Modern-day Muscle Shoals studio wizard’s recording secrets

Jimmy Nutt didn’t start working full-time in the music-recording business until he was around 30-years-old. Along the way, he’d played in rock bands in Shreveport, La. and Austin, Texas and held day-jobs at places like The Gap and Banana Republic.

After arriving in Muscle Shoals around 2000, following his old friend James LeBlanc there, Nutt sold truck parts to help pay the bills while getting his foot in the door at the FAME Studios, the storied facility where legends like Aretha Franklin and Rolling Stones recorded the iconic tracks.

Around 2001, Nutt finally went full-time at FAME, as both a staff recording engineer and staff writer. By then he’d been recording bands for more than half his life. He started at age 14, using a cassette four-track to record his first band, an alternative-rock band called The Underground. Nutt was the singer and songwriter in that band, which also featured LeBlanc, who went on to cowrite country singer Travis Tritt’s 2000 hit “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde.”

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“The first records that grabbed my attention as a kid,” Nutt recalls, “were the early Van Halen records and AC/DC ‘Back In Black’ and that type of stuff. Then I got into REM the Red Hot Chili Peppers and kind of went down that rabbit hole for a while. I started paying attention to production styles more in my late 20s and that wound be really digging into the sounds on Beatles records.”

Growing up, Muscle Shoals wasn’t really on Jimmy Nutt’s radar. In fact, besides that shoutout in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” lyrics, he’d never even heard of Muscle Shoals, the North Alabama area that was an unlikely ’60s and ’70s recording hotbed but lost mojo during the ’80s and ’90s.

Since moving there, Nutt has become a vital component of the contemporary Muscle Shoals scene, which has seen further resurgence since 2013 documentary film “Muscle Shoals” brought the area’s musical legacy back to light. At FAME and later at his own facility Nutthouse Recording Studio, Nutt has recorded artists such as Jason Isbell, Alabama Shakes, SteelDrivers, Blind Boys of Alabama, Percy Sledge, John Paul White and former Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux.

Bassist Jimbo Hart, who joined Isbell’s band for 2009 sophomore album “Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit,” says, “Jimmy’s probably one of the most patient people I’ve ever known. Personally, I’ve played in his studio before and not been getting it and not been getting it, and he’s not a whip-snapper. He’s just really good. And you always sound good when you work with Jimmy too, which, I mean, proof’s in the pudding there.”

Nutt didn’t work on Isbell’s biggest and trendiest albums, the critically fawned over four-LP running beginning with 2013′s “Southeastern.” But he recorded Isbell’s first three albums, as the future folk/rock star launched a solo career after a stint with the band Drive-By Truckers.

Personally, I vastly prefer Isbell’s 2007 debut “Sirens of the Ditch,” recorded by Nutt at FAME, over the ponderous latter-day material in his catalog. Sirens is more playful and instinctual. The songwriting’s still smart without making me think too much. Entertainment as much as art. “Sirens” opener “Brand New Kind of Actress” – reportedly inspired by music producer Phil Spector’s 2003 shooting of aspiring actress Lana Clarkson – is by far my favorite Isbell track. I love the track’s Stones-like swagger. The vocals’ raspy edge and the dangerous lyrical imagery are alluring too.

“Jason got signed to FAME as a songwriter while I was the staff engineer,” Nutt, now in his early 50s, recalls. “He would come in every, I don’t know, three weeks with his acoustic guitar, and I would record all the songs that he had written in that time period. And so I got to hear Jason and these new songs before anybody else heard him. And I was blown away. Rodney (Hall, FAME general manager and son of studio founder/producer Rick Hall) and I, we talked many times about how we felt like we were really hearing something special.” In addition to the “Sirens of the Ditch” album, Nutt cites the songs “Codeine” and “Alabama Pines” off Isbell’s 2011 third album “Here We Rest,” recorded at the Nutthouse, as favorites from their work together.

Hart says, “The ‘Here We Rest’ record in general was a big record in general for our band because that’s the first record that Chad (Gamble, 400 Unit drummer) was with us.” Also notable: “Codeine” was the first time Hart had ever recorded stand-up bass on a track. He’d just recently acquired the instrument, which helped give the song a sunny country-shuffle, musically juxtaposing Isbell’s wry lyrics bemoaning a “cover band trying to fake their way through ‘Castles Made of Sand.'”

