David 'Ferg' Ferguson Talks Johnny Cash, John Prine, New Solo Album - Rolling Stone
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David Ferguson, Friend to John Prine and Johnny Cash, Is the Keeper of Nashville Secrets

Cowboy Jack Clement’s right hand and a pal to legends like Waylon Jennings and modern-day rebels like Sturgill Simpson steps out with a solo album

David Ferguson

Producer David "Ferg" Ferguson is the keeper of Nashville secrets. He just released an album as a solo artist.

Scott Smiontacchi*

When David Ferguson turned 21, he could finally start drinking with Don Everly. The year was 1983, and the aspiring Tennessee roadie had recently started working as an “errand boy” at the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, Cowboy Jack Clement’s magically chaotic and frequently dysfunctional recording studio that served as a musical refuge, clubhouse and playpen for Clement’s ragtag friends: Everly, John Prine, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash, among them.

Everly’s favorite drinking pals were Cowboy Jack’s publishing administrator Bob Webster and the producer Jim Rooney. Eventually they invited Ferg along. “We would all go to Brown’s Diner and drink beer in the afternoon,” Ferguson says. “And after we were done drinking beer, about five or six, we would all modulate, go down the road to a place called Faison’s and start drinking liquor, vodka.”

Such is the experience of talking with the storied errand boy, studio engineer, producer, and recording artist Dave Ferguson (pals call him “Fergie” or “The Ferg”), where offhand stories about bygone Nashville legends like Johnny Cash and Tom T. Hall flow freely, and brief tangents can feel like secret histories of popular music. “The Ferg is a bona fide, card-carrying legendary hillbilly genius,” as Sturgill Simpson has put it. “And when he talks you better shut up and listen.”

Everly and Hall were just two of the legends Ferguson spoke lovingly about during a series of interviews with Rolling Stone earlier this summer. That both singers died just weeks later speaks to the way in which Ferg becomes more and more a man filled with memories of and grief over his late cohort of Nashville legends. He shrugs off, however, any sort of “Last Man Standing” hyperbole.

“I’m maybe one of the last connections to a small group of people,” he says. “That circle’s getting smaller all the time… But there’s still a lot of ‘old Nashville’ around, a lot of old guys who have been around here and doing it a long time. I don’t really think about stuff like that at all. I really don’t. I just try to get on with it. I try to show up when I’m booked. I try to do my job. I don’t think about it that much, but I do miss those guys. I miss Johnny. I miss Cowboy. I miss John Prine. I miss John Hartford. I miss Jimmy Martin. The list is huge.”

At 59, Ferg is a full generation younger than the artists like Waylon and Johnny he befriended in the Eighties. He helped document — in and out of the studio — that generation of stars during a period after their fame had receded but before the mystique surrounding them had hardened into mythology. No one might have ever seen the footage of Cash lighting up a cigarette as he lays down with his head resting on A.P. Carter’s Virginia gravestone (this happens in the wackadoodle Clement documentary Shakespeare Was a George Jones Fan) if Ferg hadn’t been there to film it on a camcorder.

It is, in part, those connections to this long-lost period of country music history that has endeared Ferguson as a collaborator, mentor, and honky-tonk guru for a group of artists a generation younger than him. In recent years, he’s worked on records by Simpson, Kurt Vile, Will Oldham, Margo Price, and Tyler Childers. He’s become an integral part of Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Studio musical team, producing albums by Early James, John Anderson, and Kendell Marvel. The birthday parties he throws at his house outside Nashville in Goodlettsville with guitarist Matt Sweeney, who shares his July birthday, have become local legend: Chris Stapleton, Simpson, Auerbach have all shown up.

“We have had some mean parties out here,” Ferguson says from his home studio. “Actors, shit, people. Drunks. Party animals. You never know.”

Auerbach and Price, along with stalwarts like Sierra Hull, Béla Fleck and Tim O’Brien, showed up to play on Nashville No More, Ferguson’s new solo album. Ferg has released work under his own name before: a 1999 album of truck-driving songs (under the name Fergie & the Steelheads) that he’d like to forget; a 2012 recording of Cowboy Jack covers that finally saw a limited release earlier this year. But Nashville No More, recorded and compiled in large part during the pandemic, feels, to Ferguson, like his proper debut.

“I told [Ferg] years ago that he had a good voice and should make a record on himself,” says Jack “Stack-A-Track” Grochmal, the engineer who mentored Ferguson at Cowboy Jack’s Cowboy Arms in the Eighties. “He always really wanted to be the engineer.”

 

Nashville No More comprises folk standards Ferguson thought his mom would like to hear him sing (“Hard Times Come Again No More,” “Four Strong Winds”), Guy Clark covers (“Boats to Build”), and little-heard gems he’s picked up over the years like Pat McLaughlin’s “Knocking Around Nashville” and Roger Cook’s “Chardonnay.” “It’s a love song to a glass of wine,” Ferg says of the latter tune. “Me being an old drunk, [I thought], ‘Shit, perfect!’”

After a lifetime of working on other records (Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Iris DeMent’s Lifeline, Loretta Lynn’s 2016 Christmas album), recording himself singing was a strange if not fully pleasant adjustment for Ferguson.

“I don’t know anybody that longs to hear themself singing,” he says of the experience. “Man, I was so sick of me, I could puke.”

David Ferguson can trace his country music heritage back to his grandfather, a singer and guitarist who had a country band in the Fifties by the name of Pat Jones and the Tennessee Pioneers. Eventually, Jones became a housepainter to support and raise his grandchildren.

