Updated: Apr 5, 2020
Producer Matt Ross-Spang discusses his work with the Rev. Al Green, John Prine, Margo Price, William Bell, and other greats
Few young musicians, producers and studio engineers have seen some of music’s greats up close as Matt Ross-Spang in Memphis.
The affable 33-year-old’s first foray into recording was at famed Sun Studio. When he was just 14, Ross-Spang’s parents gave him and his garage band a couple of hours of Sun studio time for his birthday.
At 16, he interned at Sun as a tour guide, eventually becoming the chief engineer, restoring and installing period equipment that more closely matched Sam Phillips’ original setup where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and and many others made some of their first recordings.
Then he moved his work a few blocks to Sam Phillips Recording Service, where Phillips had moved and upgraded in the 1960s. It’s now Ross-Spang’s musical home, although he’s technically a long-term tenant.
While still working at Sun, he produced Margo Price’s debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, recorded there and released on Jack White’s Third Man Records label in Nashville. He also produced Price’s second record, All American Made, recorded at Phillips, and then her 2017 EP.
He began to work with Nashville producer Dave Cobb, serving as engineer for many of Cobb’s recordings for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Amanda Shires more of today’s leading roots-music and Americana artists. He also was the engineer on one of my favorites in recent years, Bonnie Bishop’s soul-searching album Ain’t Who I Was (on which Bishop daringly and beautifully covers Ann Sexton’s lost soul classic, “Have a Little Mercy”).
Ross-Spang also has produced the Allman Betts Band (at Muscle Shoals), Charley Crockett and others, engineered some of Chris Isaak’s albums—and even mixed old Elvis recordings for re-release, including Way Down in the Jungle Room.
And that was before his production of the recent series of original singles for Amazon, featuring the great Rev. Al Green, soul legend William Bell, master songwriter John Prine, Americana music queen Price, and graceful Nashville singer-songwriter Erin Rae.
Originally, Ross-Spang had a different idea for Amazon: “I had hit them up, because my No. 1 all-time musical hero was Dan Penn,” he said of the Muscle Shoals songwriting legend (of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Dark End of the Street,” and other soul classics). He wanted to do an album with Penn.
Then he thought about a concept record with many different artists, “like a three-disc playlist that starts on Friday night with a spoken-word piece by Tony Joe White… and ends with a gospel quartet song on Sunday morning.”
Instead, Amazon had a song-by-song, playlist-style project in mind.
“They initially said, name some people you’d love to work with,” Ross-Spang told SoulCountry, and “pretty much everyone we worked with said yes.”
Green is Gold
Ross-Spang knew it was a long shot to ask the Rev. Al Green, one of the greatest of all soul singers, to be part of the Amazon sessions, but he decided to shoot for the Memphis moon. “I never in my life thought Al Green would say yes,” he said. “I’ve been to his church several times, and he still performs amazingly.”
For the one and only Rev. Green, the song had to be right. “If Al Green came back now, which would be amazing--not that he had ever left. But with all the negativity and all this division and stuff (happening today), his message has always been love, so finding a song” that was right for him, and for the times, was essential, Ross-Spang said.
The producer sent Green several tracks to consider. “Some were country and some R&B,” he said.
Then he remembered Linda Martell’s 1970 version of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” cut years before the song became a country classic for Freddy Fender in 1974 (see videos below), and sent Green that song for consideration.
Ross-Spang knows the late producer Shelby Singleton’s family (Singleton bought Sun Records from Phillips in 1969). It was Singleton’s Nashville-based label that produced the 1970 album by South Carolina native Martell, who’d become the first African-American woman to play the Grand Ole Opry.
“Then Al called me, which I still can’t believe to this day, and said he liked that song the best,” Ross-Spang said. “He could hear the balance between soul and country that he loves.”
The result is wonderful, with Green backed exquisitely and soulfully by the surviving members of the Hi Records and Royal Studios band, who played on Green’s hit records under legendary Memphis producer and arranger Willie Mitchell.
This version of “Teardrops,” though, is straight soul, opening with signature strings that resemble the opening of Green’s classic hits “I’m Still In Love With You” and “Let’s Stay Together” (see video below). As the song draws to a close, Green ad libs as horns that pay tribute to the Memphis Horns’ part of the 1970s hit, “Love and Happiness.” These moments surely would have made Mitchell proud.
“It’s beautiful. It’s simple,” Ross-Spang said of Green’s performance.