After three years or so as a FAME staff engineer, Nutt struck out on his own as an independent recording engineer and producer. At first, he recorded people with a Pro Tools computer in a spare bedroom of his house before renting a space at the old Muscle Shoals Music Hall in Sheffield.

“Most of what I know about recording, I learned at FAME,” Nutt says. “I like to think I’ve advanced, but all the basics I learned there. There was certainly some competition going on after I left, but I think it was healthy competition. I can go over there now and I feel welcomed and Rodney (Hall) can come over here too. We’re definitely friends.”

Nutthouse Recording Studio

Nutthouse Recording Studio. (Courtesy Nutthouse Recording Studio)

Around 2008, Nutt found a permanent home for Nutthouse Recording Studio. “This bank was around the corner from my old studio that I was leasing,” he recalls, “and I saw a ‘for sale’ sign. Downtown Sheffield at that time was a ghost town – I mean, there was nothing going on down here and real estate prices were really cheap, so I got a good deal on it. Since it was a bank, it’s a rock solid building steel and concrete. It just turned out to be the perfect scenario to build a studio.”

Nutthouse Recording Studio

The exterior of Nutthouse Recording Studio. (Courtesy Nutthouse Recording Studio)

Nutt wasn’t crazy about the name Nutthouse, but his wife talked him into keeping the appellation and it stuck. Originally constructed in 1955, the building’s exterior looks like it belongs in an episode of “Mad Men.” Inside, it’s a well-appointed modern studio space with a Trident console, tube microphones, the same kind of Telefunken mic preamps used on some Beatles tracks, and an array of vintage keyboards, including a Hammond organ and Leslie rotating speaker.

But vintage gear and ace technical skills aren’t a studio’s biggest asset. “Number one, I think it all comes down to your ears,” Nutt says. “I mean, people hear things differently and that’s kind of what makes an engineer unique – how they hear things, how they want to hear things. But number two is, man, this is the customer service industry. People coming to your studio, they want to have a good experience, to be welcomed, to have good vibes and a good cup of cup of coffee. And they want everything to work.”

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Occasionally, Nutt will still work at places other than the Nutthouse. For example, he went to country artist Mac McAnally’s studio to record Alabama Shakes’ track “Driva Man,” an earthy gem from the “12 Years a Slave” soundtrack. Asked about recording erstwhile Shakes singer turned solo dynamo Brittany Howard, Nutt says, “She’s just a force, man. I was blown away. How can you not be?”

Nut also had the chance to record vocals by late great “When A Man Loves A Woman” singer Percy Sledge. “That was awesome, man,” Nutt recalls of his work on gospel and Christmas albums by Sledge. “Percy was one of the sweetest people in the world, and it was easy recording vocals with him. And when they shot the movie ‘Muscle Shoals,’ his interview was filmed in my studio. We spent the whole day with him, sitting and listening to some of the stories that he has.”

It’s not usually for other classic Shoals studio aces, like Swampers bassist David Hood to be on sessions at the Nutthouse. Some of Nutt’s favorite more recent projects at his studio include recordings by rising Canadian roots act The Dead South.

Sometimes other producers/engineers will use the Nutthouse to track. For example, Birmingham throwback R&B band St. Paul & The Broken Bones recorded their breakthrough 2014 debut “Half the City” at Nutt’s studio, with Single Lock Records house producer Ben Tanner behind the console.

During Jimmy Nutt’s FAME days, in addition to Isbell, other staff included a songwriter named Gary Nichols. Around 2013, Nichols replaced future Americana juggernaut Chris Stapleton as Nashville bluegrass band The SteelDrivers’ lead singer. For their next album, which became 2015 LP “The Muscle Shoals Recordings” Nichols persuaded The SteelDrivers to record at the Nutthouse. The album went on to win a Grammy for the band. And also a Grammy for Nutt, for engineering and mixing it. “You can imagine the excitement,” Nutt says. “It’s opened some doors for me, especially in that genre, that kind of acoustic music. And it’s amazing to be able to put ‘Grammy-winning engineer’ in front of my name. But you’ve got to keep moving forward too.”

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