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THE KINGMAKER OF COUNTRY MUSIC

You know Tony Brown is out for fun when he slips behind the wheel of his black Mercedes-Benz 600 SEC one recent Saturday night. After two decades of touring and working seven days a week in the recording studio, he now keeps his weekends free of business. So tonight, the president of MCA Records in Nashville--and maybe the most powerful man in country music--is headed for the Grand Ole Opry to hear Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, neither of whom records for MCA. The trip is only half an hour, tops, down Interstate 40E from his house in the old-money neighborhood of Belle Meade to the Opry, but Brown gives himself an hour.

When he arrives at the modern 45,000-square-foot auditorium where the Opry is broadcast to 3.3 million viewers every Saturday night, it’s quickly apparent why he allowed the extra time. The backstage hall that leads to the stage is filled with fans and industry insiders, and all eyes are suddenly on Brown.

“Would you sign this, Tony?” one fan in his 20s asks, turning to a fresh page in an autograph book filled with the signatures of the country greats. “You’re the best, Tony,” says an aspiring songwriter, who tells him that he’s got a bunch of new songs he thinks would be perfect for Trisha Yearwood, one of MCA’s stars.

When Brown finally makes his way through the backstage crowd and takes a place in the stage wings, he looks around in the semi-darkness to see who’s nearby--not like a businessman hoping to cement relations with a hot manager or performer but as a fan. He points to the colorful singer-banjo player who’s been part of the Opry troupe for half a century--"It’s Grandpa Jones.” Brown’s attention returns to the stage, however, when Harris takes her place at the microphone. He was raised on gospel music but first saw the light--musically speaking--playing piano for Harris’ Hot Band in the late ‘70s. “God, listen to that voice,” he says now, as Harris begins a song. “She still kills me . . . kills me.”

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Brown is equally engrossed when Harris turns the microphone over to Earle, one of the first artists he signed at MCA. “Guitar Town,” the first album they did together in 1986, is still considered one of the best collections of blue-collar anthems ever to come out of Nashville. “Nobody writes like that,” Brown says admiringly when Earle finishes a new tune about independence and wanderlust, two of his favorite themes.

Afterward, Brown and Harris huddle briefly; she is rushing off to dinner between shows, but Earle pauses for a minute. His career has rebounded strongly in recent months, following a serious drug problem. “I hear you’ve got a great new song in that new Tim Robbins movie,” Brown says, referring to the stark “Ellis Unit One” from “Dead Man Walking.”

“Yeah, it may be the best thing I’ve ever written, Tony,” Earle responds excitedly.

“Really,” Brown says, curious that Earle would think anything was better than the “Guitar Town” songs.

Brown was heading from the Opry to dinner at the Bound’ry, one of the music business’ restaurants of choice these days. But he stops first at Tower Records to pick up the “Dead Man Walking” CD. While the restaurant’s parking valet stands impatiently by the car door, Brown shoves the CD into a holder and leans his head against the steering wheel as Earle’s song begins playing. There’s nothing relaxed about him now. He listens hard to the downbeat tale about a death-row inmate, as if he was in a recording studio watching every guitar lick and lyric unfold. “Damn,” he says admiringly. “You know, Steve might be right about that song.”

When the song ends, Brown steps out of the car and hands the keys to the valet. He is greeted at the door by the restaurant owner, who takes him to a choice booth. A waitress hands him a menu, but he seems distracted. He’s got Earle on his mind--the way conservative Nashville in the ‘80s resisted the singer for many of the same reasons he was embraced by the rock world: his long hair, defiant swagger and Spring-steenian tales of working-class alienation. “It’s funny, I never [pictured] the rock world responding the way it did to Steve,” he says. “I was just so confused over why the country world didn’t respond more. I thought he was going to be the new Waylon Jennings.

“It just shows you can’t control how the world reacts to an artist. You just have to concentrate on finding good ones and then hope for the best.”

This country music capital is filled with singing stars, but there’s only one Tony Brown, who realized long ago that his future was in producing music, not playing it. After working as a touring musician for everyone from Elvis to Emmylou, Brown joined MCA Nashville in 1984 as vice president of artists and repertoire and has helped the label go from a distant fourth to the undisputed leader among country record companies. He’s produced dozens of hit albums for such stars as Vince Gill, Reba McEntire and Wynonna, and is known for his prowess in finding quality artists and helping them make commercial records without sacrificing their individuality.

