Music is not the same as it used to be. One of the main reasons I started this blog is due to that (besides chronicling my vinyl journey). I love finding true musicianship and talking to those who truly believe in raw music. This tradition goes beyond performers; it travels down to those behind the records.
A special tradition in music is being carried out, especially on vinyl on both new and vintage records. Jon Estes, a musician and producer in Nashville, TN, is one who carries this torch.
Estes was born and raised in Nashville, yet was not raised in a musical family. He began studying bass by the age 13 and his talent for music was soon recognized. Today Estes primarily works as a producer/ engineer at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville.
One could only dream of having Estes’ pedigree. He has worked with the likes of Bela Fleck, Kesha,Dolly Parton, Robyn Hitchcock and Loretta Lynn and performed at some of the world’s most renowned venues, including The Grand Ole Opry and The Kennedy Center.
Recently, I spoke with Estes about his passion to carry on these dated, yet proven, techniques of musicianship, his recent work with Kesha, and his recent work as a producer.
Vinyl Culture: Hey Jon, thanks for taking a few moments to speak with me. In music, especially in regard to Nashville’s history, how do you carry on these tried and true musical traditions?
Estes: Hey! Thanks for having me. There’s a basic framework that’s been in place in Nashville since the 1950’s where basically a group of musicians will simply play together in a room with the artist singing. The idea is that the magic of a recording session comes when people are actually playing together, trying out ideas, discussing things, and feeding off of each other and the artist trying to get it right from the beginning. You listen back to the first or second take and it basically sounds like a record. The guts are there.
On a technical level, I usually record to tape and try to get all the sounds and vibe right at the beginning, not later on in mixing. It seems really basic and obvious, but it’s not usually how records are made elsewhere. My heroes are the session musicians of the 1960’s in Muscle Shoals, Memphis, LA, New York, and Nashville. You know, where you’d show up to work and Aretha Franklin or Bob Dylan walks in the door and you make a record in 3 hours.
This framework was how Jon worked with Kesha on her number one album, Rainbows. He played bass on the album’s version of “Old Flames” featuring Dolly Parton. We know Kesha as a colorful figure and Jon’s stories don’t disappoint.
She got there late to the studio and we knew that we were going to be recording a version of “Old Flames”…so we started working up a version of it. It sounded very traditional and old school like a Patsy Cline record, but when Kesha showed up everything turned 180. She had this crazy energy and started singing like Janis Joplin. All the musicians fed off of it. We felt free to just do our own thing and not have some preconceived notion of what a major label or the radio might want. I think Kesha specifically said “f*ck the radio!” She was cool.
Vinyl Culture: Did you play differently on that record, especially given Kesha’s attitude?
I think everything that day I tracked with a Fender bass VI, distortion, and spring reverb. That’s a cardinal sin in bass recording! [laughs] I’m sure the mixing engineer was thinking, ‘What the hell?’ Everything weird and wacky we did, they used on the record. I’m pretty sure that recording is all the live take, vocals included. It’s a good example of why musicians need to play together and feed off of each other.
Throughout the year, Jon works on nearly 250 sessions. He is a multi-instrumentalist. He often records on bass, pedal steel, guitar, piano/keyboards/organ, cello, and mandolin. He has found a love of arranging instruments and now works nearly full time as an engineer and producer.
Vinyl Culture: What do you look like as a producer? That term seems to mean something different to many who wear the title.
I’m a musician first, so playing instruments and being part of the band is sort of the core of it. I actually hate the idea of a “producer” sitting in the control room telling everybody what to do. That’s a dying concept. For me, it’s more that I’m just another musician and we’re all in it together. You know, the parents have left town for the weekend and the kids took over.
Vinyl Culture: In our conversation, you mentioned how you were not classically trained. How do you achieve your vision and sound?
I did go to college at the University of Miami, but I’m a Jazz guy, not classically trained. I’ve fallen in love with string arranging the past few years; my wife is an amazing violinist. On a lot of records I produce, I’ll try to do some arrangements and get a few players in, but I’m a big faker. [laughs] Classical musicians have been very patient and cool with me! I’m always running in the tracking room and asking them to turn their bows backward and do weird things. Like everything else, it’s trial and error.
After winding down our conversation, I had to know what was next for Jon. He’s already performed where musicians would die to perform, including Bonnaroo and The Newport Jazz Festival. With his given pedigree, what’s next?
I’ve sort of fallen in a good place now where I primarily produce records. I love working with a songwriter, seeing them through the process of making a record from beginning to end. I primarily work with indie artists and I like it that way. It’s a sweet spot that allows for full artistic liberty without labels or anybody breathing down your neck. Some of the best records I’ve made were with people who had never even been in a studio before. The process is so efficient here that people can come make top notch records with the best players in the world for not that much money. That’s something that has sort of carried on through since the 1950’s.
And with that ladies and gentleman, that is how the tradition continues, and how vinyl culture remains alive.
For more information, including many of his credits, visit Jon’s official website here.