When Mickey Jack Cones moved to Nashville in 1996, he was a twentysomething Texan who'd already spent more than half his life onstage. As a pre-teen, he had landed a gig playing guitar in his mom's vocal group, opening for bands like the Platters along the way. Later, he became the leader of his own group, as well as a bar band that played George Strait and Coolio covers on the Texas dancehall circuit. It was a good gig, but Cones eventually decided to focus on a different skill — studio work — by leaving town, heading to Tennessee and enrolling in Belmont University's production program.
The day he registered for classes, Cones grabbed lunch at Planet Hollywood, which had opened up its short-lived Nashville location earlier that summer. He walked inside, ordered a burger and made small talk with his waiter, another twentysomething musician named Will Hoge.
"Will was in a band at the time called Spoonful," Cones remembers. "We started talking and I told him I was looking for work. He was like, 'Wait, you need a job, man?' and brought me upstairs to talk to his manager, who gave me the job on the spot. So I waited tables at Planet Hollywood while finishing up college at Belmont."
By the time Planet Hollywood closed its Nashville doors for good in 2001, Cones had ditched the waiting job and made a name for himself as an up-and-coming studio wiz. He was a meticulous engineer, but he also knew how to sing, which meant he could occupy the no-man's land that sometimes existed between musicians and the people who recorded them. If a vocalist wasn't nailing the right harmonies, Cones didn't just tell them to try it again — he showed them what he was looking for.
More than a decade later, he's racked up a handful of Number 1 hits that straddle the line between country's traditionalist roots and new-school upgrades. Between recording sessions for Joe Nichols' new record, Cones found time to talk with Rolling Stone Country about crashing at Steven Tyler's place in Maui, sneaking a slide ukulele solo into one of the year's biggest country songs and working with a particularly testy Mötley Crüe.
You began playing shows in Texas as a 10-year-old. Did you start recording your own music that young, too?
I was always recording myself. As a teenager, I did the thing where you take a couple of tape decks and sing into a pair of headphones because you don't have a microphone. Eventually, recording became just as fulfilling as playing onstage. I'm so OCD about things. There's a live element to your shows, which is great, but when you can go back and perfect something in the studio, which is the way you'd always meant it to sound… That's more comforting.
Who'd you look to for cues?
People like Mutt Lange, who was great at simplifying something and giving it a good place on a record. Don Henley said, "Producing is knowing what to mute." Mutt Lange was a genius at that. You don't have to leave a guitar track in there for the whole three minutes. You don't even have to play all the notes on a guitar chord — you can just simplify a power chord by recording one note, then going back and recording the fifth. That gives the guitar more room to resonate, rather than playing all six strings at once.
Tell us about working with Mötley Crüe.
That was in 2005. Desmond Child asked me to engineer their session at Ocean Way. One of the things they were doing was a new version of "Home Sweet Home," with Chester Bennington of Linkin Park singing some vocals. It was eye-opening — not only just to be there, but also to see the dynamic of the band. They each had their own manager. It was like, 'Vince won't come in and sing while the others are playing, because he hates them.' That kind of crazy thing. They each had to have their own room at Ocean Way, which made it feel like having four different bands.
Dustin Lynch's "Where It's At (Yep Yep)" was a Number One hit in 2014. How did things go during that session?
He's known for "Cowboys and Angels." He's one of the traditional guys. With "Where It's At," we were looking to create a live energy in Dustin's shows, which he didn't really have during his tour with Keith Urban. Before we cut it, the musicians were standing around, kind of wanting to hear what the vibe was going to be. I told them, "Think Sugar Ray. Top down, sitting back, playing music on a porch." Having fun with that song was key. There's some programming in there, and the drums are locked to a grid, but it's also earthy and raw with acoustic instruments, real drums, a B3… and a slide ukulele solo.
For my 40th birthday I went to Maui and stayed at Steven Tyler's house for a couple of days. My fiancé at the time, Shannon, bought me a ukulele as a present. It was really expensive, and I said, "Babe, why are you spending so much money on this? I promise, I'm gonna put this on a record and make it worth your while." Later, Dustin called me to ask what sort of solo we wanted to put on "Where It's At" — he was thinking about a soaring guitar solo or something — and I said, "You're gonna laugh, but what about this ukulele instead?"
What about Joe Nichols' "Yeah?"
Ah, Joseph! We had a three-week Number One hit with that. It's so special because I co-produced "Yeah" with Tony Brown, who's a legendary producer, a genius of a man… He played piano with Elvis. Joe was in between deals at the time, and we were trying to save costs for him, so I was co-producing, engineering, singing all the background vocals, playing half the guitars, programming, mixing. I did at least 22 tracks of background vocals, too. Those four sides got Joe the record label deal.
You've done a lot of collaboration when it comes to your work with Jason Aldean, too.
I've engineered a lot of his vocal sessions. Doing Aldean's stuff made me step up my game, because he's always been produced by Michael Knox, and that means I'm working in someone else's world — someone who's already had success. Aldean is an artist's artist to the Nth degree. There's no "discovering the direction" with him. He walks in, knows his stuff, knows his lyrics, sings them, sounds the way he sounds and leaves. He knows who he is. That makes it easy.
What do you bring to that team then?
Well, Michael Knox doesn't sing. He doesn't play. He has a different perspective, which is good, but there's also an advantage for him to have an engineer who can sing the melody or the harmony part. That helps everybody out. You don't want someone who says, "Wait, where does the bridge start? And what's a four minor?" It's funny — I was originally told I'd never work on those records, because Knox and Aldean had their thing going at [Nashville recording studio] Treasure Isle and it was working well for them. Then Jason came over to my home studio one day to listen to some background vocals that we'd tracked for "Dirt Road Anthem," and he looked around and was like, "Why aren't I recorded my own vocals here?" And now, I've been nominated for a Grammy for one of his records. It's a crazy job.