Interview: Shel Talmy on why The Waymores are his first country production

Credit: Lindsay Garrett

The Waymores bring classic country duet sounds to the current generation of listeners.

Anyone with the slightest interest in the music of the last sixty years will be familiar with the name Shel Talmy through his role as producer and arranger of groundbreaking tracks by The Kinks, The Who, and David Bowie in the ‘60s, plus a whole raft of other production work from then until today. The Waymores are Kira Annalise and Willie Heath Neal who are not only married, but they have a shared vision to bring the sound of the classic country duets of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, and George Jones and Tammy Wynette, filtered through a modern lens, to today’s generation of country and americana listeners.  The Waymores are releasing their second album, ‘Greener Pastures’, recorded at Johnny Lee Schell’s studio and produced by the legendary Shel Talmy. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with The Waymores and Shel Talmy to discuss the new album and take the opportunity to get Shel Talmy’s view of his work in the ’60s and how his skills are still relevant in the digital streaming world of the 2020s. While he may be 86, Shel Talmy confirms that The Waymores ‘Greener Pastures’ is the first full country album he has produced and arranged, and while he made it clear he is going to keep working, he was adamant he has no plans to move to Nashville because of the humidity. Finally, he explained he is not planning to retire because he equates that with dying, and he is not ready for either yet.

How are you and where are you?

Kira Annalise (KA): Willie and I are in Atlanta, Georgia, and Shel is out in California.

Shel Talmy (ST): The wonders of modern technology.

Willie Heath Neal (WHN): Especially when it works.

Why look back to the great country duet acts of the ‘60s and ‘70s for inspiration?

WHN: It just kind of naturally happened, I think. That is the beautiful thing about country music, that duets are such a part of the tradition, so it just kind of naturally happened for us. I don’t think we intentionally decided to do it, it just organically came about.

KA: I was always told in my early days of writing and playing to write about what you know, so love and heartache were pretty high up on the lists, and in country music, they are also pretty big on the list, and it just kind of worked out that it led to duets singing about heartbreak and love, and all those wonderful things.

Shel, I read that you have never worked with an act whose music you didn’t like. What drew you to the Waymores?

ST: Because I’d heard what they’ve done, and I liked what I heard, and on top of which, I’ve always wanted to do country music but never really had the opportunity. I’ve probably produced every genre in the world, up to that point, with the exception of country, or rap which I refuse to do.

You’ve had a very long career, Shel, what keeps you going?

ST: Why am I still doing it, well, I kind of equate retiring with dying, and I’m not ready to do either at the moment, besides the fact I really like being in a studio.

While the technology has changed, Shel, has your approach changed from when you recorded those legendary ‘60s and ‘70s sides?

ST: There are certain things that have to happen when you are working in the studio and you are recording either a soloist or a band, which have to do with arrangements and how you mic everything. That’s not changed, and I seriously doubt it ever will. I’m aware of the new technology, some of it is OK and some of it is not. I’m still doing what works.

Who selected the songs and covers for ‘Greener Pastures’?

ST: Fortunately, Kira and Willie wrote some damn good songs, which made life a lot easier, and what I’ve always done and I did with them was arrangements, to make sure they all sounded the best. And I think they all came out sounding great.

KA: Originally Shel had sent us about ten old standards, that hadn’t been covered by anybody in like forty years, and he said any of these would make a good hit today. So, out of the gate, Willie and I were only there to record two songs with Shel, and we picked ‘Under Your Spell’ and Marty Robbins’  ‘Don’t Worry’. When we were in the studio we realised it was something magical, and we all wanted to continue and we came back later to do the eight other tracks. Of the other eight tracks, there was only one cover, John Prine’s ‘You’ve Got Gold’. We actually had another cover song in mind and then Shel sent us that and said let’s do this, and man, if you put a John Prine song in front of Willie and me there’s no saying go to it, we are on it immediately. Shel told us how he wanted to make it a duet and who was singing what part, and what’s funny is that once he’d told us we were doing the duet we started working it up immediately and we got it completely backwards because when we got to the studio Shel told us, “No, you’re not doing this part, you’re doing that part”.

ST: Don’t worry, it turned out the right way.

KA: That’s the reason Shel is the boss.

You have some great musicians on the album, who pulled the team together?

ST: Johnny Lee Schell who fortunately is my neighbour and whose studio we used, is one of the great guitarists who’s worked with Bonnie Raitt and a whole bunch of other people, and he and I are absolutely on the same page on how to record something which made things a lot easier. I’ve worked with Johnny Lee several times before, so I knew the musicians we were going to get, who are all top of the line, and in some ways, are a modern version of The Wrecking Crew.