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During that period, country music, too, has surged from less than 10% of the U.S. record market as recently as 1990 to more than 16% in 1994. Gross sales are up from $700 million to almost $2 billion. Country music is also America’s favorite radio format, with an estimated 70 million listeners a week. And country albums with Brown’s name as producer or co-producer have generated more than half a billion dollars.

It’s easy to underestimate Brown on first meeting because he is so unpretentious and soft-spoken. But you soon notice that Brown is always taking in more than he reveals. Despite stylish tastes in cars and clothes, Brown--like the movie characters portrayed by Harvey Keitel, whom he resembles--exudes a wary reserve and a restless energy. Even in casual conversation, he stares at you with the intense, inquisitive eyes of someone evaluating a chess opponent. But that intensity is offset by a genuine humility.

“I draw from being around people who are better,” he says. “It is amazing to me that some [producers] in this business don’t even know when a musician or an artist crosses the line, going from being good or great to beyond being great. Maybe the reason I can spot it was because I was never excellent myself. I know the difference.”

Unlike the marketing and promotion men who ran country music labels in Nashville in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Brown is a throwback to the ‘50s and ‘60s, when “music men” like Chet Atkins at RCA and Owen Bradley at Decca were in control. Atkins and Bradley were both musicians who had such a magic touch in the studio that they produced scores of landmark recordings. Atkins’ legacy includes albums by Jim Reeves, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Eddy Arnold. Bradley worked with Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty and Webb Pierce.

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Brown’s success in the industry was so dramatic that rival companies rushed to install music men at the top of most labels in town. There’s now Tim DuBois at Arista, Scott Hendricks at Capitol, Kyle Lehning at Asylum, James Stroud at Giant Records, Harold Shedd at Polydor.

Brown’s timing was perfect when he joined MCA Records in 1984. Country music was in desperate need of new ideas after the “Urban Cowboy” boom, when Nashville put out some of the lamest music in its history, only to find out that the interest in country was really more about snakeskin cowboy boots and Lone Star belt buckles than music. After the craze died down, country music sales sagged, and the music itself lacked the character and everyman passion that characterizes the best of the genre.

But Brown signed or produced albums by some of the most notable Nashville-based artists of the ‘80s: Gill, Earle, Patty Loveless, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. All were considered commercial longshots, but they helped stretch the boundaries of country. Like Brown and the huge country audience that emerged in the ‘90s, these artists weren’t schooled only in country. They drew freely from rock and pop, blues and folk. Those early signings established him as a force, and he followed in the ‘90s by championing such newcomers as Trisha Yearwood, the Mavericks, David Lee Murphy, Kelly Willis and Tracy Byrd, as well as helping produce albums for such established hit-makers as Wynonna, George Strait and Reba McEntire. He helped make the MCA name on a record a mark of excellen e, much like Sun Records in the ‘50s or Motown in the ‘60s or Warner Bros. for decades.

“Tony’s impact on Nashville has been enormous,” says Bill Ivey, director of the Country Music Foundation, which operates the Country Music Hall of Fame. “There was a time around here when the most important thing seemed to be what you did with a record once it was finished. Tony has put the emphasis on making the record again.”

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Chet Atkins agrees. “There’s a reason Tony is No. 1,” says Atkins. “He knows a good song, he knows all the good musicians and he’s got confidence in his own judgment. What more do you need in this town?”

You can count on two things going on at 8 a.m. most weekdays at the MCA offices on Music Square East: Brown will already be at his desk, and the TV set in his office will be turned to CMT, the cable channel that shows country videos around the clock. Whether talking on the phone or meeting with staff or other industry people, Brown glances frequently at the TV to check out the competition.

It was on CMT two years ago that Brown first saw Bobbie Cryner, a singer then on Epic Records. He was so impressed by her voice and the intensity of her songwriting that he sent a note to Cryner’s manager, expressing his admiration of the singer’s work. Later, when Cryner was dropped by Epic, Brown listened to some of her new songs. One, especially, caught his ear: the melancholy “You’d Think He’d Know Me Better.” He had heard a demo of the song months earlier and tried to get McEntire to sing it, but she thought Cryner ought to record it herself. So Brown was eager to sign Cryner and record the song, but he learned that she’d recorded it for what would have been her second Epic album. That meant Epic had the rights to it for seven years whether or not Cryner was still on the label. Rather than tip his interest in the tune, he had Cryner and her manager go back to Epic and buy the rights to it and one other song for $30,000, just pennies in the $2-billion-a-year country record business.

