Zig (Billy HerZIG) has produced over 60 CD projects –
singer-songwriters, bands and artists of all genres, and music for TV and movies.
Born in Ft Worth, Texas, he owned Abalone Studio in Arlington in the ’80s, then in ’89 moved to Nashville where he was a writer for Sony, Warner/Chappell, and others.
Zig wrote the #1 hit “Right From the Start” recorded by Earl Thomas Conley (RCA 1989) which was also used in the ’80s movie Roadhouse. and on Earl’s Greatest Hits.
In Nashville he owned Grey House Studio on 17th Ave where he cut tons of demos for hit songwriters and publishers, and CD projects for many artists.
Zig has produced demos and projects for Capitol, Atlantic, MCA, Sony, Warner Bros, RCA, Arista, Universal, Famous, EMI, Polygram, Blue Water, Curb, and many others.
As a musician he has played on hundreds of sessions on acoustic and electric guitar, piano, B-3, keyboards, bass and percussion.
Back in Texas now ...Zig says: “I like to help each artist find the sound they're looking for."
INTERVIEW - NASHVILLE
This interview with ZiG by Gary Avers originally appeared on SongwriterInfoPage.com. in April 2004.
Gary: What about Nashville? When? Why?
Zig: Well, in the mid-eighties I had built my studio business up to a point where I could get away for a few weeks at a time and have other engineers keep it going while I went out of town. A friend in Austin hooked me up with some people who were publishers and producers in Muscle Shoals and they liked some of my songs. So, I went there to meet them and co-write and hang-out and record at their studio. (Big Al Jones, Butch Johnson, & James Hooker). They had a song on Stevie Winwood’s latest record and James played keyboards for Texas artist Nanci Griffith.
Gary: So, ok, what about Muscle Shoals?
Zig: Shoals is a trip – there’s so much musical history – some country, but mostly R&B…Aretha Franklin, Tom Dowd, all those Atlantic Records soul artists – Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, etc, etc. Willie Nelson did an album (Phases and Stages) in Muscle Shoals – so did Linda Ronstadt, the Stones, Dylan – many other mainstream rock artists cut there after it became a legendary place for those big R&B records.
So, I toured the town and saw the studios and the history there (bought some equipment racks that came out of ‘Muscle Shoals Sound’) and wrote and recorded with my friends there. I had been sending country songs thru the mail from Texas to Nashville for a few years and had talked to some publishers and producers that liked a song or two.
I had a few single-song contracts with several publishers in Nashville but had gone to visit Muscle Shoals and was not really that interested in Nashville. And I remember Big Al saying “what? you drove 700 miles from Texas to Muscle Shoals and you’re not gonna stop and see Nashville? – It’s only like 2 hours away”.
So, the next day I drove up to Nashville.
Gary: And your first impression?
Zig: I remember it was pouring down rain and it was hard to see. But I found ‘Music Row’ and visited a few publishers that I had songs with. In fact I dropped off some tapes (everybody pitched cassette tapes) to Jim Ed Norman who was in the house on 17th that my studio, Grey House, is in now. I guess I glimpsed the future.
Gary: What about Nashville then?
Zig: I visited Ray Baker – he was from Texas. He produced one of George Strait’s records, and Mo and Joe – remember them? Pat Finch, then at Dick James Music – I was suggested to him by Gloria Thomas (BJ’s wife) – they lived close to me in Arlington. Gloria had written some of BJ’s songs and she had recorded at my studio there in Arlington in the '80s. On other trips to Nashville I was also lucky enough to meet Jody Williams who was then at BMI, Jim Schearer who was then at Charlie Pride Music, and 3 or 4 other publishers-song pluggers. (Charlie Pride is another Texas artist that had a Nashville company.)
Gary: Did any of them like your songs?
