Fans of quality roots music may know the name David Ferguson from all the artists he’s worked with; engineering and producing classic and Grammy-winning records, including Sturgill Simpson’s ground-breaking A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. Now, that’s about to change.
With his own album, Nashville No More, Ferguson steps up to the plate as lead vocalist, gathering his long-term friends and collaborators to come along for the ride. Known to his pals as ‘Fergie’ and dubbed ‘The Ferg’ by Simpson, the genial Nashville native has everyone from Margo Price, Alison Krauss and Sierra Hull to Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck and Dan Auerbach on speed dial. If he books them, they will come. So, Holler felt very lucky to get an audience with him, direct from his little recording studio in Goodlettsville, 12 miles north of Music City.
Ferguson was introduced into the business by the legendary Cowboy Jack Clement – the man that discovered Charley Pride and produced Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Lee Lewis. Fergie started working with Clement in his late teens, thinking he might just sneak into the studio and learn to record music, picking up all the tricks of the trade once Clement gave him a chance.
“I was lucky enough to be his protégé and worked with him for a really long time. He taught me the importance of being on time and being dependable. Making sure it’s as in tune and in time as you can get it.”
More to the point, it was Clement who encouraged Ferguson to find his own voice and start singing, helping him to learn “how to phrase stuff”.
Although Ferguson says he’s sat around and sung all his life, this time it’s different; he’s really liked the challenge of it. The record was made over a long period and due to the pandemic, he found he suddenly had time because nobody was working. “I had this new control room on my property; I could just come out and work here, a little bit every other day, over a few months and finish it up”. While most of the album was recorded prior to the pandemic, it was nowhere near finished; some tracks were just him with a guitar, piano or click track.
Other songs had very different starting points, like ‘Fellow Travellers’ and ‘Looking for Rainbows’. Both were co-written by his great friend Charles Cochran, who was killed in a car wreck in 2007 – Ferguson stumbled across them as piano tracks cut by the musician for his wife to sing at a wedding. “I love those songs, discovered they were in my key and that’s where I started, with just his solo piano. I had string arrangements made and built them up from there”.
Mainly though, Ferguson was confident he’d get the cream of Nashville on his record. “I want to hire the best musicians I could, and not depend on the recording process to make something good”. He’d rather have great performances on tape instead of trying to doctor something and force it, having found through the years that if it’s not good, no matter how much you work on it, it’s not going to get any better.
His mantra would be to get the best musicians and use them like chess pieces. “If you know what this guy does, use him for that, don’t ask him to do something outside his box. It makes everybody happy that way” he continues, “It’s just like a movie director – like Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino – they have their cast they use in all their movies, and that’s like their band. Now I’ve got a band that I really trust to record with, and they’re the best in the world!”
Fortunately, most of the musicians on the record had worked with Ferguson over many years and many sent their parts over from their homes during the pandemic. Getting Margo Price to join in was simply returning a favour, as they’d become friends after Sturgill Simpson asked ‘The Ferg’ to co-produce her latest record, That’s How Rumours Get Started. The bonus was, when he asked Price to sing on the track ‘Chardonnay’, she scooted straight over in person. “She’s a great gal and doesn’t live too far from me. She hung out for the afternoon and sung her parts. She was mighty generous to do that – and it was fun”.
As luck would have it, Ferguson had occasionally rented his old Butcher’s Shop studio to bluegrass ace Sierra Hull, and even though he didn’t know her that well back then, her name popped into his head when making Sturgill Simpson’s three bluegrass records, Cuttin’ Grass Vol.1 and Vol.2, and The Ballad Of Dood And Juanita.
“We were putting a band together and I said let’s get Sierra, she’d be great singing and on mandolin. We did and she’s just a jewel.” So, it made sense to get Hull to step up again for several tracks on his own album. “I was trying to get somebody with a high voice like that – and I almost got Alison Krauss. She even came to do it one day in that studio but wasn’t in good voice. She’s much better now though”.