“You’d Think He’d Know Me Better” has the aching, melancholy feel of a song like George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Brown believes in the song so much that he has made it the centerpiece of Cryner’s first MCA album. Even if it doesn’t catch on with radio (and it has been slow), the record has generated great word-of-mouth around town--and added to Brown’s reputation as a tasteful record maker. It has also greatly increased Cryner’s value and potential.

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Asked how Epic could have let her go, Brown has an opportunity to gloat. But he resists a cheap shot. Instead, he shares his own loss: Brown gave Patty Loveless, the first artist he signed at MCA, her release in 1992 after five modestly selling albums, only to see her go to Epic and go platinum. “I don’t see that as a mistake,” he says. “It may not have happened for her at MCA. She felt she was being overlooked here because we had so many other big-selling women artists: Reba, Wynonna and Trisha. Sometimes an artist just isn’t on the right la el, and it’s a sin to me the way some labels just hang on to them to spite the artist.”

“I’m not sure if someone at another company would have let Patty go like that, to be frank,” says Larry Fitzgerald, who manages Gill and Loveless. “Patty had been there since she had been a teenager practically, and we felt the perception at the label was maybe she had gotten as far as she could go. So, I went to see Tony when Patty wanted to leave the label, and I laid out my case. It really didn’t have as much to do with numbers as it was the human side of it, and he said yes. I’ll always be grateful because Tony really loves Patty a lot. The good thing in this for him is his action sent a signal around town that MCA is an artist-friendly label. If you have another artist, you want to take them somewhere you feel safe--and Tony makes you feel safe.”

“Is wy here yet?” brown asks the woman behind the desk in the lobby of Georgetown Mastering, a post-recording facility as spotless as a dental office.

When she shakes her head no, Brown heads to an editing room where he and engineer Don Cobb need to make a special radio version of Wynonna’s new single, “Heaven Help My Heart.” The record is six minutes on the album, and Brown wants to cut it to under five so that radio programmers would be more likely to play it. He suspects, however, that Wynonna, who is fiercely independent about her music, won’t want to cut the single at all. It is a moment in which Brown’s two roles--bottom-line-minded record executive and artist-friendly producer--come into inevitable conflict.

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When Wynonna arrives with her pet dog, a terrier named after country star Loretta Lynn, the atmosphere in the room gets tense. For years, the image of the country music record producer has been one of dominance in the studio, but Brown is nervous as he talks about the need for an edit with the delicacy of a doctor giving a patient alarming test results.

“I kind of like the record the way it is,” Wynonna says flatly. “But the promotion guys are going to kill us if we don’t give them something under five minutes,” Brown says hopefully.

No response.

After several minutes of discussion, Brown comes up with a compromise. How about sending out a single to radio with both the full version and an alternate mix that runs under five minutes?

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The only noise in the room while Wynonna thinks about it is the sound of little Loretta Lynn scratching the floor. “OK, let’s try it,” Wynonna says finally, and Brown sighs with relief. He hugs Wynonna.

He hugs tiny Loretta Lynn. He then heads back the two blocks to his office to meet with singer Marty Stuart to go over songs for Stuart’s new album.

This time, there’s no tension. Brown and Stuart have known each other for years, and they agree quickly on what songs they should concentrate on in the studio. The meeting soon dissolves into the swapping of stories about the old days. Brown wants to hear about the time when Stuart, a rockabilly veteran with the same kind of zest for the music’s history as Brown’s, was on the road with Johnny Cash.

Stuart shrugs. He wants to hear about Elvis.

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“I don’t see making a record as a struggle between the artist and the producer,” Brown says later, glancing at the latest CMT video as he speaks. “I want the artist to win, because if the artist wins, everybody wins. The most important thing is only signing acts you believe in. You don’t just look at their music, you also look at what they are about. You want to see their determination, how hard they’ll fight for their music and their career. You almost become a detective and see if there are any skeletons in their closet. It’s like a marriage, and nobody likes to go through divorces.”

Brown suddenly turns in his chair, pointing to a video on CMT. Turning up the sound with the remote, he says, “Listen to that voice. Damn . . . she ought to be on MCA.” He pauses and adds, smiling: “But don’t mention her name. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m tampering or anything.”