KA: I’m really glad I never looked at anyone’s resume before walking into the studio because I would have been unbelievably terrified. This is a room that could have been filled with huge egos because they’ve worked with some of the greatest people out there, but they treated us as equals all of the time, they were unbelievably kind and very humble.

WHN: And they were very complimentary about the songs, there was no ego at all.

ST:  All really nice guys, I knew them all and I’d used them before, so not a surprise to me.

WHN: The process was really neat to us, we had only imagined what it was like back in the Nashville A team days, we would talk about the intro and outros and Shel would approve or tell us what we were going to do, we’d discuss what was going to happen in the solo area, and then we would run through it and roll tape. All done live.

KA: Which was a first for us.

ST: I trusted both of them to get it because I knew they would having done the two songs we started with. I also knew what the musicians would do, so it was kind of a no-brainer to do it that way, and fortunately, it did work out.

Production can also be about psychology, did you use any to keep everyone on their toes?

ST: How about zero? I use psychology only when I have to, and only with people who have an IQ of around 50, and this wasn’t the case, so it wasn’t a problem.

You said you always wanted to make a country record, Shel.

ST: Yes, I’ve always wanted to make a country record and I’ve always liked country, and I’ve done country in a minor way before, but this is the first kind of country thing I’ve ever done.

You achieved your ambition, did you learn anything new from the experience?

ST: I think I’ve been at it too long to learn a whole lot. I set out as a recording engineer, so that’s my background, and technically I’m up with what’s going on and what stuff should happen, and the only thing I did was what I normally do with a good group that I’m working with. We started with going over the songs and working on the arrangements and making sure everybody is happy with the way it is going to turn out.

WHN: I learned a lot.

KA: We learned a lot from everybody in the room. We made an agreement early on that whatever Shel says goes, because number one he’s Shel Talmy, and number two, he’s Shel Talmy.  We would send Shel demo tracks of the songs we wrote, and Shel would send back arrangements or ideas, and we were pretty stunned by some of the ideas and arrangements at first and we were thinking this doesn’t make any sense at all, then when we played it, it was like o my God, that’s why he is Shel Talmy.

WHN: That was my big thing when we went to the studio with the arrangements and the notes on the arrangements he’d given us, I was like, I don’t know how this is going to work. But as Kira said, this is Shel Talmy, so we will shut our mouths and just do it. When the band played the arrangement it was just brilliant, it was just hard to imagine and hear it in your head, but once it was played it was brilliant.

KA: It sure changed our way of writing, because now we know where Shel was coming from with some of those arrangements, and we will definitely put those scores on some of the future songs we write.

ST: Thank you for all that, I do appreciate it. My only reply is that I’ve been at it a long time, and I’ve got a fair idea of how a thing should sound that’s going to come out.

WHN: One of the favourite things that happened with Shel was being in the room with those guys I was having a hard time finding my voice. I’ve been around a long time and I’ve sung a lot but those songs were so new to us it wasn’t as if we’d written and performed those songs out and found our footing. I was going over a part with the guys singing at a very low volume and Shel called me over and told me he wanted me to sing in my speaking voice and sing just like that, and boom, it was an epiphany, Shel told me I was trying too hard and just sing as if I was talking and it really pulled me into the moment. I mean, that John Prine song really gave me a fit for a while because I’d spent so much time learning the other part, but these have probably been the easiest vocal tracks in all my years of recording.

ST: Brilliant, I’m pleased to hear that. I’d known the song but when I reheard it I thought, man,  this is just perfect for you guys.

KA: It has been fun getting it to fruition, and we are so happy to have it in our permanent repertoire

WHN: Keith Sykes, John Prine’s friend and co-writer, reached out to us and gave us his blessing, and he told us it was the best cover of the song he’d heard, except for John’s of course. That was really special.

ST: And I was really pleased to hear that, and it was a nice boost for me to hear.

Shel, you made some legendary records in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including The Who and The Kinks and others, that are now part of music and social history. What did it feel like at the time, did you realise how significant those recordings were’?

ST: I think the best way to express it is that the really big hits were no-brainers, I knew immediately they were hits. The best example I can give is that Ray Davies is a very prolific writer, he’d go home and the next day could come back having written nine or ten new songs. On one of those days, we were running through the songs he had brought back and one of them was ‘Sunny Afternoon’, and I think I literally heard the first four or five bars of that song and I was like, stop, that’s our next number one. It was a no-brainer, it was perfect.

