For every new star on the recording scene, there is at least one unheralded industry drone without whom that star might never have shone. In the case of Blake Shelton, who is about to receive his well-deserved Hollywood Walk of Fame star after more than two decades as one of country music’s best, there are probably more like a dozen heroes who made Blake’s incredible career possible.
One of those heroes is your humble Nashville correspondent, me. No, that’s the truth. Once or twice in your life the impossible hits you between the eyes and you need to be prepared if you want to turn it into pure sunshine before the inevitable eclipse drifts in.
More from Variety
One day in 1995 or 1996 I got a call from Jim Sharpe, then publisher of American Songwriter magazine. He had found this big kid from Oklahoma, best singer he’d ever heard, would I like to come by the office to hear him sing? “Why?” I asked. You see, I was trying to dodge what the gods were hurling at me. I was done with the music business. I would just be a waste of this kid’s time.
But a week or two later found me in Sharpe’s office shaking hands with this kid, six-foot-four, great looking, with a big, black cowboy hat, big black Takamine guitar, a voice so huge it shook the walls of Sharpe’s office, and a laugh to match.
I was hooked, and soon we were writing songs together every Tuesday.
But nothing further happened until a couple from California hired me to run their music publishing company. We signed Shelton to a publishing deal. And then nothing more happened. I learned that he’d already been turned down by labels all over Music Row, talent be damned.
Now comes the big twist in the story.
I’m not the hero, after all. The hero is a guy I’m about to call. Bobby Braddock has written or co-written many of country music’s biggest hits, including “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “I Wanna Talk About Me,” “People Are Crazy,” “Golden Ring,” “Time Marches On” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” He also produces terrific demos and he’s always wanted to produce records.
The call goes like this:
“Hello, Homer (his phone name is Homer, and mine is Jethro). I’ve got something I want you to hear.” I’m holding an old microcassette tape recorder in my right hand, and a telephone receiver in my left. This phone call is high-tech. I push the recorder flush against my telephone mouthpiece and press the start button. Homer listens to Blake sing for a little more than two minutes. When the tape has finished playing, Bobby speaks.
“The song is OK, but who’s that singer?”
“He’s 20 years old and we signed him a couple of months ago,” I reply.
“He sounds like a young Hank Jr. Can I meet him?”
The three of us met at Braddock’s house and Braddock and Shelton hit it off immediately. Braddock agreed to produce Shelton, and Braddock persuaded his publishing company, Sony/ATV Music, to pay for the session. That’s a big deal, to get a producer and publisher to put time and money into a session. But the hard part is not cutting the session — it’s getting a record company to love the session and sign the artist.
Armed with the fresh recording, Braddock hit the pavement. One label at a time. Fortunately, in 1998, there were still a lot of record labels left in Nashville.
“I took Blake’s CD all over town,” says Braddock. “RCA showed some interest, but they passed. Arista Records showed enough interest to request a showcase, and we gave it to them, then they passed. I was running out of record labels. The last label I went to was Giant Records, an affiliate of Warner Bros. Doug Johnson listened hard. And he said yes.”
Now life got tougher. Braddock produced an album by Shelton. Virtually everybody at the label loved it. Braddock, Shelton and a whole lot of other people waited for the album to be released. And they waited. People wondered why they waited.
Then Debbie Zavitson, a stalwart of Giant Records’ A&R department, received a CD from publisher Jana Talbot of a special song called “Austin,” written by David Kent and Kirsti Manna. Braddock, Shelton and a handful of great session players went to Sound Stage recording studio on Music Circle South and cut “Austin” and two other songs. Braddock recalls that the label had picked another song for the first single, but he had sent copies of the session to several friends and they felt that “Austin” was the hit. He took this new information from “the people,” and, he says, convinced the label to go with “Austin” instead. Then they waited, and while they waited, rumors circulated that Giant Records might soon be closing down.
“It took Giant three years to put out Blake’s record,” says Braddock, his brow furrowed in puzzlement over the memory. “And it never would have gotten out at all, if it hadn’t been for Fritz Kuhlman!”
Braddock would later refer to Kuhlman as “the promotion man who committed mutiny.” Kuhlman had heard the rumors about Giant, and while he was not a powerful executive at the label, he did have the ability to send out copies of “Austin” to country radio stations all over the country. And that’s just what he did, because he believed in “Austin.”
Stations began to play “Austin,” but Giant closed its doors anyway. By this time it didn’t matter. “Austin” was hot with or without a label. Giant’s parent company, Warner Bros., picked up the record and ran with it, and thanks to Kuhlman, “Austin” became a multi-week No. 1 country smash.
Country music had a brand new star. Over the next two decades, Shelton would pump out hit after hit, and become a national TV icon on the worldwide hit show “The Voice,” as well as a member of the venerable Grand Ole Opry. I can’t help but think of the many heroes it took to make it happen for Blake Shelton.
Of course there’s Shelton, with all that talent, heart and personality. Then there’s Bobby Braddock, one of Nashville’s greatest songwriters, listening to hundreds of other people’s songs in search of that special one for Shelton. And Braddock in the studio, hour after hour, with some of the world’s best studio musicians, background singers and studio engineers, pursuing the perfect record. Then cruising from label to label, determined to find a yes among all the inevitable no answers. And then there’s me, playing a cassette over the phone to my friend Braddock, who I thought was a genius in a recording studio.
And gutsy Kuhlman, on his own, mailing out CDs on a wing and a prayer.
Lots of other heroes, too, braving the stiff competition: promoters, publicists, A&R people, bookers, roadies, managers — and nobody outside the business knows their names. It took a lot of skill and experience to make a music industry in those days, and I like to think it still does.
What: Blake Shelton receives star on Hollywood Walk of Fame
When: 11:30 A.M., May 12
Where: 6212 Hollywood Blvd.
Best of Variety