It’s 3 p.m. Sunday, and Brown is standing at the door of the 7,200-square-foot French Tudor house where he lives with Elise Loehr, a 29-year-old wine broker who moved here in 1981 from her native Germany. He bought the house three years ago, before a price boom that was caused, in part, by the rush of record executives moving in from L.A. and New York.

Most stars and executives live outside of town, either in suburban Hendersonville (Johnny Cash) or Franklin (Wynonna), but Brown prefers Belle Meade because it’s closer to the action. The drive down West End Avenue to his office at MCA takes seven minutes.

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On a tour of the house, he points out a Warhol lithograph of Mick Jagger on one wall, a baby grand piano in the living room (one with synthesizer insides--it’s always in tune), a pool room and a huge wine cellar (fully stocked). Besides the Mercedes, the spacious garage also houses a Range Rover and a Harley-Davidson Softtail Heritage Classic, the latter a present from Reba McEntire when her “For My Broken Heart” went double-platinum.

All this is a long way from his childhood in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Was it poverty?” he says, repeating a question as he leans back in a chair in the house’s bright, airy den that overlooks the spacious 2.2-acre property. “I guess it’s how you define it. If you ask did we have outdoor plumbing? Yes. Did the Christmas bikes come from Goodwill? Yes. I don’t remember feeling we were in poverty, but some people might see it that way.”

The first defining moment in Brown’s life came in 1953, when he was 6. His father, Floyd, was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live. The elder Brown quit his job at the local dairy and became a self-styled Baptist evangelist. He spent the next 20 years on the road, giving fire-and-brimstone sermons. As an added attraction, young Tony and the other three Brown children sang gospel songs in hundreds of churches, from Pentecostal to Quaker, to both black and white congregations.

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The Brown Family--as they were called--traveled throughout the Southeast in a station wagon with the words JESUS SAVES painted in one-foot-high yellow letters on the back. To this day, Brown calls it the gaudiest thing he ever saw. His parents were so conservative that Tony and his two older brothers and one older sister couldn’t go to school football games, much less the movies. They weren’t allowed to listen to rock ‘n’ roll on the radio. His first taste of show biz was gospel music stars: Groups such as the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet were his equivalent of Elvis Presley.

Brown began playing piano with his family’s singing group during his early teens, and he was so good that he graduated to weekend jobs with professional groups. After high school, he played with the Stamps Quartet and then the Oak Ridge Boys. When the Oaks switched from gospel to country music in 1975, Brown was at another crossroads. He was in his late 20s and his first marriage had ended in divorce after five years when his wife moved to Colorado with the couple’s son and daughter. (His son Brennan, 23, and daughter Brandi, 25, live in Nashville now and see Brown frequently.)

He still wonders why he left the Oaks. Maybe it was just time for a change. Maybe he didn’t think the Oaks would make it in country music. Or maybe he was intrigued by all the fun his buddy, Donnie Sumner, was having in California--singing gospel music with Elvis.

Brown’s time in Elvis’ gospel group, the Voice, may have been one of the strangest gigs in pop history. The Voice was formed to stand by in case Elvis wanted to sing gospel songs at night at his homes in Memphis or Palm Springs or Beverly Hills. At some point, Elvis would start singing--and that was Brown’s cue to go to the piano. Elvis might then sing for two or three hours, often the same song 20 or 30 times.

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“Normally, Elvis would always be Elvis, if you know what I mean . . . the shirts and high collars, the pants with chains on them . . . as if he were on stage or something,” Brown says. “But there were nights when I’d be sitting around watching television at 3 or 4 in the morning and he’d come down with no shirt, a pair of boxer shorts, his hair messed up, needing a shave.”

Eventually Brown was hired as the pianist in Elvis’ touring band, and he played at Presley’s last show in Indianapolis on June 26, 1977. He also got to attend some of Presley’s recording sessions, even playing on one track. He became fascinated by the recording process.

Brown pauses and holds out his right hand and points to a green malachite ring on his finger. It was a gift from Elvis. “I think the thing I learned from that is to relate to artists as people,” he says. “When it comes to presidents and kings and queens and stars of the magnitude of Elvis, I think everyone thinks they aren’t human. But when you strip it all away, Elvis was really just a truck driver from Memphis who happened to sing.”

