Dan Auerbach Emerges As Prolific Country & Roots Producer

Photo: Alyssa Gafkjen

Looking through the 2021 Grammy nominations released on November 24th, one of the big points of intrigue for the country and roots world won’t be found in the major country categories of the awards, or even the American Roots categories that cover Americana, bluegrass, folk, and blues. It will be found in the all-encompassing “Producer (Non-Classical)” category where two of independent country and Americana’s most influential producers at the moment are nominated this cycle.

Dave Cobb is known best for working with Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, previously Sturgill Simpson, Colter Wall, and a large cast of others. Cobb was first nominated for the Grammy Producer of the Year award back in 2015, and it’s surprising he’s never won it from the work he’s done on so many Grammy-nominated and Grammy-winning records. But it’s Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach who has emerged over the last couple of years as one of the most prolific producers in country and Americana, adding a familiar name behind often unfamiliar and overlooked artists and music.

Dan Auerbach is not new to the producer’s chair by any stretch. He’s been working behind the mixing board since the mid oughts with artists like Patrick Sweany, and won the Grammy for Producer of the Year back in 2013. But most of Auerbach’s early credits were in the rock and blues world. He did work with Jessica Lea Mayfield as far back as 2008, and then received co-producer credits on Valerie June’s Pushin’ Against a Stone from 2013. In 2014, Auerbach produced Nikki Lane’s country album All or Nothin’ for New West Records that had some taking notice, and in 2018 shocked many be producing a throwback country soul-sounding record for the bluegrass duo The Gibson Brothers.

But it’s been Dan Auerbach’s focus on Nashville and the roots world in the last couple of years behind the launching of his label imprint Easy Eye Sound that has made him one of the most relevant, prolific, and hottest names in the producer seat in independent country and roots.

Dan Auerbach opened his Easy Eye Sound studios in a fairly nondescript building on 8th Avenue in Nashville that previously housed a call center, and got to work under the mantra, “Good Sound Comes Back Around,” pulling from Nashville’s deeper reserves of session musicians and other musical talent that has gone mostly untapped recently in the rapid modernizing of mainstream country.

Dan Auerbach produced Dee White’s debut album Southern Gentleman in 2019, followed by British country soul artist Yola’s big breakout record Walk Through The Fire, which went onto be nominated for a whopping three Grammy Awards, and had her nominated for the all-genre Best New Artist as well. Then came a well-regarded album Solid Gold Sounds from country and rock songwriter Kendell Marvel, among other select projects.

2020 has seen Dan Auerbach with a heavy hand in the highly-touted comeback record from country legend John Anderson called Years, the launching of young songwriter Early James, and a new solo record from blues guitar master Marcus King called El Dorado, among other projects. Auerbach has also been writing a lot, on both the records he’s producing, and on others, including the recently-released debut album from Brit Taylor called Real Me.

Similar to the mid 2010’s when it seemed like every other record coming out of Nashville had Dave Cobb’s name on it, now it’s Dan Auerbach’s name you’re seeing everywhere. But unlike Dave Cobb who works in a myriad of different musical mediums, much of Dan Auerbach’s output has a very similar 60’s and early 70’s vibe to it, with a sort of mauve-like soul sound that is much more inspired by Muscle Shoals and Memphis than Nashville and country. Though this approach works well for more soul-based artists such as Yola, for some more country artists, maybe it doesn’t.

The Gibson Brothers record from 2018 came with some mixed opinions, as has the new Marcus King solo record, despite garnering a Grammy nomination itself. Auerbach’s use of glockenspiel and organ in ways that specifically date the music to an era instead of finding the right sound for each individual artist does not always play well, even if it does give everything he touches a sort of “hip” flair for the moment.

However, this heavy approach isn’t always the case. Though the new John Anderson album Years does have a few of those more stylized, retro moments, it also has many tracks that feel like they fit the John Anderson flavor, while Auerbach’s mere presence on the record immediately affords new and fresh attention to an artist that has been put out to pasture by Nashville’s music industry proper.

Regardless of how you feel about Dan Auerbach’s approach or output as a producer, label owner, or songwriter, it is definitely one of the strongest signals emanating from Nashville’s independent ranks at the moment, and is likely to remain that way for the coming years. His nomination for 2021 Producer of the Year by the Grammy Awards is an acknowledgement of that.

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