Zig: Yeah, and a few years later they each had a few of my songs under contract but that never amounted to anything and really, I didn’t have a million great songs. I mean, I had a few good songs, maybe a few of the few could have been hits. But, the young publishers, they were all nice and friendly. You know, I always got the feeling that all those guys all knew each other and they all went to the same high school and had the same opinion of what was cool… and also that they were all kinda mainstream and conservative – safe, and interested in the various music companies, and the politics, and the Nashville community. You know, they were into who was the head of this and head of that – RCA or Warner, or who was who’s assistant, or which company was going to buy the other, or rumors, or whatever. I don’t include Ray in all that – he was older and had already had success.
Gary: And was your feeling right?
Zig: Later as I got to know more of them a little better I could see that they weren’t all exactly alike. I mean, one guy might like Coke and the other would be different and drink Pepsi or something…I’m only slightly joking. They seemed all the same to me being an outsider. You kinda gotta get to know them a little to see their differences. They were generous with their time and they listened. Jody Williams at BMI was helpful and sincere.
Gary: So when you got back to Texas you didn't immediately pack everything and move to Nashville?
Zig: No, ha-ha. That next year I got a subscription to Tunesmith, which was a tip sheet of who was recording in Nashville - I think it was $75 a year and it was a 2 page newsletter that they mailed to you, snail mail! ...we're talkin' before internet and email. I saw Allen Reynolds the producer listed as listening to songs for Crystal Gayle! ...and I had a song that sounded JUST like her...so I sent it...on a cassette tape! ha ha ...but good sounding production I had done at my studio in Arlington. A few weeks later I get a call from Allen Reynolds - who is one of the nicest guys ever - and he said he liked the song and was gonna play it for a few artists he was working with.
Gary: Wow! And what happened?
Zig: Nothing. Ultimately nothing, but he told me to come meet him and play him more songs when I was in Nashville, so I did. And I kept up with Allen and visited him every few years and pitched him songs. He was pretty open to hearing songs now and then but I never got that big Garth Brooks cut like every writer would have liked! ...none the less Allen was nice and he was one of the reasons I moved to Nashville...along with the producer Garth Fundis, who would also listen to songs by unknown artists sometimes. Garth had liked a few of my songs thru the years, so I knew I had at least 4 or 5 people in Nashville who would listen if I moved there.
Gary: You spoke about everyone in the business being alike. I hear that sense of 'sameness' when I listen to country radio.
Zig: Well, I think a lot of what’s wrong with radio is from a few corporations trying to own and control too much so they can manipulate the market. And in Nashville’s defense it’s not just country radio. I mean, listen to all the bands that sounded like Creed, or all the vocal groups in pop – or even all the Texas singer/songwriters that sound like Pat Green now? Nashville’s bad but it’s everywhere, it’s business, it’s human nature. I have a ‘clone’ story…
….When I was a staff writer for Don Daily, who was a Warner/Chappell company, we used to have meetings occasionally hosted by record labels to play the writers the new acts and tell us what kind of songs they were needing for each artist. One time Curb Records was the host and the guest was Chuck Howard(then ‘head’ of Curb). Chuck was playing snippets of the new Curb artists(who all sounded very much alike)and then he got to another new artist that didn’t have a sample to play and someone asked what the artist sounded like. Chuck said we didn’t need to hear anything because the artist was ‘a shameless clone’ – so just pitch him what you would pitch everybody else cause he sounds just like everybody else. That’s the kind of thinking that’s funny and true and Nashville knows it- and Nashville laughs at themselves too, but nobody on the inside is gonna do anything to change anything.
Gary: Who do you think WILL change things?
Zig: I don’t know…Napster did, whether you think it’s good or bad – they changed things. I think it will be outside, independent people like that – and the major labels will be forced to scramble and react – react because they’re not making the first moves in anything.
Gary: With that in mind, what should a new, unsigned artist or band do?
Zig: Just be who you are. Make your own product and promote it yourself – learn how to promote and market yourself or form a team of people that believe in your music and learn to do it together. You can go to the majors, or independent labels or find a local sponsor or investor. It’s really hard and there are no easy answers. Pat Green is changing things, Napster shook everybody up, Ani DeFranco found a way. Delbert McClinton had been with major labels and now he’s making his own record, and even if it sells modestly he sees more money.
