Mickey Jack Cones is an optimistic guy, and for good reason; his career has steadily picked up steam over the past two decades since he moved to Nashville.
He began making a name for himself by producing demos for local songwriters and claims he worked 18 hours a day for nearly 10 years. Writers would drop off their hard drives, then Cones would sing vocals, mix the songs and give them back.
Eventually, he landed a relatively big project with the pop duo Nemesis in the late '90s. Cones wrote and played every note of music for the group, who provided the lyrics.
The release landed Nemesis a recording deal with Curb Records, and Cones soon received his own writing deal with EMI. Over the next couple years, he worked with Trace Adkins and Jeff Bates en route to consistent production gigs with artists from Broken Bow Records.
"When I moved here, I felt like I had something to prove," he says. "And then once you start getting some sort of recognition for it, that changes. You don't go 'Look at me! Look at me!' You go, 'Okay, I can take a breath and just be creative, and I don't have to prove it.'
"I mean, you're always having to prove yourself, but not from an insecure place. As talented as I was, I came across as insecure, 'I'm gonna show you!' And that had to change. Once it did, all the pieces fell into place for me."
Cones can put his foot down when necessary — and often clashed with artists in his early Nashville days — but he finds positivity is the quickest way to reaching his goals.
He's always hugging musicians, dishing out high-fives and encouraging the people around him.
"I'm always thankful," he says. "It's an appreciation, because these artists can work with any producer when they're at this level."
The Texan is especially proud of a moment he had with Jason Aldean while engineering the star's fourth album, Old Boots, New Dirt.
When the two were outside on break, Cones put his hand on Aldean's shoulder and thanked him for his trust during the recording process, hoping maybe they could work together again.
The "Dirt Road Anthem" singer was taken aback by Cone's humility.
"Dude, you're ready to leave me in the dust," Aldean said, confident that Cones would soon make his way to producer status. "I'm not going to have you around to hire you as an engineer."
With his wealth of information, Cones was our guide through country music's Nashville machine. He gave us so much material, in fact, that much of it will never reach the public. But we've managed to salvage many of his best moments. Here's what he had to say:
On the recording process: "I don't want to say it this way, but when I moved here, some of the producers that I worked for as an engineer would play golf while the musicians were cutting the songs. They didn't have to be there! I thought, 'That's B.S. If I were a musician, I'd be pissed.' This guy has a big name as a producer, but we're doing it all! I'm a little more hands on. I play. I work on the records. I'll play the guitar parts. I'll sing harmonies. I'll engineer. So I get all into it, because I love it."
On his management style: "It's hard to keep everybody happy. I try hard not to make anybody mad, because it always comes around somehow. At the end of the day, we're making music. I wouldn't feel right complaining about anything, or causing a stink about anything."
On Florida Georgia Line: "They did a good job with this 'Dirt' song. Whether you like the song or not, that's the best left turn they could've made and still kept their crowd. It's earthy and grounded -- no pun intended -- but it's talking about the roots of things and still has the repetitive moments in there. If they keep coming out with the 'Cruise' type of songs, people are just going to go, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' So this is that left turn. The question is, what are they going to do after that?"
On Aldean's "Dirt Road Anthem": "He got so much flak because he was rapping. It was like, 'Oh, here we go...' Four million sales! The audience was like, 'Okay, we like this.' Even though Nashville and the radio stations were saying, 'I am not playing that.' That's what people have to do to keep it going."
On Blake Shelton's return to a more traditional sound: "This record that's out, he actually did a little more of that. It's more mid-tempo to ballad heavy. It's a little more... you can tell they were going for more 'real.' If anybody's gonna start that trend, that's a good guy to do it."
On Taylor Swift: "She just kept going poppier, poppier, poppier, poppier. But whether she's pissing people off or not, the records are awesome. She made it clear. She said it, 'I'm not country anymore.' You know what, that shocked people. And it made some people mad in the country market because they're like, 'Without us, where would you be? Why would you say that?' I don't think she should've necessarily said that, because the music says that she's going pop. Either way, she's selling huge. It's like, 'Whatever, people are liking it.' I listen to it. I mean, she's got some good stuff."
On a changing industry: "Ilya [Toshinsky] is the only other musician on the Florida Georgia Line stuff. Joey Moi produces the drums, bass and certain sounds. Then Ilya plays acoustic, electric, the banjo... It's great. But, what happens is, if you keep doing records like that? It's going to sound the same. You can only do so much. That's another reason why I say, with the budgets that are coming down, it's affecting the quality. That's another reason labels are giving them a shot. Because they're like, 'Oh, we've only gotta pay two guys?' 'Yeah!' 'They're gonna work that hard?' 'Yeah!' That's what's going to change once the streaming thing gets figured out and people start making money again on music.
"There's no real drums on Florida Georgia Lines songs. Maybe on 'Dirt,' now. But on 'Cruise' and all the early songs, it's all MIDI notes. Every single thing except for what Ilya played. That happens a lot. Don't get me wrong. That's what I used to do. I did it, too. But once you had a budget, you were able to do the best of everything. Your quality was different because you could just go, 'Oh, I did this, but you know what? Let me program some stuff in addition to the live drums.' You've got more flexibility."
On making an album: "Everybody comes together that one moment. Then they leave, and I'm in my world until 5 in the morning. Then they'll come back and sing. They'll go play on the road and call like, 'How's it sounding?' It's sort of like building a house at that point. It's a fun process. I love it."
On the current batch of Nichols songs: I like 'Hostage' a lot. Joe and [Broken Bow president] Benny [Brown] picked 'Shy Girl.' Then yesterday, we ended up picking the quirky, traditional country thing 'I'd Sing About You,' because Joe said, 'Hey, we need to get a traditional country song in there.'
On "Tall Boys," the likely first single: "We were listening to the demo, and at the very end of that song, the electrics go [humming] 'wuh-wuh, dunna nunna wuh-wuh.' So I said, right before B. James [Lowry] walked out, I said, 'B, I'm thinking about that riff, but more acoustic.' I told Troy [Lancaster], too, and he said, 'Maybe I'll do it on filtered electric.' B. James wanted to use a resonator guitar. It sounds all honky. Sort of like a banjo. The whole time I was like, man it would just sound better acoustic-driven. So I pointed out that lick, and he came up with the 'duh-doo-duh, duh-doo-duh.' I didn't tell him to do that. He spun his own little rendition of the segue sections."
On tracking six songs in one night: "[Nashville] is one of the only cities it happens in. You go to L.A.? That guitar part stuff would take all week. These musicians are rocking. They killed it for us tonight. It's stupid."
Want more? We also did a Q&A with Joe Nichols. Check it out here.
NOTE: This story originally stated that Cones worked on Aldean's sophomore record, Relentless. Cones did not work on that record, but rather, engineered 2010's My Kinda Party and 2012's Night Train before the encounter described above.