Danny Kee

Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?


Did you know when you were growing up that you loved country music, or did you just love all music?

I just loved all music. I started loving music when I was an infant, and my father used to get up with me in the middle of the night and play big band music while he fed me during those middle of the night feedings that we've all learned to love as parents. But he turned it into being a good time, and I think that's probably where my interest in music began. I always gravitated towards music. I was always over at the local record store. I was always scraping together change and buying 45s, and listening to the radio. I listened to a lot of Beatles, Elvis and the Beach Boys. I started pretty much like anybody that had a genuine love for music, and started buying records just about as fast as I could get my hands on enough money to buy them.

At what age did you know that you wanted to turn your love for music into a job in the music business?

A little later in life. I come from a family of teachers. My father advanced out of teaching into being a college administrator. They were very pro education, and always inspired me and encouraged me to try everything that I was interested in. But they encouraged me more to get a formal education. Following their advice I studied business at Illinois State University. I took some elective courses in music theory and composition. There were some ensemble classes at Illinois State that were a little bit more contemporary. They had kind of an R&B ensemble where they'd put together an R&B band. I didn't play in the ensemble classes, but rather was a part of this ensemble more on a business level. I was more a manager. I did sound for them, and worked with the band on that level. And that was really the beginning of my thinking, "Hey, maybe there is something I could do with music to earn a living." Unfortunately, the music program at Illinois State didn't really have any relevance to what commercial or contemporary music was all about. I began looking at other colleges, and eventually I moved to Nashville. Having not had any connection with country music at any point in my life before then—didn't even know who Hank Williams Sr. was. I enrolled in Middle Tennessee State University, not so much for a degree as to just take some music courses. I got an internship. I was one of the few fortunate people who was able to get an internship at a major label—Warner Brothers.

Wasn't the competition for internships like that tough as nails?

In most cases, there was a line out the door and down the street just to have the opportunity to get in the door and work for free. I decided since I didn't have any connections to the music business, I didn't have a rich uncle, or somebody that's a big power guy in the music business that could pull strings for me, that I would have to do it the old-fashioned way—get in and prove myself through some good honest hard work. And I did. My requirement for the internship was 15 hours of work a week. I spent 40 hours a week here. I did everything for everybody in every department. I mailed out things. I answered the phones. I ran errands. I worked in the marketing department, in the A&R department, did everything. I got to know everybody. The company was smaller then, and pretty family-like. Eventually, the president of the company, Jim Ed Norman, approached me and said, "You've been working really hard around here. How about coming to work for us full time?" And of course I was elated. That was the turning point of my life.

Wow, that's a fairytale!

I began working with Jim Ed, and pretty much just followed him around. I kept my mouth shut, and just did what he asked me to do. I learned a lot about making records from him. He was producing Crystal Gayle, Michael Martin Murphy, The Forrester Sisters, Kenny Rogers, Mac MacAnally—I'm probably leaving somebody out. It was along about the time Take 6 was signed to the Nashville division, which was a real breakthrough for our company. It was a pretty big deal for Nashville to sell a platinum record on a non-country artist.

What are some of the most important components of country music?

It's all pretty subjective, but obviously, there are two key components—the lyric and the melody. Country music is traditionally much more oriented on the lyric than other forms of music have been in the past. So, to me, a country song has got to say something. Our music form has been around for a long time, so there are only a finite number of subjects you can talk about in a song in any format, country included. I'm always looking for a song that says something different than the other songs do, which is a hard thing to find; or to say the same thing other songs are saying, but in a different way. Putting some different metaphorical associations with something else. Something that sets that song apart from the other songs you hear.

But country's always had a reputation, at least from a songwriting standpoint, that country writers follow a prescribed set of rules. Some writers have told me, you don't use B sections or pre-choruses in country music. There are some chords that you may not use in country, some subject matters that you don't touch. Doesn't that make it all that much harder for writers to learn the craft of writing country versus writing for other genres? Not only do they have to say it better, or differently than it's been done before, but they also follow some of those rules? And what are some of those rules?

I don't disagree that there are some certain guidelines. After all, in order to sell our records, the main form of marketing that we have at our company is country radio. And country radio caters to a relatively conservative audience. Therefore, there are certain subjects that should be avoided, there are certain chord progressions, because it doesn't take much deviation from standard chord progressions before you start getting ethereal, or getting out there. Most of the people that enjoy listening to country music don't want to hear anything complex. They don't want to have to work hard to listen to this music. They just want to enjoy and soak in the music and let it move them without having to dig into it really deep.

But I would challenge writers of country music and people in the country music business to think a little bit more progressively. Because my position in the music business, being on the creative end of this company, is not always trying to fit in between the goal posts of what's acceptable in country music. I've got to look a little bit beyond that, because what is acceptable and reasonable today is different than it was 2 years ago, 4 years ago, or 10 years ago. In order to be successful in my position, I have to try to look a little bit further on down the road, and to try to be a trendsetter as opposed to just continuing the same trend that exists. So I'm always trying to challenge the boundaries of country music a little bit. So when you ask what I look for and what the components are, or what the guidelines are in a country song, I'd say that there are certain guidelines as far as subject matter is concerned, but no sooner than you establish those guidelines, then somebody comes off and does something that's just outside the boundaries of that, and it's a real big hit. Deana Carter's "Strawberry Wine" is a good example of that musically. It's done differently. It's produced differently. It has a different chord progression, and it has some metaphorical innuendoes that are slightly...