Gary: Do you work with artists to help them break through?
Zig: ‘Break through’ ? Well mostly to the next level creatively – to get their best out of them. I usually work on helping the artist find songs or helping them choose from the songs they wrote, or getting the direction or style on track and getting good vocals. That’s what I’m the most experienced at – making it sound good in the studio.
I have ideas and opinions on promotion and marketing and I can help come up with a plan, but a team has to be formed to implement the plan daily and weekly and monthly – consistently for a while to get results. I can be part of that team but I can’t single-handedly take on promoting an artist.
I can also shop an artist to labels both major and independent, but I have to do that if it’s my idea and I feel strongly about the artist and the product we made and how the artist and their style fits into what’s happening in the music business at the time. And I also have to take into consideration who I know to pitch it to and what they might like or need.
Gary: What was it like having a #1 song and going to the BMI awards?
Zig: It was fun. I have lots of better songs that have never been cut (or never heard by any major artists.) Having a hit never made it easier for me to get my songs to big artists. It got me several publishing deals but my publishers never got me any big cuts, and I never could get them myself either even though I tried.
Gary: What is it like hearing your song on the radio? In the movies? and tv?
Zig: It’s great driving down the road and hearing your song on the radio or sitting at a restaurant and it comes on – or on a juke box and somebody plays it. It’s also fun to hear cover bands playing your song – and sometimes not doing it so great – but just the idea that it was popular enough that they thought they should work it up. As far as the movie, I can barely even hear a few seconds of my song in the movie (Roadhouse), but my name’s in the credits.
I have artist and writer friends who have had 5 #1 songs, or they can’t go to the store without being recognized, so my one hit song was not that amazing – but it was fun, (and profitable).
I heard my song on an AM country oldies station the other day. It always makes me smile but it makes me sad too, to know how long I’ve worked and how much good stuff I have that will never be heard, or used, or appreciated. And country is only a small part of what I’ve written.
Gary: You’ve been a staff writer for Sony and Warner/Chappell and a few others. What was the best thing about the staff writer experience?
And what was the worst?
Zig: Well, for me the best thing was that I learned so much about licensing, copyrights, mechanicals, contracts, and just generally how publishing works. It’s very interesting to me and that knowledge has helped me many times. The worst thing?…well I guess when you don't get your songs cut, which is more often than not. And just knowing that your songs could be well-liked and make you and your publisher money if they got heard - but sometimes you or your publisher just can't get 'em heard.
Gary: Many Texas people say that ‘Nashville sucks’, what do you think?
Zig: There’s good and bad in Nashville. It’s a cool city that’s a lot of fun and there are many talented people. Anytime you have a system or a power structure you’re going to have corruption and abuse and manipulation of that system. It would be the same way in any city or state, including Texas. My reasons for Texas to be the rightful home of country music is because of all the history, all the artists and because the size of the audience – country music belongs in Texas. But do I think that it would be just as corporate and just as political? Yes.
Gary: I see (and hear) the ‘bad’ in Nashville, what’s the ‘good’ about it?
Zig: A lot of great talent that moves to Nashville from everywhere – from L.A., Canada, Texas, Florida, Australia, Seattle, NY, of course from the south, and just… everywhere. And the size of the city is nice – it’s big yet small. I know a lot of them are starting to move to Austin now too. And Austin is that size too, but it seems to be growing even faster.
Having all the labels and management and publishers in a 10 block area is convenient but, you know, I think they’re mostly followers that will follow the talent because that’s how they make their money. They’d all go to Texas tomorrow if they had to…and they will have to whenever Texas demands it. Sony and Warner will go to Salt Lake City if that’s where the talent is. From this point on each new decade will have more music recorded in more different cities than ever before, and more new artists breaking out of more new cities than ever before.
Gary: Any advice to aspiring songwriters ?
