Q&A with Muscle Shoals-based Andreas Werner, Crazy Chester Records owner, music producer and songwriter

"Music is medicine for the soul. It has a healing quality and has the power to make people feel better. It can also help people express, amplify or uncover feelings they might not be able to feel otherwise. Music is a universal language that can go places where mankind sometimes struggles to go."

Andreas Werner: Sweet Home Alabama

Crazy Chester Records owner, music producer and songwriter Andreas Werner was born in Switzerland but relocated to the United States due to his love for American music. He since has worked with many of the South's talented and legendary artists, musicians and songwriters including the Muscle Shoals Horns, members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (aka the Swampers), Tony Joe White, Donnie Fritts, Bettye LaVette, Clarence Carter, Mickey Buckins, Scott Boyer, Tommy Talton, Charles “Wigg” Walker, Wet Willie, Charlie Taylor, Dan Penn, Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers), Jimmy Hall (Jeff Beck), Sherman Holmes (Holmes Brothers), Billy Swan, Blind Boys of Alabama, Buzz Cason, Fiddleworms, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Sam Moore (Sam & Dave), Ed King (Lynyrd Skynyrd), Donna Jean Godchaux (Grateful Dead) and Spooner Oldham.     (Photo: Andreas Werner, NuttHouse Recording Studio, Muscle Shoals, AL)

Andreas produces most of his recordings at the NuttHouse Recording Studio in Muscle Shoals and Creative Workshop in Nashville with engineers Jimmy Nutt and Joe Funderburk. In addition to his production work in the recording studio, he produced Muscle Shoals themed shows at the prestigious Lincoln Center in New York in 2015 and the Vancouver Island MusicFest in 2019, the Alabama Bicentennial Concert in 2020, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame's 2016, 2018 and 2020 induction ceremonies, a Last Waltz 40th Anniversary Show featuring many collaborators of the Band (2017) and an all-star tribute to Eddie Hinton (2015). He also manages the Muscle Shoals Allstars, a collective of Muscle Shoals' legendary session players and plays guitar with Funky Chester, Mitch Mann & The Mojo Mixers, Mark Narmore and the Alabama Bus Boys. Andreas is the creator and host of the Crazy Chester Radio Hour music talk podcast where he interviews legendary musicians, songwriters and music empresarios. He is a member of the Recording Academy, the Blues Foundation and the Americana Music Association.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has American Roots Music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

American Roots Music set me on my journey. It took me from Switzerland where I grew up and fell in love with the music by listening to records and reading every book and article I could get my hands on. Dan Penn told me right after I met him that I knew more about his career than he did. Of course, he was joking, but there was an ounce of truth to it. I really became a serious scholar of American Roots Music and especially the soulful sounds coming from Muscle Shoals, Memphis, the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans, besides just being a super fan of the music. American Roots Music opened the doors to a mythical world that became a real world right in front of my eyes.

When did Crazy Chester Records come about? How do you describe your music philosophy and songbook?

I started Crazy Chester Records along with my publishing company Crazy Chester Music in 2012. Then in 2017, I created the Crazy Chester Radio Hour, a podcast that features conversations with some of the great musicians and music people I get to collaborate with. It’s named after one of the characters in The Band’s classic song “The Weight”. I created the label as an outlet for some of the records I produce that are not otherwise tied up to a label. Our motto is “Soulful Americana Sounds from Muscle Shoals and beyond”. All our releases have a connection to Muscle Shoals and most of them were recorded in Muscle Shoals and/or Nashville with some of the great players from Muscle Shoals. I’m really proud of the catalog. Every single album speaks for itself. They all have an organic quality to them that stems from a bunch of musicians getting in the groove together the old school way. We have released albums by Carla Russell & The Muscle Shoals Allstars, The Decoys (featuring David Hood), Cowboy, Scott Boyer and Tommy Talton, Mark Narmore, Jacye, The Harvey Thompson Trio, Charlie Taylor, Fiddleworms, Mitch Mann, The Alabama Bus Boys, Funky Chester and a Muscle Shoals tribute to Eddie Hinton. My songbook has become quite extensive over the last decade. Around a hundred of the songs that I wrote or co-wrote have been recorded. I’ve been incredibly lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to write songs with some of my favorite songwriters like Mark Narmore, George Jackson, Donnie Fritts, Jon Tiven, Scott Boyer, Spooner Oldham, Mickey Buckins, Buzz Cason, Billy Swan and my most frequent collaborator Charlie Taylor.

"Getting to know and collaborate with many of my musical heroes has been the thrill of my life. I still can’t believe how lucky and fortunate I’ve been to stand on the shoulders of these giants." [Photo: Andreas Werner with legendary studio musicians from Muscle Shoals, Alabama / Clayton Ivey (keyboards), David Hood (bass), Andreas Werner (producer), Lynn Williams (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Spooner Oldham (keyboards), Mickey Buckins (percussion), Jimmy Nutt (engineer)]

Why do you think that the Muscle Shoals sound continues to generate such a devoted following?

