Producer Playback: Interview with Frank Liddell

August 2, 2014
Miranda Lambert knew Frank Liddell would be her producer before he did, Liddell said during a broad-ranging public interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Lambert heard Liddell’s work on Electric, a record by Jack Ingram—a native Texan like Lambert and Liddell—and her conviction was born. Liddell joked that the fact that Lambert’s father is an ex-homicide detective helped convince him that he ought to work with the singer.

The interview, conducted by museum staffer Michael McCall, filled in the picture of Lambert as portrayed in the museum exhibition Miranda Lambert: Backstage Access, which chronicles the singer’s life in 2013. Ten years earlier, Lambert finished third on TV’s Nashville Star reality show. But she emerged as the show’s hero, Liddell said, and the fact that she didn’t move directly into a recording career (the winner’s fate) let her artistry grow.

Liddell started out studying to be a banker, but a job interview with another Texan, music publishing magnate Brownlee Ferguson, landed Liddell an unpaid post with Ferguson’s company. His boss advised, “Don’t run after the crap, run after the good stuff.” There Liddell moved into some producing, eventually working on demo recordings for Chris Knight, an “honest” songwriter, Liddell said, who hailed from an economically depressed area of western Kentucky. McCall played a spare recording of Knight’s “William,” featuring only guitar accompaniment. “My skills are reflected at their best right there,” Liddell joked.

Producers have different styles. Liddell professes great admiration for Country Music Hall of Fame member Ken Nelson, who oversaw the early records of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, directing and accommodating them as they committed their musical ideas to recordings. The role of the producer, Liddell said, is to identify who the artist is, then make a record that sounds like that artist.

Moving into an A&R job at Decca Records brought Liddell into contact with producer and record executive Tony Brown (“I thought Tony Brown was the man”), and with Liddell’s future wife, artist Lee Ann Womack., who was “adamant about who she was.” To the consternation of some professionals at her record label, Womack insisted that “Never Again, Again,” with its stone-country throwback sound, be her first single.

Liddell lost his A&R post when Decca closed in January 1999, but he opened his successful Carnival Music Company “a few days later.” The guitar-driven Ingram record that impressed Lambert was a 2002 project.

When he was ready to get down to business with Lambert, Liddell met with Sony executives, including John Grady, who cautioned that, in making the record, “You need to remember one thing: have fun.” Kerosene, released in 2005, did not yield a Top Ten single but was certified platinum, for sales of a million copies, two years later.

Liddell talked about encouraging Lambert to write more; about the albums that followed Kerosene; about Lambert’s side project, the Pistol Annies trio, with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley; about the evolution of 2009’s “The House That Built Me,” a Grammy winner (drummer Chad Cromwell suggested that he not play on the record); about sequencing the diverse tracks on her latest album, Platinum; and about the “hardest song to nail” on Platinum: “Holding on to You.”

Of his other clients, Liddell said David Nail most admires Glen Campbell, Mac Davis, and Stevie Wonder; wife Lee Ann Womack, whose Liddell-produced album comes out on Sugar Hill in September, inspired Liddell by “sitting on her bed, playing her guitar”; and stepdaughter Aubrie Sellers is ready to establish an identity of her own, as she also works with Liddell.

Near the end of the program, Liddell treated attendees to a sneak peek of Womack’s upcoming album, The Way I’m Livin, by previewing its opening cut, “Fly”—yet another Liddell production featuring only voice and acoustic guitar. The track drew the loudest applause of the afternoon.

—Jay Orr