Zig: I guess just the same old stuff – Keep trying – Believe in yourself – BUT Don’t just keep trying to push harder or promote yourself more, but keep trying to learn and improve – play better, sing better, write better. And compare yourself to the best – not the average or the worst. I hear writers all the time that pick out the lamest song on radio and say “I’ve got songs better than that” – well that’s true but look what you’re comparing yourself to. Ask yourself this question: Do you have a song that’s as good or better than the handful of songs out there that you think are the best?
My best advice would be – Don’t let it stress you out and hurt your feelings- I’m still working on that myself. I remember in an interview with Chuck Berry one time he said, “Everything that’s good is not popular, and everything that’s popular is not good”. !
INTERVIEW - TEXAS
This interview with ZiG by Gary Avers originally appeared on SongwriterInfoPage.com. in April 2004.
Gary: So you still live in Nashville and have a studio there?
Zig: Yes. But I visit Texas a few times a year and I am recording some Texas artists.
Gary: Ok let's talk about Texas music – then and now? And let’s start with then.
Zig: Texas back then? Well, when I was a kid growing up in Ft. Worth there was definitely something brewing in Texas in the 70’s with Willie, Michael Murphey (I had those first two records on A&M, before he was Michael ‘Martin’), Fromholtz, Willis Alan Ramsey, BW Stevenson, Guy Clark, etc, etc. I remember wanting to go to Austin was too young to have a driver’s license (much less a car). You know, later on in my years in Nashville I worked with a lot of good songwriters and some of them were aware of Willis Alan …or ‘Texas Trilogy’ ……if they weren’t, sometimes I’d turn ’em on to it. Years later, when I did get a car (and a license) I went down to Austin many times, and as I began to write songs, my first publisher was down there - Tommy White with Prophecy/Black Coffee Music. Tommy took an interest in me and we talked about artists and songs and everything... and I learned about Austin, and singer-songwriters and I didn't think I was a 'troubadour'.
I didn't see myself playing and singing my songs on acoustic guitar every night, promoting myself that way. My vision was always being the engineer or producer and writing songs for the bands I was in but not me as the lead singer. In my head I was more interested in writing for others - recording a demo, and trying to get an artist to sing it. (that's really the hard way!)
But I loved the vibe of the city in the late 70’s, early 80’s. I would visit there and see some singer/songwriters and get inspired. I saw Doug Sahm, Uncle Walt’s Band, Asleep at the Wheel, Commander Cody…there was a group called the ‘Bees Knees’, so much happening – I can’t name ’em all – of course, Willie and Jerry Jeff.
Gary: Did you perform in Austin?
Zig: No, not till years later. At this time I just drove down and saw some of the bands and writers. I played a little in Ft Worth. I remember seeing Delbert and Willis Alan Ramsey in Austin and then the next day I played at ‘the Hop’ in Ft Worth with some guys (Mike Kerrigan Band) on acoustics and I met Willis and Delbert because they played after us. There were so many – Gary P. Nunn, Rusty Wier, Ray Wylie… David Alan Coe ran his motorcycle into my friend’s car at a gig one night at a place called ‘Showdown’. Those guys were the Texas ‘stars’ of the day. My age was still just in our first bands and writing our first songs. They gave us hope that we could play our music and make a living and have fun – without aspiring to be a megastar. I didn’t know then that some of them were barely making a living and surviving.
Gary: So, you were already writing songs back then?
Zig: I wrote a few songs in that early time period, but I still lived with my parents in Ft Worth. Then as I got out of high school, I got more and more into playing electric guitar and gigging, and jazz, and engineering, and having a backyard studio, and wanting to be a producer and a musician – so I did less songwriting. But…I had gotten a dose of the songwriter bug early on and Jerry Jeff and Austin and those writers and that time period certainly colored my songwriting opinions and values. And that bug stuck with me and I returned to writing a few years later.
Then came a time period when I started my own studio in a little building that a friend and I built in my parents’ backyard. We lived over in Northside and most of my customers were TexMex and Tejano bands. Then I started doing jingles for the Spanish radio station, KESS. I was also at this same time playing in several country bar bands and a jazz group that played weddings and hotel gigs (occasionally we played some real jazz, mostly we were more easy background music).
