How a Memphis Engineer Became the Secret Weapon for John Prine, Margo Price
For most people, a simple handshake from John Prine could be considered a once-in-a-lifetime kind of gift. But for producer and engineer Matt Ross-Spang, his Prine prize came in the form of something a lot more permanent — and one that requires oil, not vodka and ginger ale, to keep chugging.
“Every day he would drive a different Cadillac to the studio,” says Ross-Spang, sitting at an East Nashville coffee shop and recalling Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness sessions. Ross-Spang engineered the project alongside producer Dave Cobb, and he’d often admire Prine’s impressive collection of antique cars when they weren’t busy recording or eating fried chicken. “He could tell I was really into them, so when we finished he said, ‘Did you ever find yourself an old car? Well, quit looking. I’m giving you my 1993 red Cadillac Eldorado.’ I drive it every day. I’m going to get ‘How Lucky’ as the license plate.”
“How Lucky” is the song that Ross-Spang would eventually re-record with Prine for his “Produced By” series for Amazon, a collection that also included a new track from Margo Price, the psych-twang “Leftovers.” It’s also of particular importance for the Memphis-based Ross-Spang, as it comes from Prine’s 1979 LP Pink Cadillac, an album produced and recorded at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis, where Ross-Spang now makes his musical home. And as Cobb is one of Nashville’s central figures when it comes to Americana and non-assembly-line country, Ross-Spang is his West Tennessee equivalent: working with everyone from Price and Prine to Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and now Josh Ritter, Ross-Spang has become one of the most trusted arbiters of the modern Memphis sound, where it’s as important to have soul as it is to let the music itself breathe and stretch.
That’s because when it comes to a mastery of the history of Memphis music and its legendary studios, few know the ins and outs at well as Ross-Spang. As a guitar-noodling 14-year-old, his parents gifted him two hours of time at Sun Studio. But instead of gleaning future lead singer stardom from those legendary walls, he found more mystique in the consoles, particularly through Sun engineer James Lott.
“He had a beret, cussed and smoked like a sailor,” Ross-Spang recalls. “He was this cartoon character, and treated us like we deserved to be there when we totally didn’t. I never saw myself as a hotshot guitar player, but when I saw him working the board I thought, ‘Holy shit, I want to do that.'” Ross-Spang came back to intern at Sun two years later, where he alternated learning the technical ropes with giving daily tours. It was there that he mastered the unsung side of production — the art of making an artist feel at home.
“Being at Sun was equal parts customer service,” he says. “I had to be welcoming and warm, and you need those same traits in the studio. It was a cool lesson to start learning the intricacies of the technical side while also learning the customer service side — when you have a singer come in from New York who never met you before, you are supposed to have them open their heart to you. It was a double lesson.”
Ross-Spang stayed at Sun until 2015 when he left his role as Chief Engineer & Operations Manager to go independent — spurred by a request from none other than Cobb and Isbell, to engineer Something More Than Free. So he quit Sun, and came to Nashville for a month to record. “Dave is from Georgia, Jason is from Alabama, and I’m from Memphis,” Ross-Spang says about their synchronicity. “We all come from the same musical place, and we all have the same heroes. It was a magical month.”
The same year, Ross-Spang took on a project with the locally beloved but relatively unknown musician Price and her husband-collaborator, Jeremy Ivey. He was an instant fan, and got to work on her debut solo record — the breakthrough Midwest Farmer’s Daughter — at Sun Studio.
“We went in at 11 at night, and we got along fantastically,” he says. “They like to record the same way I do. The thing about all these old studios, the people really make the place. You can go into FAME and one day have a great experience, and the next day it’s like a dentist office. [Price] wanted to be in an older studio, so it seemed to work out perfectly. She’s just a badass. She sounds amazing no matter what.”
Soon, Ross-Spang’s gamble to leave Sun for Sam Phillips Recording paid off: a Grammy for Something More Than Free (and eventually Isbell’s next album, The Nashville Sound), as well as credits on LPs for Amanda Shires (both My Piece of Land and this year’s To the Sunset), Lucero, Nicki Bluhm, Sean Rowe, Lori McKenna, Brent Cobb and Luther Dickinson. Artists have gravitated to him for his encyclopedia-like knowledge of Memphis and soul music history, for his penchant to embrace live recording and his empathetic demeanor in the studio. Americana and country music in 2018 wouldn’t sound the same without the delicate imprint of Ross-Spang.
“Matt understood the vulnerability of the songs that would comprise this record,” says Bluhm, who enlisted Ross-Spang to record, produce and mix To Rise You Gotta Fall. “His perspective gave me the confidence I needed to go through with making such a personal record. In the studio Matt is a calm and quietly confident leader and I trusted him unwaveringly to produce the right band, the right vibe, the right sound and he delivered with skill and grace. His approach to recording is civilized. It’s not about late drunk nights; it’s about having a vision and executing it by having the right people in the room.”
For Ross-Spang, it’s all about that focus, and respecting the inherent principles of Memphis music and how imperative it is to let space seep in. “It’s all about patience and not overplaying. More not-playing than playing. A lot of times, you feel it more than you hear it,” he says.
“Matt brings with him such a wealth of musical knowledge that it’s impossible to not value his technical and emotional impression of your songs,” says McKenna. Ross-Spang engineered and mixed her 2016 LP The Bird and the Rifle. “He’s such a joy to have in the room. As an artist who doesn’t love being in the studio, Matt just brings a calming sense to the room for me.” Cobb agrees. “Matt truly cares about who you are deep down,” he says. “He looks and listens for that you to show and then he knows how to make it shine.”
For Amazon Originals’ “Produced By,” Ross-Spang also produced songs from kings of Memphis soul Al Green and William Bell, and he’s since completed work on the forthcoming “phenomenal” Mountain Goats LP alongside a new one from Eli Paperboy Reed.
Ross-Spang’s in Nashville this week, however, for work on the new Ritter project across town, which Isbell is producing and features his band, the 400 Unit, as the studio musicians. “Josh’s songs are incredible and Jason is a phenomenal producer,” he says. “And enough credit is not given to the 400 Unit: they are like the Heartbreakers or the E Street Band. They have a sound, and they are a unit. You can close your eyes and know who is playing.”
You might be able to know the 400 Unit from a few notes in — and that Prine-gifted Cadillac might be a giveaway when Ross-Spang is cruising around the streets of Memphis — but the engineer prides himself on being otherwise undetectable when it comes to actually queuing up his work. It’s a Memphis thing: you feel it more than you hear it.
“Being in the studio every day and creating something from nothing, that is the ultimate rush for me,” he says, getting ready to head back to work on the last stages of the Ritter project. “But I don’t want the focus to be on me at all. I don’t want you to listen to something and say, ‘That’s a Matt Ross thing.’ I want you to say, ‘That’s Margo Price.'”
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