Country Music Hall of Fame

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Nashville Cats: Steve Gibson

June 28, 2014 | Posted by mmanning

June 28, 2014
Guitarist Steve Gibson can pinpoint the moment he realized what he wanted to do with his life. At age fifteen, his future was cast when he walked into Golden Voice Recording Studio in the middle of a farm field not far from his home in Peoria, Illinois.

“That was my first experience inside a recording studio,” Gibson said. “I don’t know why, but I made up my mind right there that I wanted to be that guy who understands how a record works. Why did they do it that way? Why does it sound like that? How long did it take them to make it? What was the creative evolution? And then it all comes out on this piece of vinyl, and sparks fly. It was magic then, and it still is today, and it always will be.”

An accomplished studio session guitarist, Gibson has contributed to more than 14,000 songs, by his estimation. He also is a successful record producer, working on albums by Mandy Barnett, Gene Cotton, Sara Darling, Michael Johnson, McBride & the Ride, Michael Martin Murphey, and Aaron Tippin.

Gibson recalled the epiphany that changed his life during a Nashville Cats program at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The quarterly series pays tribute to musicians who have played an integral role in country music. The multi-media program and interview, before a standing-room-only crowd in the museum’s Ford Theater, surveyed Gibson’s career from teen prodigy to the esteemed sixty-one-year-old veteran he is today.  

“Steve moved here at age nineteen, and his skills led him to play on hit records almost right away,” said host Bill Lloyd in introducing Gibson. As Lloyd explained, Gibson also has found success as a musical arranger and record producer. He is the former owner of Omnisound Recording Studio, an Emmy-nominated musical director of TV shows, and the first musical director of the Grand Ole Opry, a job he still holds.

Throughout, Gibson spoke in a manner comparable to his guitar style: eloquent, tasteful, and displaying a mix of humility, deep knowledge, and elegant grace.

The program opened with a video clip of Gibson backing singer Dave Loggins during a performance of the song “Please Come to Boston” on the network TV program Midnight Special in 1974. Only twenty years old, Gibson is on lead acoustic guitar, and takes a well-played solo break.

Born July 31, 1952, Gibson noted that his hometown of Peoria was a working-class town with an economy based on factories and farms. His father was a guitarist, and his older brother Tom was a bassist. Both his father and brother taught Steve guitar chords, and by age six he was finding his way on the instrument. As Steve grew in age and skill, the three often played together at home.

His family also encouraged Steve to interact with other musicians. At age thirteen, Gibson began performing at local Eagles, Elk, Lions, and Moose clubs, accompanying veteran entertainer Cowboy Jack Freeman, who preferred swing tunes by Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, and others. “He taught me an entirely new approach to the guitar by playing that style of music,” Gibson said. “We were a duo, and when you play in a duo, you have to play a lot. It was a great experience.”

Gibson also performed with country singer Jack Reno, an Illinois radio announcer who recorded several country hits with Nashville producer Buddy Killen. Gibson visited Nashville with Reno for concert appearances, a heady experience for a guitarist in his early teens. The work also led to another important development, as Gibson used his earnings to buy guitars, giving rise to a lifelong obsession with collecting vintage guitars.

At age fifteen, Gibson worked in a recording studio for the first time, joining Freeman for a session at Golden Voice Recording Studio, owned by family friend Jerry Milom. Freeman could only afford to pay for one song, so Gibson’s parents contributed so that Steve could record an instrumental for the b-side.

As Gibson made clear, that first recording session gave him a vision for his future. He became more interested in working on recordings than in performing live. Already talented at fifteen, he balanced live work—including backing Don Gibson, Jimmy C. Newman, and Nat Stuckey at local shows—with working on sessions at Golden Voice.

Eventually, Gibson came to a crossroads. At age eighteen, he was invited to join Stuckey’s touring band. At the same time, Bob Milsap, a songwriter and deejay from Peoria, told Gibson he could earn as much in one day as a Nashville session guitarist as he would in a week on the road. Gibson chose Nashville.

Gibson arrived in Music City in June 1972, and Milsap had a job waiting for him. “I dropped my things off at Bob’s house and went straight to Creative Workshop to record my first Nashville session at 6 p.m.,” Gibson said, name-checking a studio that proved integral to his early career. He believes his first job was a demo session for singer-songwriter Buzz Cason, owner of Creative Workshop, but he can’t remember for sure.