Gary: What about Texas records as an engineer and a producer?
Zig: Well, when I was a kid I had Viva Terlingua, Walker’s Collectables,
Ridin’ High, and the first Jerry Jeff record – the one with ‘Charlie Dunn’ and all that. The ‘realness’ of those performances and the casual sound of the recording has always been an influence on my production, along with some ‘slick’ recordings like Steely Dan, Peter Gabriel and others. I’m also a big jazz fan and I’ve been influenced by the sound of Miles and Coltrane and the records on Blue Note and Prestige and some of those old jazz labels. And then there’s Motown and the Beatles and the Allman Bros at Fillmore East and Zeppelin…and bluegrass – all cool recording – all have ambiance, roominess, spontaneity……. that ‘realness’ is there in all those records because they captured a little of the live feel in the studio and so each song seems more like a performance or an event.
During that same time that the ‘Progressive Country’ movement was brewing in Texas there was also a lot of acoustic rock and folk-rock and west coast country rock happening that influenced me. I think it influenced everybody at that time, but the Texas thing was more local. I mean, everybody all over the US heard James Taylor and Neil Young and the Eagles but those of us in Texas also heard Texas artists like Willis Alan and Stevie Ray Vaughn years before he hit national radio.
Gary: And Texas now?
Zig: Texas now? Well, it’s really the same – just bigger – and more years have gone by so there’s more history. I think Pat Green is proving what we all always believed – that a Texas artist could sell his music to the Texas audience (and beyond) without Nashville or country radio. I feel strongly that the future home of country music is in Texas. And I thank the Dixie Chicks for that too! Doing the 3rd Chicks album with Lloyd Maines rather than Nashville was BIG.
In the 80’s we used to say, ”Man, why doesn’t George Strait or someone commercially big on country radio record in Texas instead of Nashville?” Of course, Willie did records in Texas and that helped a lot, and to George’s credit, he did use his live band on his records some, and he never moved to Nashville and all that, and he’s always been a great spokesman for Texas. But I guess we just hoped that he would start recording and producing his records in Texas too.
Then when Garth Brooks was so successful and made so much money, and he seemed to like to ‘control’ things, I thought…Man, he ought to open a label in Texas or Oklahoma and use that money and popularity to bring the music business to where it belongs. I thought that if he was that driven and had that kind of power, he’d use that to start something, but I guess that just wasn’t a goal for him.
Gary: What projects are you working on lately in Texas?
Zig: Well, I produced CDs on King Cone and Jordan Mycoskie, and I’ve also been working with James Hinds who is the lead singer of the band Running Behind that plays out at Cowboys Red River in Dallas.
Gary: King Cone?
Zig: That’s his real name. King’s from Decatur and lives down in Austin, goin’ to UT. I just went down and wrote a few songs with him. He’s finishing up school and then I think he’s gonna get focused. He’s a good singer and performer. He goes from George Strait to Lynyrd Skynyrd to originals. Some songs we cut could get airplay on mainstream country radio (in style or direction). He always goes over well in Texas. We’re building up songs for a new project that will push him over the edge – man, that sounds dangerous.
Gary: And Jordan?
Zig: Jordan is a singer/songwriter that writes interesting songs. He’s mostly performed on acoustic. He’s now putting a band together – they’re good. I played electric guitar with him and his bass player and drummer at Woody’s and it was sloppy and fun. Jordan is kinda like Jerry Jeff, the Stones, Springsteen, college rock, and Steve Earle all kinda mixed together. He plays Poor David’s and the White Elephant people like him cause he has fun and they have fun.
Gary: And the band?
Zig: Well, sometimes it’s James Hinds and sometimes it’s James and the band. I got Pat McMakin from Sony to come down and hear James at Cowboys and he got a pretty good response - I think there is some interest. He's a great performer and fun and has a rich deep voice and he writes too. So we’ll see in time. Right now I have to get back to Nashville to work on some cool stuff there. One of these days I'd like to do a documentary or a book on country music and compare Nashville and Texas.