The passing of Ken Nelson, the former head of Capitol Records' country division, should not go unmentioned, especially at a time of such industry turmoil. Nelson, who died on January 6 at age 96, was a beatific, erudite contrarian who, despite a pop and classical-music background, oversaw the production of hundreds of hit records that not only solidified Hollywood's reputation as Nashville's leading midcentury competitor but also changed the entire tone of modern country music. He did it through an unusually low-key studio M.O. that created records with a distinctly vivid aural presence; where Owen Bradley's Nashville Sound was a lush, blended palette of atmospheric strings and choral vocals, Nelson's work presented crisp, clear instrumentation within a wide-open, uncluttered spatial backdrop.
He got into the business in Chicago, as a movie-house organist and dance-band vocalist and, later, as music director and announcer for WJJD's Chicago Symphony Orchestra broadcasts. After old pal Lee Gillette offered him a job at Capitol, he moved to Hollywood in 1948. The company named Nelson its chief country A&R man in '51, and in short order Hank Thompson's crucial “Wild Side of Life” became the first No. 1 hit in Nelson's flabbergasting 25-year run. With Nelson, Buck Owens alone cut 26 chart toppers, and Merle Haggard scored more than 30.
It was a dream gig. Los Angeles' freethinking, progressive country scene had an obscene amount of talent and Nelson reaped a bumper crop from it: He signed Jean Shepard, Ferlin Husky, Tommy Collins, Red Simpson; when he returned Wynn Stewart and Freddie Hart to Capitol, both enjoyed their greatest successes. In the 1960s, while Hollywood mavericks like Jimmy Bowen, Lee Hazlewood and Phil Spector were aggressively redefining the producer's role, Nelson just sat back and let the artists drive. His style was completely opposed to the Music City studio “A-Team” model — Nelson let the hillbillies use their own bands, and while Haggard would occasionally bring in James Burton or Al Bruno, it was his mainstay ax-man, Roy Nichols, who codified the sound of Haggard's backing band, the Strangers, on wax. Nelson even allowed semipros in the studio. (Rose Maddox used Bakersfield trapsman Henry Sharpe, telling him, “play it just like you do at the Blackboard.”)
Nelson, with Capitol's Cliffie Stone, controlled not only the roster's song publishing via their Central Songs firm but also their bookings and, while many felt the arrangement constituted an illegal monopoly, everybody got paid. Although Nelson enforced a mid-'60s EMI-directed purge of the roster (“It was fucked,” the late Hank Thompson told me), his decades of consistent success underscore the desperation of EMI's current financial woes. Nelson's greatest gift was instinct; after he signed the leering, knife-toting and thoroughly brilliant rockabilly star Gene Vincent, he told the Country Music Reporter precisely what Nashville did not want to hear. Vincent's music, Nelson said, “is a definite type, has a sound all its own, and it should stay with us for a long time… It's as easily identifiable as Dixieland jazz, and as in the case of jazz, it will always have people who like it, and artists for whom the field is natural.” That took guts in 1956, and Nelson meant it.
With EMI's 2,000-employee layoff announcement last week, chairman Guy Hands stressed that the company will invest more in its A&R operations. He'd be well advised to study the methods of the record man who helped to solidify Capitol's place in the market. Nelson's last public appearance in California was at a 2006 Vincent tribute, and for those witnessing his reunion with Dickie “Be-Bop” Harrell, a 300-pound, mullet-topped redneck rock & roll gorilla, it was clear that Nelson didn't merely exploit talent – he genuinely gave a damn.