Racy, at least when compared to what Nashville's used to?

Yeah. It's just a little bit different than what we've been accustomed to, and look how successful it is. And that's due to the part of our consumer base that's changing. We have newer consumers, younger consumers, who are coming on board with country every day. They're a little bit more open-minded. I wouldn't want to go too far down that road of trying to live within confined parameters for our business. I think, given a chance, we can change that old myth. The landscape of country music is certainly different than it was ten years ago, but the same thing is true in pop, and I think that's healthy for all of us.

Do you think that country radio will eventually fragment like rock and pop have done, where you might have "new" country stations versus "traditional" country stations?

Yes. I'm sorry to be overly brief about that, but my answer is just simply yes. I think that that's inevitable at some point that the country format will fragment.

Do you think there will always be a strong audience for the traditional stuff even as you see the influx of the newer non-traditional artists?

Sure. I think that for the same reason there's always an audience in the pop market for the classic rock stations.

How do you go about finding new artists?

You know, oddly enough that's not a hard thing to do at all, because I'm fortunate enough to be associated with a company that has a real high profile name and reputation. Most of the new artists come to us. The phone rings off the hook actually, and there are far more opportunities and more quality artists that are knocking on the door than I have time to see or to listen to. I'm going through a stage in my career where I have quite a few artists that I'm responsible for, and I like to direct my focus to trying to find the best songs for those artists. I have two new artists: One that will be coming out this year, and then the other that I'm working on making an album with that will be out next year. I'm so focused on that that right now that Elvis would have to walk through the door before I'd be open to signing another artist just given my work load and the number of irons that I have in the fire.

How many artists are on your roster? How many new signings are there in a typical year?

We have two labels, Warner Brothers and Reprise. On the Reprise side there are five artists. And then we also share a promotion staff with Giant Records. They have another five or six artists. On the Warner Brothers side we have nine artists.

Smaller than I would have expected.

When I say that's how many artists, that's how many artists that we have that we're carrying on the roster that have had a record released. There are probably six or seven artists that we would have in what we refer to as the new artist roster.

So is it safe bet to say that between the two labels, that you might sign a half a dozen new artists in a year?

I think that's pretty safe. Between the two we'd say a half a dozen, of which my best guess is that on each side there's probably only room to work on breaking two to three new acts a year. Because of the competitive complexion of the marketplace right now and how much time it takes to set up an artist at radio, make the introduction, the financial resources, and just the energy that it takes to bring an artist to the marketplace and break an artist is considerably more than it is to sustain an established artist. I think the days of just coming out with a dozen new records a year, and just throwing them all up against a wall and staying with the ones that stick, are behind us. It takes a little bit more these days. The guys in marketing and promotion could verbalize that a lot better than I can.

Do you look for artists that are also writers, or does that matter less than in the pop world because Nashville has so many great writers to throw material at you and your artists?

That's a great question. I don't have a formula in the sense that I would formally say I'm looking for "dot dot dot". I don't really care where the songs come from as long as they're great songs. If an artist comes in and is not a songwriter, I'm not discouraged about that artist. But that's a different kind of artist then because I work with an artist very closely here who is incredibly talented at finding the right songs for herself. And she has the resources to find the songs, and at least be a big part of that. Then she can sell a song that she doesn't write. She's very talented at that.

By saying "sell" a song she doesn't write, do you mean she can perform it in such a way that it will go over even though she didn't write it?

Exactly. She makes it her own. And that's a different animal really than somebody who comes in and says oh these songs are all about personal experiences that they've had, songs that are an extension of themselves artistically and emotionally.

I get calls, maybe once or twice a month, from people who say "I've got a great voice. I'm a fantastic singer. I want people in Nashville to hear me." They want to know if they can submit tapes of them singing covers. Is that ever done?

Oh it's done a lot. At any time I talk on the phone or communicate with anybody who asks that question I say I would advise you not to do that. I know that's an easy thing to do, because karaoke is such a popular thing. You can go down for a couple bucks and you got a demo tape. Inevitably, when you sing somebody else's song, you're compared to that person who originally made the song a big hit. And unfortunately that puts you at a position of real compromise as a new artist. I would never recommend that.

So would you recommend that that new artist take the time, do their homework, go out and meet writers, and select three or four songs that they feel are right for them?

I would. I also would recommend that anybody that is an aspiring artist and singer—I would recommend wholeheartedly and emphatically that they move to Nashville, or spend as much time in Nashville as absolutely possible. Because they can interface with the community here. They can meet writers. You learn so much by being here.

What do you love most about what you do for a living?

I love being associated, being as close to the music as I am. Having as much impact creatively on the music. Being able to direct it. I love having a vision about something I can imagine happening, and then being given the opportunity to work on it and try to make it happen.

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