Covering country songs, of course, was nothing for Rev. Green. Born in Forrest City, Arkansas, across the Mississippi River and just west of Memphis, he and Mitchell often employed blues and twang on their 1970s collaborations. With the late drummer Al Jackson of the original Booker T. and the M.G.'s carrying the beat, Green and Mitchell made some of the most funky and groovy pop music ever recorded.
In the 1970s, Green effortlessly covered Hank Williams' “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (see videos below), Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” (see video below), and Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” Green and Mitchell would sloooooooow down the beat, finding the essence of heartbreak in Williams’ and others’ songs.
Rev. Green also seems right at home on his new version of “Teardrops,” in no small part because of his incredible backing band’s handling of the groove, with Charles Hodges of the Hi Rhythm Section on Hammond B3 organ. Hodges actually hadn’t worked with Green since the 1980s.
“I’ve gotten to work with Charles and Leroy (Hodges) several times,” Ross-Spang said. “I love having them play on the record. They’re the most amazing people and players.”
“I dare find anyone who’s seen and done as much, played on that many hit records, and still have such a strong passion for music (than the Hodges brothers),” he said. “They’re there for you and they’re there for the song. When there is literally no ego in Memphis, and it’s just people doing what’s best for the song, and it’s laid back, it’s just magic.”
The Soul of a Bell
Ross-Spang also worked with the great soul singer William Bell for the Amazon project.
One of the earliest artists on Memphis’ Stax Records, Bell wrote most of his songs, often with friends and fellow Stax musicians such as organist Booker T. Jones and guitarist Steve Cropper of the M.G.'s and singer Eddie Floyd (famous for “Knock On Wood”).
The young Memphis producer had met Bell before, but still was in awe during the new recording.
The producer had met Bell before, when he had guested on a performance at Sun Studios with The Bo-Keys, a band and horn section consisting mainly of former Stax and Hi Records musicians and their understudies.
“It was probably one of the most starstruck moments I’ve ever had, and a lot of people have come through at Sun,” said Ross-Spang, calling Bell a brilliant artist and “the world’s greatest gentleman.”
Bell sent over several song ideas before the Amazon sessions. Then. He pulled out an unrecorded original, “In a Moment of Weakness,” which seemed right. The song opening recalls Bell’s classic, “Everybody Loves a Winner” (see video below), on which Booker T. Jones’ piano sounds like Floyd Cramer.
“All of his music lands somewhere between soul music and country in this amazing way,” Ross-Spang said.
For the track, Bell wanted a stripped-back sound, as little clutter as possible. Bell’s songs always include a little room to breathe and are about the feel and melody as much as the words. On “In a Moment of Weakness,” the musicians, including Charles and his brother Leroy Hodges on bass, ease along until the music finally just stops, leaving Bell to croon on his own.
The great arranger Lester Snell, who arranged the strings on many 1970s Stax classics, performed the same duties on Bell’s new song. Ross-Spang said he had a few ideas and sang the part to Snell over the phone.
“I sang it to him--and he made it even better,” the young producer said.
At the session, Bell had worn custom shoes that featured his own face, Ross-Spang recalled. The song was recorded in just a few takes. “That’s William singing all live,” he said. “He just sang his butt off.”
“I still need to buy those damn shoes,” he said.
Voices of Angels
Nashville singer-songwriter Margo Price has taken the Americana music world by storm in recent years. Her excellent albums bring together elements of 1960s protest music, country story-songs, roots rock a la Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, eerie sonics like those of Neko Case, plus soulful bass lines and country-tinged storytelling that can resemble the work of Dolly Parton and Neil Young.
For the Amazon sessions, Ross-Spang began with her. “She was my first call. She’s just become a dear friend,” he said. “I wouldn’t be who I am without Margo and (her husband and guitarist) Jeremy (Ivey).
They went back and forth over which song to cut for Amazon. “We kind of came back to ‘Leftovers.’ It was going to be cut by somebody else,” Ross-Spang said. “They played me this song at their kitchen table.”
The track is a catchy rocker, a freedom statement of sorts.
Through his relationship with Price, Ross-Spang first heard the music of Erin Rae, who has sung background on Price’s records. When he’d visit Nashville, he’d sometime stay with Price and her husband. “Margo played me her (Rae’s) EP in the car,” he said. “I kind of liked just being a fan. I just enjoy what she and Dan Knobler did so much.”
Amazon representatives heard Rae sing at the SXSW music festival in Austin, after Ross-Spang had brought her to their attention, and they were certainly impressed.
