If you happened to run into Brad Paisley at Gene’s Health Food, or Keith Urban at the Healthpark in the early 2000’s, you can thank Steve Chandler for that. As Director of Entertainment at the former Executive Inn, Steve booked the concerts in the Showroom Lounge for a span of around 10 years. “Brad and (his wife) Kimberly were always very health-conscious. Brad wanted to work out every day so I’d take them over to the Healthpark the day of the show.” Keith Urban and Randy Travis were a few more who Steve drove to work out at the Healthpark before concerts at the Showroom Lounge.
Steve refers to many of the biggest names in music by first name like they’re old friends. Not in a boastful way. Far from it. But when you’ve spent 40 years involved in various aspects of the music industry, you cross paths with some big names. “Hitmakers” as they’re called in Nashville.
These days, Steve is primarily a sound engineer, meaning he spends his days recording songs
for record labels or music producers in various studios around Nashville. “I do everything from tracking, to overdubs, mixing and editing,” he explained. He’s one of the main engineers for Rounder Records (Allison Kraus, Steve Martin, Ricky Skaggs). He’s also gotten calls from Curb Records, Capitol Records, and RCA.
Steve may or may not be the last person to record Merle Haggard before Haggard passed last April. He recorded George Thorogood (“Bad to the Bone”) and Keith Whitley in the former Electric Arts studio on 2nd Street here in Owensboro. Throughout his career, Steve has worked on projects with BJ Thomas, Billy Joe Royal, Vince Gill, Wynonna, Dolly Parton, Trace Adkins, Gene Watson, Crystal Gayle, and Joe Diffie, to name a few. “Merle Haggard is probably my favorite though. I always enjoyed working with him. What I liked about Merle is he didn’t have an ego. He was easy to work with. We’d go hang out on his bus all afternoon and he’d tell stories before we recorded.”
But even though he spends his weekdays working with a talented roster of famous artists, you can still find the two-time Grammy Award winner behind the sound board at Owensboro Christian Church just about every weekend. It’s there that he mixes the sound for Saturday night and Sunday services, even though Steve and his wife relocated to Nashville 20 years ago. “I enjoy this. It gets me out of the Nashville scene once a week.”
Steve’s passion for recording can be traced back to his time playing in local bands, namely The Mags and Midwest, which both enjoyed regional success in the ‘70s. Midwest opened for Jefferson Airplane once, and recorded a 45rpm record, an experience which served as a good launchpad for Steve’s transition to the other side of the sound board. The other members of Midwest (Bobby Blackford, Larry Evans, Larry Maglinger, Bill Lewis) pursued music, but Steve started tinkering with recording and never looked back. “Larry (Maglinger) and I got into recording at the same time. We had a little two track recorder in a basement, and that’s how I got started learning the craft.”
Steve says he has noticed what he learned in those early days has come full circle with recent technology. “Back then, you had to learn a lot about signal to noise and dynamic range. With technology today, it’s still important to learn how to use dynamic processors like compressors and limiters correctly. So I think I was blessed to have learned it on the real thing, because I still use those same concepts today when I set thresholds with a plugin on a computer desktop.”
Steve’s career took a major step forward when he had the opportunity to be a sound engineer at legendary steel guitar player and producer Pete Drake’s studio in Nashville. “That was about the same time RCA closed their studio in Nashville, so Al Pachucki – who recorded Elvis’ records – also came to work with Pete,” Steve recalls. “It was interesting. I learned a lot from those guys. And it really opened the door for me to work on some other major label projects after that.”
When another opportunity presented itself, Steve purchased the Goodman Studio in Madisonville, which he brought to Owensboro, renamed Electric Arts, and ran with his old friends and partners Bobby Blackford, Hank Starks, and Gordy Wilcher. Electric Arts afforded Steve a way to record in Owensboro as well as Nashville.
It meant a lot of miles traveling back and forth between Nashville and Owensboro, but that has become the norm for Chandler. With his growing connections in the Nashville music scene, the Executive Inn contracted Steve to book shows in the Showroom Lounge. “I would book shows for the E, and sometimes run the stage sound or front of house or whatever was needed.”
During those years, Steve would work out of his office at the E on Thursdays, work the shows over the weekend, then drive back down to Nashville on Monday to work for a few days. “The Nashville acts loved playing Owensboro because they could be back home in their own bed that night instead of riding on the bus all night long for another show. Charlie Daniels used to love it so much he’d come up here and do a one-off. But those Nashville connections I made down there and at the E really helped my career, and vice versa.”
A great example of that is the Black Crowes concert that Steve booked at the Sportscenter in March of ‘08. The Crowes’ management called Steve because they were routing through the area and needed a show on a certain night. “We sold 3,500 tickets that night. Every hotel in this town was booked and every bar was busy.” Or like the time Joe Cocker’s manager called and said a show had fallen through and he needed to fill a hole in the schedule that was only three weeks away. The Showroom Lounge was a win-win.
Looking back on 40 years of recording, Steve still grins when he thinks about the good ol’ days of 16- or 24-track 2-inch tape at Electric Arts; the kind on a big reel you had to move forward and backward by hand. Most musicians agree that tape has the most authentic, warm sound. “That was and still is my favorite to use, but not many people use tape anymore because it’s so expensive. But with computers the way they are today, there is a convenience. Now you can take your whole album home on a flashdrive, and it’s so easy to send files back and forth from one studio to the next. If I’m working with a session musician or background singer, I can literally send it to their house, they can record it at home, send it back, and we’ll mix it in the studio.”
As we finished the interview, Steve leaned over to adjust a knob on the digital console in the soundbooth overlooking the sanctuary at Owensboro Christian, his glasses low on his nose and his eyes on the stage. How do you summarize 40 years?
“It’s been a blessing to get to work with some of the greatest there is and to get to know them personally. Not that I’m great. It’s just that I’ve been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in a lot of cases. It’s a blessing, but it’s nothing I did.”
What Actually Happens in a Recording Studio?
Most radio listeners make the assumption that the band you see on stage is the same band who records the songs in the studio. That may be likely for rock bands, but by Steve’s estimation, 90% of the hits on country radio are actually recorded by what are called “session musicians.” So while a touring band accompanies the artist on the road, these musicians are hired by the label to record with the artist in the studio.
“These guys are fantastic. Session guys can read charts (using the “Nashville number system,” a sort of short hand for reading music) so you can hand them a chart, play the demo once or twice, and in most cases I can hit red (record) and they can go!”
Speaking in very general terms, the way a Nashville studio session works is this: When a record label is ready for an artist to record another song or album, either the label or artist calls the engineer (like Steve) to coordinate dates. The label hires a producer, who names a session leader, and then books a studio somewhere in Nashville for a set amount of hours. The session leader lines up session musicians. Usually the producer gathers the songs from Nashville songwriters for the artist to choose from when recording the album. The session leader charts the songs with instructions for session musicians so they are ready to rock when they get there.
The whole process is usually very collaborative. The producer trusts the session leader, who trusts the session musicians, who respect the artist. The artist contributes input and usually gets their way if they have suggestions, but the producer has final say.
Steve’s job as a sound engineer is to run the soundboard, adjusting the knobs and sliders to get the best recording of each instrument and voice. He says the collaboration in the studio is what he enjoys most about engineering. “If producers know you and your work, they’ll ask your opinion about certain things and trust you.” On occasion, he serves as producer for the recording session as well. “I enjoy producing because I like the human element to it. I enjoy interacting with artists and musicians and seeing what we can come up with.”