Gibson also quickly picked up demo sessions with Texas songwriter Guy Clark as well. “Those were the learning fields,” Gibson said. “I learned to think fast and come up with hooks and to play well with others and build a relationship with engineers. The demo process remains a sacred part of the whole genesis of what we know as the music we hear on the radio.”

Gibson discovered another magical aspect of Nashville. Moving into an apartment in Hillsboro Village, the guitarist found out his neighbor was songwriter Dave Loggins, and songwriters Guy and Susannah Clark lived down the street. Before long, all of them sat in living rooms trading licks while working out lyrical and musical ideas.

“I just happened to land in a place where I was neighbors with a guy who could open doors for me,” Gibson said of Loggins. “He introduced me to so many people. Then one guy would introduce me to the next guy, and then the next guy, and then the next guy, and suddenly, I’m in. That’s how it works. I was very lucky.”

Gibson toured with Lynn Anderson in 1974, in a band that included future studio pros Paul Franklin and Karl Himmel. “The first gig I played with her was in Madison Square Garden,” Gibson said. “I’d never been to New York City in my life. In fact I’d never been on a commercial airliner.”

The work led to Anderson giving Gibson his first break as a record producer. “I give a lot of the credit to her husband, Glenn Sutton, who had been producing her too,” the guitarist said. “Glenn believed in me enough to hire me for other sessions he produced. There was a point where he called me and said he thought I should do the next Lynn Anderson record. I immediately said, yes, of course. Lynn fought for me on those records too.”

Gibson also produced pop albums for singers Gene Cotton and Michael Johnson, including the latter’s “Bluer than Blue,” which hit #12 on the Billboard pop charts. He played on top pop hits by B.J. Thomas and Randy Vanwarmer and on an album produced by George Harrison for a rock duo known as Splinter. Harrison nicknamed Gibson “Clark Kent” because of how straight he looked. As Gibson put it, he looked “like a science teacher” instead of a rock guitarist.

Gibson became a favorite studio guitarist of several producers. Kyle Lehning was the first, hiring Gibson to work on records by England Dan & John Ford Coley and Randy Travis. Indeed, Gibson’s career is marked with artists and producers who hired him album after album. By his count, Gibson says he has played on twenty-eight George Strait #1 hits, seventeen by Randy Travis, eleven by Dan Seals, and seven by Lee Greenwood, Reba McEntire, and Ricky Van Shelton. He also played on #1 hits by John Anderson, Patty Loveless, Barbara Mandrell, and many others.

As a producer, Gibson recently has been working with Sara Darling; at the time of the program, Darling was gaining a national reputation as contestant on the TV talent contest Rising Talent.

Gibson earned an Emmy nomination for his work as music director of an installment of In Performance at the White House, a PBS-TV series. As music director for a country segment, Gibson hired the band and worked on the arrangements. “It was a great honor,” Gibson said of a show that included Lauren Alaina, the Band Perry, Dierks Bentley, Alison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson, Darius Rucker, James Taylor, and others. “All the politics go off the table when you are asked to go to the White House to perform. Then to be recognized, out of all the shows in the series, was very special.”

Gibson also is the recurring musical director for the network broadcast of the annual CMA Awards program and was appointed the first music director of the Grand Ole Opry in 2005, a post he still holds.

“I was tasked with a number of things,” Gibson said of the Opry position. “We wanted to bring the audio standards up to a higher level. We wanted to bring the musicianship, and the attitude of the musicianship, and the accommodation of the artists, to a higher level, and also to assemble music archives, which were fragmented beyond belief, and to migrate all those into digital form for presentation.”

For Gibson, working for a historically important institution that influenced him as a child, and one that his father loved, brings everything full circle. “My musical life started by sitting in a ’55 Buick with my dad, listening to the Grand Ole Opry,” Gibson said, noting that his family would sit in the car for the entire broadcast, because it was the only radio they owned that could pick up the radio signal. “To be asked to be music director of the Grand Ole Opry, stands out as right up there at the top for me. I’m honored and grateful and humbled.”

—Michael McCall