They settled on her rendition of Tom Paxton's “Last Thing On My Mind.” The song is a country-soul ballad, recalling Merrilee Rush’s 1968 classic “Angel of the Morning,” written by Chip Taylor and first recorded at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio in Memphis.
Rae’s performance is also soulful, with twinges of country, not unlike Brandi Carlile but with a folk sensibility like Joan Baez.
“Erin just has the most amazing vocal delivery,” Ross-Spang said. “They had been rehearsing it a little more up tempo,” but the producer and artists ultimately decided to slow it down. They “found that heartbeat-y pulse rhythm to it… It still has kind of a groove.”
“This is how most people want to cut (songs). I always ask what they want to do first, and out of the four or five (songs they considered), I thought that one was the one,” he said. “It’s been done a lot of ways—country and soul… especially with her voice, you can make something cinematic or something so emotional.”
There was also John Prine, one of the great American songwriters, who was honored on January 26 of this year with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. Bonnie Raitt sang one of Prine’s masterpieces, “Angel from Montgomery,” which she cut for her 1974 album Streetlights, during the awards telecast.
Ross-Spang had been the sound engineer for the recording of Prine’s wonderful 2018 record, The Tree of Forgiveness, produced by Cobb and featuring guests such as Isbell, Shires, and Brandi Carlile. The record won Album of the Year at the 2019 Americana Music Awards.
“John is just like maybe the coolest guy in the whole world. He just has life kind of figured out.,” Ross-Spang said. “He surrounds himself with family and friends, and just love. They emanate love.”
“When I (first) met John, I talked a lot (with him) about the Pink Cadillac record,” said Ross-Spang. That 1973 Prine album was recorded at Phillips Sound Studios and produced by two songs of the legendary Sam Phillips, Jerry and Knox Phillips.
“The label hated that record,” Ross-Spang said, but views of the album have changed with time. “It’s a phenomenal record. And not only is ‘How Lucky’ on there, but ‘Saigon’ is on there… and ‘Killing the Blues’ (by Rowland Salley, whose tune was resurrected years later by producer T-Bone Burnett for his record with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss).
“I really loved ‘How Lucky’ from that Pink Cadillac record, and it was done in ‘73 when John was a young man,” said Ross-Spang. “Now his voice is deeper, and he’s older and wiser, and it takes on a whole new meaning. I really thought it would be cool to revisit this song with the same man, the same lyrics and with only time being the difference and how that gave the song a whole new feeling.”
Prine agreed to be part of the Amazon sessions and re-record that very song, at Nashville’s venerable RCA Studio A, where Dave Cobb often works. Ross-Spang had heard him sing “How Lucky” at an earlier performance in Memphis and during the recording of Tree of Forgiveness. “He just started pickin’ on that one, and I almost cried,” Ross-Spang remembered.
“It was always about staying out of the way of John’s voice and pickin’,” the producer added. “and that’s Charles Hodges again on B3.”
How on earth will Ross-Spang follow such recordings?
“We’ll be doing more Amazon songs this year. I’m still in shock that the first five happened,” he said, adding that he’s working on several records. You can bet those recordings, and virtually anything Ross-Spang produces or engineers, will have that Memphis feel and grit.
“I’m absolutely, 100 percent biased, and have lived my whole life here, and don’t plan to live anywhere else,” he said. All my favorite records were pretty much cut out of here. It’s Memphis for a reason.”
It’s why sonic geniuses such as Tom Dowd, the Atlantic Records producer and engineer who came to Stax to work with Otis Redding and others, had “been amazed at the records they were cutting and the sounds they’re getting without a lot of great equipment,” Ross-Spang said.
It’s why Booker T. Jones, one of many great talents in Memphis, lived in the same neighborhood as Stax, wandering into Estelle Axton’s Satellite Record Shop as a teenager just to listen and learn.
“It kind of goes back to Sam Phillips,” he said. “You’re listening for feel and you’re recording for feel, more than what’s technically correct… Just like in blues---old gospel, too. The singers might sing the chord change, but the band doesn’t know. Outside of Memphis, everyone is like, we’ve gotta change that. Down here, it’s like, how does it feel?”
“Everyone that I work with (in Memphis), they find the emotional core of the song and they maximize it, mostly by staying out of the way, as opposed to filling in a bunch of sounds,” he said. “I just finished a record here this week by an artist from Ohio. It’s a country artist, but he let me put the band together. … It’s still country, but it’s the most soulful modern country music. That’s where my heart kind of lies.”
“Soul meets country, that’s where I want to set up a tent.”