The months following Elvis’ death were hard on Brown. He had been living from paycheck to paycheck, and he had trouble getting another gig. To pay his child support, he had to sell his car and his piano. It was a lucky break that led him to Emmylou Harris’ band in 1977. Harris invited Brown’s friend, keyboardist David Briggs, to join her band. He had other obligations and recommended Brown. It turned out to be some of the happiest months of Brown’s life.

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The music was much more exciting because Harris, unlike Presley near the end, was in top form, and she inspired the musicians to their best.

While most musicians use long bus rides between gigs for sleeping or partying, Harris’ band delighted in discovering old tapes. The emphasis wasn’t on who was selling, but on artists--from the Louvin Brothers to Gram Parsons to George Jones--whose records were heartfelt and character-rich. Those values were so ingrained in Brown by the time he joined the MCA Records artists-and-repertoire staff that he went almost two years without signing anyone. But the Harris gig came to an end after a few months because the singer was pregnant. It was around that time Brown started thinking about the security of a steady job.

He even went to work briefly for Free Flight, a pop label started in Los Angeles by RCA, but that didn’t work out, and he returned to Nashville to work for RCA. Brown signed Alabama, which went on to become one of the best-selling groups in country history, but he was frustrated because he wasn’t allowed to produce records. So when Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash offered him a job with their band, the Cherry Bombs, he jumped at it.

By 1983, Brown was in his late 30s and married again (this marriage lasted 12 years), and he was ready to give up the road. He rejoined the A&R; staff at RCA, then the No. 1 Nashville label. But once again he grew frustrated over not being able to go into the studio and produce more acts. When Jimmy Bowen, the freewheeling head of MCA Records, vowed to let Brown produce records as well as sign talent, Brown jumped ship.

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Between his other jobs, Brown had spent lots of hours in the recording studio, but he didn’t feel comfortable as a session player. “I was a living example of the Peter Principle,” he says. “Producers would just know that I had played with Emmy or Elvis and think I must be great, but I would end up booked for these sessions where they had these charts all written out and I couldn’t even read music.

“But I finally started noticing all the mistakes that producers and arrangers were making: how they would hire the wrong musicians and fail to bring out the best in the artist. After all those hours in the studio, I started thinking I could do better than that. I started to see a place for me.”

Brown learned even more from working with Bowen, a controversial figure in Nashville because he came from Los Angeles with what some locals call “Los Angeles ideas.” He and Brown clashed frequently over musical direction and philosophy, but Bowen, who is now retired, taught Brown that the artist is king. Bowen, who had previously worked with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, didn’t play by the Nashville rules. Rather than just hire local musicians for sessions, he would fly in musicians from around the country if he thought they were what the record needed.

One of Brown’s most important signings was a young tenor from Oklahoma named Vince Gill. Earlier, Brown had signed Gill to RCA Records, but Brown had departed for MCA before Gill ever got into the studio. After three RCA albums failed to catch on commercially, Gill left the label, and Brown grabbed him for MCA.

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“With Vince, I heard all kinds of negative things,” he says. “He was a tenor, and tenors don’t sell in country music . . . he had failed at RCA so why should it be any different here . . . he was too nice a guy; he just wasn’t driven enough.”

Fortunately, “When I Call Your Name,” the third and title single from the 1990 album, caught on, and Gill’s career exploded. The MCA album ended up selling more than 2 million copies. Around the same time, Brown signed Trisha Yearwood, and her debut album went double-platinum.

The producer was so hot by 1992 that rival Sony dangled a rumored $4 million deal at him in hopes of luring him away from MCA. But MCA cemented his allegiance (and reputation around town) with a new title--president--and a fat new contract. While Brown refuses to discuss finances, he does discuss the importance of that contract on his own psyche.

“Even though I act like a kid, I’ll be 50 this year and I started thinking about what I do,” he says of the move. “People were always saying, ‘Good job,’ ‘You are cool’ and all that stuff. But I wanted it documented.

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“In my mind, I needed to know how I felt about myself. Did I think I was lucky or did I think I actually had some sort of talent. I thought this was a way to find out that and what MCA really thought about me. MCA’s response [to the Sony bid] gave me the answer.”

In the record business, where labels typically sign four to five acts for every one that hits, MCA’s success ratio is remarkable. Of the 21 artists on the roster, 17 of them have achieved at least gold-record status (500,000 albums sold).

Bruce Hinton, the respected chairman of MCA Nashville Records who shelters Brown from budgeting, personnel and other administrative responsibilities at the label, understands the pressures on his cohort and friend.

