The role of the record producer has always been somewhat mysterious to me. I mean, I think I have a pretty good idea of what they do — recruit backing musicians; oversee tracking, mixing and mastering; provide general creative direction, yadda, yadda, yadda — but when I was younger, I pictured the producer as a suit-wearing, arms-crossing grump who hung out in the control room, called people “baby” and yelled things like “You tell that sonofabitch that I’ll rip his head off and shit down his throat!” into a Zack Morris cell phone. Crazy, right? And I realize now that the linchpin that held this warped mental image together was the assumption that the producer was older, wiser and more powerful than the musicians.
Two recent albums have helped sweep away the few remaining shards of this ridiculous image, in large part because their producers are a whole generation younger than the artists they’re advising, and because the artists are already legends in the recording industry. The first of the albums was Mavis Staples’ You Are Not Alone, on which Jeff Tweedy of Wilco — 28 years her junior — has the producer’s credit (he wrote a few songs and played some guitar as well). In a way, it felt like he was curating as much as he was producing and participating, given Staples’ place in the soul canon and the reverence that Tweedy showed in all the interviews that accompanied the album’s release. The whole project had a wonderfully positive feeling to it, and the album itself is fantastic (I wrote a short post about it last May).