Ween Producer Ben Vaughn Details the Making of ’12 Golden Country Greats’
Of all the adventurous things the rock band known as Ween has done over their career, recording a straight-up country album with legendary Nashville session musicians was probably the most surprising.
Their fans were already used to albums filled with a variety of eclectic stylistic changes, but staying in one genre for an entire record and abandoning their previous DIY recording methods was a big change even some Ween fans had a little trouble with. However, over time, the record has become an important and beloved part of the band's history.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the release of '12 Golden Country Greats,' Taste of Country talked to the record's producer, Ben Vaughn (current NPR Radio host and a noted performer with a diverse resume worth reading about), about the meeting of two very different worlds that occurred during the recording of this album.
How did you come to produce a country album by Ween?
I came in from the outside, with Ween. But, I had actually worked a lot in Nashville. I produced a record by Arthur Alexander [1993's 'Lonely Just Like Me'] and I used Gene Chrisman and Reggie Young and Spooner Oldham, you know, the list goes on. So I'd already worked with session guys down there, and I spent time writing songs in Nashville, working with Rodney Crowell and Gary Nicholson and folks like that. So, I was down there a lot, and that was the bridge, because the Ween guys, who I've known forever, knew that I was working with people that are on classic country records.
So how did you know the band?
I knew Ween because we're from the same area. I'm from New Jersey, and they're from New Hope, Pennsylvania, which is all kind of the Philadelphia area. So I've known those guys since they were teenagers. I guess they were still teenagers when I met them. I think I might have met them before their first album came out. It's one of those things, I've known them so long I can't remember how we first met.
So at some point they say to you, "We want to make a country record," and you say?
Well, they say, "And we want you to produce it." And I said, "OK, if we're gonna do this, let's do it the really classic way, you know, let's book Bradley's Barn and let's get Pig Robbins and Charlie McCoy and these guys together. Because, there was that great moment in the '60s where everybody went to Nashville to record, whether it was Bob Dylan, or Leonard Cohen, or even Buffy Sainte-Marie, people like that. When Ween came to me, it was like a flash in my mind: Well, this is one of those kind of records. Nobody does that anymore, a rock act going to Nashville. Those records -- and Charlie McCoy had a whole lot to do with those -- were so good, especially the Dylan records. You know, 'Blonde on Blonde' is a phenomenal record, and that's Pig Robbins playing those piano parts on 'I Want You,' Charlie McCoy playing bass. There's something so musical about those records, but they're not country records.
So exactly how did it all come together?
I got a hold of Clay Bradley, because I'm a writer with BMI, and he set the whole thing up for me. He was able to get Bradley's Barn, and Bobby Bradley to engineer. I went to the musician's union and made cold calls to all these guys. It's just so great working with those guys. There's no pretensions whatsoever, and they work so fast.
Did any of them have questions considering the band's reputation for, well, weirdness?
Well, basically the way I pitched it was, "I have a brother act coming in" [note: Aaron Freeman [Gene Ween] and Mickey Melchiondo [Dean Ween] are not related]. I figured that would help! Because Ween's reputation for being a little wild and strange was not going to help me get these guys in the studio and ready to do stuff. I basically told them, some of the material is blue, and I just want to tell you up front. We lost a couple of guys. I wanted Bobby Emmons to play keyboards along with Pig Robbins, and he passed because he's a deacon in his church and said, "I prefer not to work on blue material." One of the things we really wanted and we didn't get was Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass. They were Nashville's answer to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, three or four trumpets playing in unison, really great pop arrangements. We really like that stuff, but he wouldn't do it, either. You know, Ween, the great thing about those two guys, they really are huge country fans. It's completely sincere, their love for the music.
They seem like huge music fans in general.
They are fanatics. They are into Prince as much as they are into Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, and they both have huge record collections. So, they were real excited about getting the real guys on their record. And, you know, some of the songs were weird, and some of them had odd, blue lyrics that were a little offensive.
But there are some serious ones, too, like 'You Were the Fool.'
'You Were the Fool' is awesome. I love that tune. That's kinda hippie-country. I really love the bass line on that one. I remember when we were mixing it, we kept turning the bass up, and Bobby Bradley was saying, "Can you do that?" 'Cause, you know, in country music they don't keep turning the bass up until it becomes really loud, you know, like a Grateful Dead record or an R&B record -- they don't do that. Also, on 'Piss Up a Rope,' we ran Pete Wade's six-string bass through a moogerfooger, I think it was one of those electro-harmonix pedals, it's like a micro-synth or a moog simulator you run your guitar through. Ween use it on almost everything. When Mickey goes into a solo, and it starts getting strange sounding, he's usually going through, I think it's a ring modulator, is what it really is. So, we did a few things that those guys weren't used to hearing. But everybody was really supportive and they really gathered around these songs.
So getting back to the artists who said no, such as Davis, was it as soon as you told them it was blue, or did they hear the songs and then say no?