“Tony is one of the most successful producers in the history of country music, and you never want to be the guy who used to be No. 1,” says Hinton. “We are a pretty driven lot. But I think he handles it well. Ultimately, the music keeps driving him.”

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Some around town who are close to Brown, however, worry that his need as president of the label to keep boosting profits might lead to compromises in his artistic judgment.

David Conrad, vice president of powerful Almo/Irving Music Publishing’s Nashville office, points to the demands on a record label head. “You’ve got to ask yourself each time you sign an act if you are going to sell a million copies on this artist, because if you don’t, it doesn’t really make sense because of the outlay your label has to invest in the act,” he says. “So that puts a tremendous restraint on someone. I haven’t seen that inhibit Tony yet, but it’s always a pressure. He has been able to maintain a success rate without sacrificing quality. He seems to follow his musical instincts first.”

“Sure, there’s a potential conflict of interest,” Wynonna says over dinner in her mother’s restaurant near Music Row. “I don’t mean a legal one, but a creative one. I love Tony. He was the second person to see [her son] Elijah. But I worry. How can you be a producer knowing you have to take it back and sell it at MCA? He’s balanced both jobs very well so far, though. When we made the new record, he stayed true to the music. I didn’t feel like I was being pushed into making it more commercial or anything.”

Steve Earle, who was shifted to the Los Angeles pop division of MCA in 1990 and subsequently dropped by the label, is wondering whether Brown hasn’t already stepped back from his early defense of maverick songwriters. “I think he fought and fought so hard for me against a lot of people in this town that he finally realized he couldn’t keep doing that,” Earle said, during a break in producing an album for a new group on his own E-Squared label. “In other words, I haven’t seen him sign any more Steve Earles.”

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Brown rubs his hand through his dark-brown hair and stares at the gold and platinum records stacked on the floor when he hears Earle’s remarks. “The reason I don’t sign another Steve is that Steve Earles don’t come along very often, just like the Waylons or Willies don’t,” he says sharply. “He is contradicting himself. He is saying there are a bunch of individuals out there like him.”

Still, Brown admits feeling increased pressure, since becoming president of the label, to keep expanding the profits. He’s read about the corporate blood baths that led to the ouster of some of the most respected figures at Warner Bros. Records and wonders about the effect of his own company, MCA Records, being absorbed by the Seagram Co. Ltd.

Some Nashville observers point to the recent naming of veteran marketing whiz Joe Mansfield as co-president and CEO of Asylum Records as a sign that corporations may think the town’s “music men” need help in boosting profits.

“I get the feeling around town sometimes that a lot of us are under pressure from people in Los Angeles or New York who want to see more and more gold from Nashville,” Brown says, sitting in his office late one afternoon. “It’s like they see us sell 20 million albums with 10 acts and wonder why we can’t sell 40 million with 20 acts, when there just may not be 20 acts worth signing.”

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Bruce Hinton, however, doesn’t seem threatened by the corporate changes. “Basically, we are autonomous, have been for five years,” he says, when told of Brown’s concerns. “The new ownership and management have more than gone out of the way to say we will continue to be. They are being extremely supportive.”

Even if Brown could find the talent, there’s no way he could produce any more acts. In 1996 alone he has already produced or co-produced the new Wynonna and Cryner albums, and he will deliver albums by Gill, Strait, Todd Snider, David Lee Murphy, Tracy Byrd and Marty Stuart as well as new tracks for a Mark Chestnutt “greatest hits” package.

“There’s no more time in the day unless I go back to working weekends in the studio, and I don’t want to screw up my personal life again,” he says. “So I need to do what Bowen did when he signed me. I need to find or train others who can find great new artists and work with them in the studio.”

Just when the talk about the demands of the job seem to have worn him down, Brown turns in his chair and picks up a tape from the shelf behind his desk. He slips it into the cassette deck. It’s the demo by Big House, a hard-edged, roots-oriented band from California that MCA recently signed. As the band’s raucous sound fills the room, Brown starts tapping the desk with his fingers, finding comfort once again in the music itself.

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“Wait until you see these guys,” he says, his spirits lifted. “I don’t know what Nashville is going to think about them, but I think they kick ass. Maybe we can get them to open for Steve Earle.” He smiles at the thought, then reaches for the TV remote. The Cryner video is on CMT.


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