By the time Ferg was a teenager, he knew he wanted to spend his life in music, somehow, anyhow. He started out as a roadie, which eventually got him work at the renowned guitar shop Old Town Pickin’ Parlor, which gave Ferg a glimpse of the rock & roll world he had always dreamed of. He would deliver guitars to venues after touring artists passing through Nashville had dropped by the Parlor to have their instruments repaired. “Hell, I got to meet Grace Slick,” says Ferguson.

After a while, Ferg found himself working construction when he got a call from an old colleague asking if he wanted to run errands for eccentric Nashville producer-songwriter-artist Cowboy Jack Clement, the man who discovered Jerry Lee Lewis and wrote some of Johnny Cash’s earliest hits at Sun Records.

“Hell yeah,” he remembers thinking. “Anything’s better than this construction shit.”

Ferg showed up to Clement’s house, site of the Cowboy Arms, for his interview. He spoke with some of Clement’s people, it went well enough, and afterward, Ferg asked an assistant if he could use the bathroom. When he left the bathroom, he saw a drunk man staggering down the hallway, crashing into the walls at each step. Taken aback by such a sight at 10 o’clock in the morning, Ferg asked the assistant about the inebriated man.

“Who is that old drunk guy walking down the hall?” he asked. “That’s the boss,” was her reply.

It was the first time he ever met Cowboy Jack Clement.

The next decade-plus of Ferg’s career proceeded in a similar fashion. He spent enough time hanging around and making himself useful that he eventually earned the trust of everyone in Cowboy’s inner circle.

“I guess they realized I was a party animal after a while,” he says, “and they had me join the party.”

At nights Ferguson often stopped partying and started working, sneaking into the studio upstairs so he could learn his way around a control room. Clement’s go-to engineer at the time was Grochmal —  A “genius engineer,” says Ferg, and a record industry legend in his own right. Grochmal taught him the basics: how to get enough level on the tape, how to wrangle analog sound, to have imagination and character in a mix, and, most importantly, to always keep the tape rolling.

“Ferg was a rambunctious guy,” says Grochmal, now retired and living in Florida. “I saw a lot of myself in him, so I would show him little shortcuts, how to do things. He took it from there, grabbed it and learned it.”

 

The Cowboy Arms days provided Ferg with a lifetime’s worth of too-surreal-to-be-true Nashville yarns, like the time in 2011 when the studio was lost to a fire. “I got the call from Aleene, Jack’s lady. She says, ‘Ferg, the house is on fire and I can’t wake Jack up.’ I said, ‘Oh shit,’ so I jump in my car and I went down there real fast. I got there and there was flames 50 feet coming out the window of the place, and Jack was outside in his robe watching his house burn.”

“What are you feeling, Mr. Clement?” Ferg remembers a news reporter asking the 80-year-old as the smoke raged on. Clement pulled out a ukulele and responded with a line he had written 53 years earlier. “I don’t like it,” he sang, “but I guess things happen that way.”’

Ferguson’s life changed yet again in the early Nineties, when Rick Rubin began working with Cash on his American Recordings. Cash, unsure of himself and out of his element in Los Angeles, insisted that Ferguson come along to help. “Johnny kind of forced me down Rick’s throat,” Ferg says.

Ask Ferguson what recording he’s most proud of having worked on in his 40-plus year career, and he hesitates: It’s Cash’s recording of Hank Williams’ “On the Evening Train,” from the Rubin sessions.

Then there’s John Prine, who provided one of the defining relationships of Ferguson’s life. Prine taught Ferguson Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” a gorgeous version of which he included on Nashville No More. Ferg remembers the song from back when the duo was talking about making a gospel record together in the late 2000s that, sadly, never got made.

“Every time we had lunch, for the longest time, it was, ‘When are we gonna make our gospel record?’” says Ferguson.

“I miss Prine really bad,” Ferg says at one point.

This rare dose of sentimentalism comes about when Ferg is thinking back, trying to single out a most magical musical moment he ever witnessed. It isn’t too hard to choose: “I guess it’s when I was recording Johnny and Waylon just singing stuff together,” he says.

The guys would show up in Clement’s office and Ferguson would make himself scarce in the corner of a room while Clement, Cash and Jennings started singing their favorite old songs together: “Black Jack David,” “Deep Ellem Blues,” “Wabash Cannonball,” “You Get a Line, I’ll Get a Pole.”

“Those days,” Ferg says with a shrug, “are gone, I guess.”

But Ferg is not a nostalgic man. He’s grateful that he’s able to see friends again, at least more than he did last year. He’s eager to get back to the studio and already has several projects in the works. One is an album on singer-songwriter Brit Taylor that he’s making with Simpson; another is for the West Virginia band the Davisson Brothers that he’s producing with Brent Cobb.

There’s so much more Ferguson still wants to do, and, at 59, he sees no reason he can’t. He longs to work with Van Morrison and is absolutely convinced he could shake him out of his late-career stupor.

But recording another album of his own songs? Ferg isn’t having it. He views the notion that someone might enjoy hearing a recording of their own voice as near psychopathic.

“It’s like an actor going to the movies to watch himself,” he says. “That’s feeding an unfillable ego, an unquenchable thirst for one’s self.” Ferguson laughs. “Anyway, I don’t long to do more.”

For now, he prefers to return to where he’s always thrived: on the other side of the control room glass, making sure the tape is rolling.

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