He goes, "Let me hear the stuff," and I sent him 'Mister Richard Smoker,' [laughs] 'cause that's the only one with horn arrangements, and he called me up and goes, "I can't do this, I can't do this!" So we had Charlie McCoy bring in a clarinet player, and he plays just a ton of instruments, but he played bass on a lot of the tunes. When we laid down the tracks, it'd be Pig Robbins or Bobby Ogdin on piano, and you would have Pete Wade playing guitar, and Charlie would play bass, then he would overdub harmonica. His harmonica playing is what he's most known for. He's on pretty much every hit record out of Nashville in the last 50 years. If it's got a harmonica part, it's Charlie McCoy. 'Candy Man' by Roy Orbison, all those kinds of things. If you google these guys, you'd have to give up after a while because there's too just many famous records.
Does Dean play guitar on this?
Only once. He plays the lead solo on 'I Don't Want to Leave You on the Farm.'
No kidding? So, otherwise, it's just vocals from them?
Well, that was the whole thing. I said to those guys, and we thought this was a funny way to do it, I said, "Let me be the a---hole producer, who tells you that you're not good enough to play on your own record, and we're bringing the A-Team in." And they said, "Oh, we love that. That's awesome. We always wanted someone to do that to us." So they were kind of living a dream that's usually a nightmare for everyone else.
So that's the only time they play instruments on the record?
Well, the lead solo on 'Fluffy' is actually Gene, double-tracked on top of himself, which was one of the stranger ... oh man, that song! That's when I really realized we had something, because to watch the A-list Nashville session guys chart out that song, and then run it down, was one of my favorite moments in my entire career in the business, because they were so serious about getting 'Fluffy' right, not knowing that we were going to slow down the track afterwards, and make it even slower, with Aaron's voice pitched down.
Do any other moments from the studio particularly stand out to you?
With 'You Were the Fool,' that was a great moment, too. Buddy Harman, this guy is definitely the most recorded drummer in country music. You know, we've got demos, we play the demo and Charlie McCoy would chart it out -- numbers charts, instead of putting down the actual chord names, he would put a one and a four, and back to a one and a five, in case we wanted to change keys. It's called the Nashville method. Actually, the Jordanaires [a famous country vocal group, pictured at the top of this article, who also appear on the record] invented that. Buddy hears [the demos] and goes, "You don't mind if I use my hands, do you?" Then he sat back there and started that beat, the whole things played with his hands. It was so innovative, and he felt it right away, through his musical filter and all those years of experience. And he did it, and it was great.
What happened to the Muhammad Ali quote that was at the end of 'Powder Blue?' It's missing from later pressings of the record.
Well you know, two things happened with that record that were really interesting, one was the Ali thing. On the demo that those guys recorded, they had Muhammad Ali at the end, and when we recorded 'Powder Blue,' Mickey said, "I really want to put that in there," and I said, the label's gonna have to get clearance for that. "Oh yeah, no problem!" So we stuck it in there, and we mixed the record, and then they went their way. The record came out, I got a copy and I thought, great. Then about a year later, somebody called me up and said, "Hey, I just bought that Ween record, and that Ali thing is not in there, and not only that, but the song just stops!"
Yeah, they did cut it off pretty harshly.
I asked Mickey, and he said Muhammad Ali's people found out about it, and yanked it. But the other thing is, 'Japanese Cowboy' too closely resembled 'Chariots of Fire' by Vangelis, and Vangelis' people sued, so when you look up the publishing information for 'Japanese Cowboy,' it's now a co-write with Vangelis.
Well, Ween had been mixing the two songs live in concert, so they must have realized it too.
Right, and that's when they got into trouble. It's funny about that song. We cut the record, and I decided, if we're going to go through with this concept where I'm taking an outside act to Nashville, and they're not even going to play on their own record, then I also have to be the guy on the last day of cutting, where I say, "I don't hear a single. You guys gotta go back to the hotel and write something and come back, 'cause this record's not complete." Which, I felt, actually, but it was also part of the joke. I truly felt there should be a song that they wrote in Nashville, inspired by being with the players. I wanted it to be the first song [on the record], and in typical Ween fashion, they started with a ballad instead of an uptempo number. Anyway, they went back to the hotel and they wrote that song real quick, on hotel stationary, and brought it back. I looked at it and said, "This is great. Let's cut it right now." We cut it real quick and the whole time I'm thinking, this melody sounds a little familiar. I never really figured it out until we finished the record and handed it in to the label.
What do you remember about the fan reaction to the record?
The interesting thing is, Ween fans tend to be purists about Ween, and country fans have a tendency to be purists, too. So when that record came out, it wasn't an immediate success with Ween fans. A lot of people were confused and a little bit angry about everything being in tune so perfectly. Are you familiar with the Neil Young record 'Trans'? Well, while we were making this record, we were saying this is Ween's 'Trans.' This is the one where fans are going to have to adjust and realize they're not going to get what they want every time, but they're going to end up loving it anyway. Country fans were appalled by it originally, and probably still are, because of the lyrical content of the record.
Do you think the experience shaped the band's later records?
It's hard to say. It must have. I think there's pedal steel on some stuff on [2000's] 'White Pepper.' But you know what? Those guys surprise me every time. Whenever there's a new Ween song to listen to, you can't have any expectations, because you don't know what it's going to be. It could sound like Ric Ocasek, or George Jones, or Prince, or Earth, Wind and Fire. Those guys are so amazing, so musical. I'm really proud of that record. It stands up, too. It sounds great no matter when I hear it.
Watch Ween Perform 'You Were the Fool' From '12 Golden Country Greats'