Are any more productions planned, Shel?

ST: Sure, I’m still working. There’s a band here in town that we going into the studio with shortly, It is easily the best band in California, and maybe even in the rest of the country, and the singer in many people’s opinions should have been a superstar already, but he’s not. I hope that will change with this LP we are going to do.

So you are not planning to move to Nashville then, Shel?

ST: No.

WHN: Nobody blames you for that.

ST: For openers, it’s too humid.

WHN: We always like to say Nashville is to music like Detroit is to the automotive industry now.

ST: That’s not a bad comparison. I grew up in Chicago, I know all about humidity and I don’t want to live in a humid place.

Any plans to bring ‘Greener Pastures’ to the UK?

KA: We are working on plans for some German dates in March  2024, so we will do Germany and Europe. We had a UK tour planned right when the pandemic hit.

WHN: It was supposed to be our second tour of the UK and the demand was there but everything just went bad.

KA: But, hopefully, in 2024 we’ll be able to fit a little run in the UK.

ST: You know, I spent seventeen years there, and it was almost completely enjoyable the entire time. I think every place has a downer or two, whether you like it or not. Whatever, I really enjoyed living there it was good fun, and the English are terrific. I made lots of good friends who are still there and I keep in touch with them.

KA: You usually get a better reception in the UK and Europe than you do in the United States.

ST: That’s interesting, do you have any reason why that is?

KA: They honour artists a lot more over there than they do over here, that’s just our experience. I’m not saying we haven’t had great shows and great people here in America. Obviously, that’s where we live and we’ve had a great turnout and a great reception, but every show over there was nearly sold out.

WHN: Another part of that is I know country music is really popular over there, and they have bands who play it very well, but they know if you are not from the United States and not from the South you are not authentic country. So, I think that it is also come see the hillbillies.

ST: You are absolutely correct. While they play it very well, it isn’t how country music should be heard.

WHN: There are some really good country bands over there but I think in their minds they think they play really good country music but they think they are not authentically country because of location.

KA: Whatever it is, we’ll take it because we really enjoy playing over there.

ST: I’ll be interested to hear how you get on in Germany, I haven’t been there for a while, but they loved rock & roll and all the other stuff. Whether they still do or not, I don’t know, it has been a while since I was over there.

WHN: We have several friends touring Germany right now.

KA: Country music is really popular over there.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

WHN: We’ve just finished doing some dates with Summer Dean who has just put a new album out, and she is just fantastic.

KA: Not only is she an incredible songwriter and a great performer, she is a powerhouse of a woman. I had to take one or two months off because of my health before we went out with her, and it was incredible for me as a female in this industry to just come back and watch her on stage and see how comfortable she is, and just how she performs for her specific audience. She’s been on the playlist for a while. Her new album is called ‘The Biggest Life’ and it has some great songs on it, one we play every night which I stole from it.

WHN: Bruce Robinson produced it and it is all analogue, there’s nothing digital on it. I’m not anti-digital, it saves a lot of time, but I think it is all about how you do it at the front end. We always have Dale Watson on the playlist. We have some Vincent Neil Emerson in there.

KA: Just because I like girl singers, Nikki Lane is really fantastic, and not only because of things on stage but she is doing a lot for the industry. She is putting on festivals and she has a vintage clothing store in Nashville. She is really good at helping other artists and helping people come up a little bit, as is Dale Watson, and Dale has helped us out a tun. Those are our three.

ST: I’ve heard Nikki Lane, and I didn’t know about her helping other people. It is nice to know it can still happen.

WHN: It’s weird, you can get a lot of people who are competitive.

KA: They want you to succeed but not more than they do.

ST: I’ve known a whole bunch like that, and I think the number is increasing. Over recent years there have been more artists expecting to be given data that other artists have worked years to collect, without any return on their part. I face it on a regular basis so I know what you are talking about. And I keep saying you guys need to get on the Grand Ole Opry.

KA: We’re with you on that, Shel.

WHN: That’s something we don’t have in our database yet.

KA: I have faith we will get there.

ST: If this LP grows like I think it will, you will get there.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

ST: Buy the LP.

NHW: And hopefully we will see you all soon.

KA: We’ve had a great time making this record, and I just hope you guys love it as much as we do, and we are working our butts off getting over there, so I hope we will see you real soon.

The Waymores ‘Greener Pastures is out on 25th August on Chicken Ranch Records.

About Martin Johnson 406 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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