Ken Nelson, 1911-2008
January 21, 2008 2:19 PM   Subscribe

"The Christmas card didn’t arrive this year." Ken Nelson, longtime head of country music at Capitol Records, passed away last week. In a time when studio band assembly lines were the rule, Nelson was known among artists for his hands-off approach to record production. Through his work with artists like Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Red Simpson, Nelson helped bring national recognition to West Coast country.
posted by roll truck roll (12 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Not only was Ken Nelson pivitol in ushering in the whole Bakersfield sound, which is my favorite era of country, but he also produced most of the Stan Freberg albums. And he played important roles in the early careers of Jerry Reed and Wanda Jackson. From what I've read about him he gave artists a lot of latitude in the studio and nudged them in the right direction very effortlessly. Even artists with reputations for being difficult in the studio worked well with him. I didn't know about until I saw it mentioned in one of the obits, but he just put out an autobiography last year, which is being added to must read list right now.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 2:36 PM on January 21, 2008

posted by Smart Dalek at 2:38 PM on January 21, 2008

Rest in peace, Mr. Nelson.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:32 PM on January 21, 2008


Damn important to the history of country music. The old man from the mountain's coming home.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:46 PM on January 21, 2008

I believe it might be Nelson responsible for the backing vocal arrangement on Haggard's fantastic "Today I Started Loving You Again". They are a big part of what makes that elegantly simple (and rather short, at 2 verses) song work so well. The whip-snap delivery of those backing singers' "then today I", followed by the smooth-as-silk, languorous "oooooooh"... Perfect tension and release.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:15 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd like to share something interesting that I came across, an anecdotal reference to Ken Nelson that sheds some interesting light on the racial dynamic historically at work in "country" music. It doesn't necessarily show Nelson in the greatest light, but as I say, I think it's an interesting glimpse into some behind-the-scenes decisions by behind-the-scenes people that might've kept the worlds of country and soul artificially apart, while the musicians themselves were often much more colorblind than the business people who shepherded their careers.

This story involves the Louisiana-born soul singer Bettye Swann:

"Though Bettye told me that she was happy to sing country songs, she did say “I wanted to do any song I was given my way. When I say ‘my way’, I mean the way I was feeling it. If someone played a song for me, no matter what the style was, I’d want to sing it the way I felt it.” For sure, it was her proposal to try an upbeat version of Merle Haggard’s classic country ballad ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’ – and (producer) Wayne Schuler was reluctant. The whole time I spoke with him the most excited he got was when he told me that they also cut a slower version as a duet with Buck Owens. As Wayne tells it – “It’s just a killer, man. Nothing but a rhythm track; Bettye and Buck Owens. It’s a killer. Bettye wanted to do it up-tempo the way it is on the album, but I wanted to do it slower and got Buck in. But when Ken Nelson [head of the country division at Capitol] found I’d cut Bettye with Buck he practically had a haemorrhage. Buck was all ready to put Bettye on ‘Hee Haw’ [his massively popular nationally-syndicated country-comedy show], and DJs were ringing begging me to let them have the record, but I had to tell them that Ken Nelson would sack me straightaway if I let that happen.” Though this was a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and two years after Charley Pride had become the first black singer to appear on the Grand Ole Opry, the powers that be at Capitol obviously feared that to be seen and heard duetting on a love song with a black woman could seriously damage Buck’s career"

Interesting stuff, eh? That's from an article you can read in its entirety here.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:35 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Flapjax, you will also note Haggard's (I think) subtle but brilliant contribution to the phrasing of that song. He conjoins the first "today-I" but separates the words when they are repeated in the last line of the refrain. Of such tight little variations (bound to specific changes in sense, actually) are great country performances made.

Nelson did have a way of bringing out those things in a singer.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:43 PM on January 21, 2008

flapjax, there's a story from a few years later where (Black/Seminole honky tonk singer) Stoney Edwards (who wrote his own hit "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul," and was also produced by Nelson, I believe) met Lefty Frizzell -- the "Lefty" of the song title -- drinking himself to death in a bar. Upon being introduced, Lefty was reputed to have said "I can't believe a n----r wrote that song."

I heard that story from Stoney (who died in 97) himself, and he told me it broke his heart.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:47 PM on January 21, 2008

Indeed, just checked . . . Ken Nelson *did* sign (though not produce) Stoney Edwards on Capitol, at the urging of Merle Haggard, among others.

Here's some info on Stoney.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:50 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I hear you, fourcheesemac. I know that song so well in my head (used to cover it with my band!), and I agree on that phrasing point you've mentioned: subtle but brilliant.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:50 PM on January 21, 2008

Hey, fourcheese, nice detective work there. I confess to never having heard of Stoney Edwards til now. Gonna check him right out!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:52 PM on January 21, 2008

His late hit "Blackbird" (written by the great Chip Taylor) could easily have been a soul hit. Most of his stuff -- Two Dollar Toy, Cute Little Waitress, Hank and Lefty -- is straight ahead Oklahoma-California axis hard country honky tonk. There's a good compilation that has the major tracks available called "Poor Folks Stick Together." He was almost forgotten, but the excellent "From Where I Stand" compilation of black country music(put out by the CMF in 1997, which has some absolutely amazing and crucial black country that you can't find anywhere else) had a couple of tracks and that reintroduced Stoney, who was living in near poverty at the end of his life, singing in VFWs, and getting around on crutches because of a gun accident. He put out a badly produced late album called "Dixie Sundown" on a small Texas label in the early 90s, which is impossible to find. He had an amazing voice -- unique, really -- and gorgeous phrasing. And he wrote fine songs.

His niece Millie Edwards was making a go of it as a country singer in the early 90s. Not sure if she still is, and I can't find her on Google.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:03 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

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