn, I’ll definitely speak up and present my case. And a lot of times they’ll say, “You’re right,” or they might say, “Well, this is really what we had in mind.” So that being the case, I’ll try to take whatever route they’re going and optimize it, to make it as good as it can be. If an artist has a real definite idea about what they want their song to be, I don’t really give much resistance, I just try to vibe in and try to optimize their ideas. But I always have pretty good luck with that.
Can you put your finger on a Lloyd Maines sound?
You know, there’s a few things that I strive for. I try to get everything in tune, for sure. That’s kind of a given, but I just try to make sure that everybody has their instruments tuned up to 440. And I try to help the singers — I mean, Terry Allen doesn’t even consider himself a great singer, but he can deliver his songs as well as anybody — I try to help everyone sing in tune and in a listenable fashion. But as far as any kind of Lloyd Maines feature? I just try to treat every artist as an individual, so I try to approach every project with a clean slate. I don’t go in with any kind of pre- conceived notion to bully my way into a sound. I just try to listen. It’s just like when I did Terri Hendrix: I didn’t go in thinking anything in advance, like I was going to try and turn this song into something that it wasn’t or something that I thought it should be. I just tried to get into her lyrics and listen to the way she delivered, and try to go from there.
My objective would be for all my albums to sound a little different. I know T- Bone has his own sound, and Daniel Lanois…it just depends. If it’s a project that I’m playing a lot on, probably a signature comes through more so than if I’m just producing. Because I do a lot of projects that I don’t play on, where I just produce a band. On something like that I try to capture the band’s personality and their own style, and I just try to make it sound as good as possible. But if it’s something that I’m playing steel or lap-steel or Dobro on, then there’s probably some kind of common thread there that I’m just not aware of.
Today, are you happier on stage or behind the studio glass?
Well, to tell you the truth, when I’m playing — whenever a gig is actually happening — say with Joe or Terry or Terri or Robert Earl — there’s a certain high there that is really fun, and I’m happy doing that. What I got really burned out on was just the logistics of getting there — setting up, soundchecking — the logistics of actually getting to that point when you’re actually playing music is what I got burned out on. The actual playing I never got tired of. When I play with Joe right now, I have a ball. It’s really a lot of fun. But I think the studio is probably my first love right now, just because I feel like I’m accomplishing more, because I’m putting stuff on tape that’s going to be around for way into the next century. As long as people will listen to it, that piece of work will be there, which is a little bit more gratifying to me than the hassles of the road just to have 90 minutes of good playing.
But I’m really kind of torn. I’m the luckiest steel player in the country, because I work with guys like Joe and Jerry Jeff and Robert Earl who kind of allow me to play what I want to.
For all the folks you’ve worked with, is there anyone you’d love to produce whom you haven’t yet?
I’ll tell you what, I’ve never produced Ely. I’ve worked on his records forever, but I’ve never produced him. I’d really like to have a shot. Maybe now that he’s not on MCA. I think it would be really fun to produce an acoustic oriented album for Joe, using fiddles, Dobros, and mandolins. Because Joe’s great like that. He’s really good just by himself. So I was thinking about maybe calling him up at some point and saying, “Hey let’s do a Joe Ely album,” and pretty much focus strictly on him. But who knows? Joe’s still got a lot of music left in him.
Do you have your own studio?
No. I just book whatever studio the artist feels comfortable in. I’m thinking about putting one in my house, just a very simple 8-track, digital demo studio for my own stuff. I’ve had a couple of offers to do an album of myself, and I’m toying with that idea — not singing, but doing kind of just an overall instrumental album playing everything that I play, Dobro, steel, things like that. I may actually try to get serious with that, and maybe come out with it in 2000. I had thought about maybe writing some songs and getting my old friends and acquaintances like Terry and Joe and Robert Earl and Natalie to come in and just sing one solo part, like not having them sing much, just as if they were doing a solo on my record — just one verse. But I don’t know. I’m still just kind toying with that idea. That’s one reason I’ve been wanting to get this little demo studio, so I can get my ideas on tape.
Has there been a session that stands out from the others, maybe where everything clicked or maybe everything went wrong but somehow it worked in the end?
Yeah…well, to tell you the truth, most of the stuff I’ve done has been so small budget that we haven’t really had a chance to let things go wrong. Because when things go wrong, that means you’re spending more time than you have. So I’ve just been lucky in hopefully being able to keep everybody’s focus trucking along. I’d say that the one album that fell together probably like dreamwork was that first Terry Allen record, because it was the first time we met, but there was some kind of common thread there, like when I would sit down and play a guitar part on one of his songs, he’d say, “God, that’s exactly what I was hearing on that thing.” So I’d say that cutting that many songs in that short amount of time, that’s kind of the one that stands out. Maybe it’s because it was my first — my first one with him and really my first serious endeavor production-wise.
So there’s never been a session from hell that you just had to pull the plug on or walk out on?
No, never. The way I look at it, there’s a lot more things in life to get upset about than what’s going on in a session. If I ever get to that point, then I’ve probably been doing it too long.
–by Richard Skanse