The album title and key track, ‘Knocking Around Nashville’, were deliberately picked to sum up Ferguson’s conflicted relationship with Nashville. They’d been searching for the right title, and he says this one speaks volumes about the city. “Nashville has changed so much. I’m not an implant; I’m one of the few people in this business who was born in this town. There’s very few of us who are Nashvillians. I’ve seen it change a lot, and if I went into a coma when I was 15 and came out of it today, I wouldn’t know where I was”.
Ferguson witnessed country music exploding from the mid-1980s onwards when it became commercialised. “Nashville was a well-kept secret for a long time,” he says.
“People knew about it, but corporations hadn’t swooped in. There was a handful of people and companies making all the money from Nashville and country music. That’s when I guess you could say it got incorporated. Corporations and labels got huge, rock ’n’ roll labels realised there was money in country and it blew up. So, I think the new Nashville is good for the country music business, but I don’t know that it’s good for the music. I think country music is suffering right now”.
Speaking from the heart, Ferguson is dismayed by what he terms rock ’n’ roll country, “it’s about pickup trucks and things like that”. To him it all sounds the same and is made to be perfect by computers. “Oh, Lord God they use auto-tune all the time”. He also reckons that we’re missing those really great artists of the past who have such character in their voice, ones that “within two or three notes, you know who is singing”.
What does lift his spirits, though, is the rise of Americana as a genre. Otherwise, he wouldn’t know how to characterise what Sturgill Simpson terms his “hillbilly genius” and what he feels is kind of country and kind of old school pop.
“I guess when you have a problem categorising something, it falls under the Americana flag. Most of the stuff I do falls under that category” he says, “Americana is one of the best things that happened to this business in a really long time; it’s an outlet for different kinds of music that’s maybe not as commercial and I’m glad it has its own chart. Americana isn’t just for Americans, it’s for everybody. It’s a really diverse format and I really dig that part of it”.
With decades of music-making under his belt – right up to this album – David Ferguson clearly relished the task of thinking about his key tracks for Cuts the Deepest, explaining to Holler the six songs that have left their mark on his life and music.
This is one of those records that really stands out in my mind, I love it. I remember listening to it in the car, over and over again. I just loved the groove and the sound of it. The Beatles were very influential to all of us, because of their imagination, their over-dubbing capabilities and their talent. In fact, the British are very influential on all our lives over here, musically.
I love the way this song sounds so big. When I was growing up, I liked Elton John a lot and loved his music, I remember listening to his version of ‘Pinball Wizard’; I thought it was so good then. I just listened to it the other day again, it’s still good. I know where the song comes from, though I never saw the movie, Tommy.
Johnny Cash was a huge influence on me; one of the tracks I loved from him is this really old one, it’s not one that people just know. The way Johnny did it - where it’s all so slow, almost talking, then starts picking up speed – is really great.
I made a lot of records with Johnny Cash, he was a really good friend. So, he’s going to have not one but two songs that really influenced me. This is the other one, ‘I Walk the Line’. It’s ingenious because it’s in several different keys, and the way he modulates from key to key is just genius. It’s an absolutely beautiful song.
I’ll pick an old Bee Gees song. They were genius songwriters. This is one of my all-time favourite records. Their song choices and their writing were great – disco was huge in my teens. I’ve not yet met Barry Gibb, but I’d like to. I was just talking to a friend of mine the other day about how much better British rock ’n’ roll is than American. Like the Hollies and ‘Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)’; that’s a Roger Cook song. He had that band called Blue Mink. I love Roger, he’s a really nice guy and a good friend.
All their duets were incredible, but the one that comes to mind is ‘Golden Ring’, which is a great story about a wedding ring that’s bought at a pawn shop and they have it for a while. It’s a really good record. That’s another thing these days, there’s no real husband-and-wife duets out there anymore.
David Ferguson's new album, Nashville No More, is out now via Fat Possum Records.