It’s undeniably great. At its best, it’s the perfect marriage of great songs and soulful playing with funky grooves. Then you add Wilson Pickett’s, Aretha Franklin’s or Mavis Staples’ voice to it and you’ve got your stairway to soul music heaven! What also really inspired me was that the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section had the ability to become the perfect band for whoever went down to Muscle Shoals to record. They excelled on everything from soul music to rock and even some pop, reggae and country. It’s a great example that genres are created by the music business and not by the musicians themselves. All they wanted to make was good music. And good music they made and still do.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Meeting B.B. King was very profound. He’s a big hero of mine and I was fortunate to watch him play a few times less than 10 feet in front of me. Then I got to meet him in his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. I didn't spend much time with him, but it was plenty to fill my soul with inspiration. He was very warm and generous. Meeting Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns and producer/songwriter Jon Tiven for the first time at the Porretta Soul Festival in 2007 was instrumental in showing me that their world was not a world that was completely unattainable for me. A little later I met with Jimmy Johnson and David Hood in Muscle Shoals which eventually led to many of the adventures to come. Another fun one was a late-night dinner at 1 PM at a Waffle House in Nashville with Dan Penn, Charlie Taylor and Bob Killen. But that’s a story for another time.

What have been the highlights of your career so far? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

Getting to know and collaborate with many of my musical heroes has been the thrill of my life. I still can’t believe how lucky and fortunate I’ve been to stand on the shoulders of these giants. Also, it’s a real blessing to be able to turn your passion into your profession. I don’t take that for granted. In that regard, the whole ride has been incredible. If I had to single out a memory or two, it would be the few shows I produced where the Muscle Shoals Allstars were able to play for large international audiences like the one we did in front of the Lincoln Center in New York or a couple years ago at the Vancouver Island MusicFest. It was great to see the Muscle Shoals session cats being adored and cheered on and for them to see how beloved they are. I also produced a Last Waltz tribute show a few years ago featuring many performers who have played with the Band or Levon Helm. To be on stage as the musical director and play these great songs with those guys was truly incredible.

"My songbook has become quite extensive over the last decade. Around a hundred of the songs that I wrote or co-wrote have been recorded. I’ve been incredibly lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to write songs with some of my favorite songwriters like Mark Narmore, George Jackson, Donnie Fritts, Jon Tiven, Scott Boyer, Spooner Oldham, Mickey Buckins, Buzz Cason, Billy Swan and my most frequent collaborator Charlie Taylor." (Photo: N.C. Thurman, Andreas Werner, Tommy Talton, Scott Boyer, Muscle Shoals AL)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

I don’t really miss anything since I can make the music exactly as I want it to make by surrounding myself with the most soulful songwriters, musicians and singers. In that regard, it’s very much influenced by the past. We always start with a good song and then we get the rhythm section in the studio and record it pretty much live on the floor on the first or second take. Then we can put the Muscle Shoals Horns on the track to put the icing on the cake. It doesn’t get any better than that! I think that music should always evolve and be a reflection of what’s going on today. Sometimes though, I wish that younger artists and musicians would take more time to learn from the elders and take the time to perfect their craft (and also for record labels to give them the time to develop their craft). If you don’t know or listen to great records, it’s hard to establish a standard of excellence for yourself. For example, The Beatles were no overnight success, even if it might have appeared that way. They put in their 10,000 hours of playing live in clubs and studying their favorite records before they ever had a hit.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

You learn something every day. Life is about learning and that’s certainly true in my musical path. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have many dear collaborators and friends that are great mentors. I’ve learned so much from them, either directly by them telling me things, by observing them or by studying their body of work (mostly by listening to records). George Jackson showed me what soul is, Donnie Fritts taught me how to be funky and laid back, from David Hood I learned that less is more, Jimmy Johnson showed me that you must never lose your joy for music, Mickey Buckins taught me that it’s okay to wear many hats (Mickey has been a part of many of the great records coming out of Muscle Shoals as songwriter, musician, engineer or producer), from Charles Rose of the Muscle Shoals Horns I’ve been learning about arranging for horns, Scott Boyer showed me that life is good as long as you’ve got a song in your heart, from Jon Tiven I learned never to give up on an idea before you have a finished song, Buzz Cason showed me that you’ll never have to stop evolving musically, thanks to Charlie Taylor I’ve found the Bernie Taupin to my Elton John and Sherman Holmes of the Holmes Brothers showed me that you can be brothers even when you were born half a century apart on different continents with a different skin color. I feel super fortunate to have all these wonderful loving people in my life.

"I really became a serious scholar of American Roots Music and especially the soulful sounds coming from Muscle Shoals, Memphis, the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans, besides just being a super fan of the music. American Roots Music opened the doors to a mythical world that became a real world right in front of my eyes." (Photo: Funky Chester aka Andreas Werner, Alabama)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Personally, I would want my friends that have passed away to be still alive. They all were as creative as ever and really better than ever up until they left us. I would give a lot to still be able to learn from them and to still be able to create and listen to new songs and recordings with and from them. I miss them terribly. In a more universal way, I’d love for the best music to be also the most commercial music. In that way, I’d love to live in a renaissance period like the 1960s where that was the case. I’d also like to reverse the devaluation of music and would like to encourage the public to invest in music (and especially recorded music) which in turn would lead to the creation of more great music.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Music is medicine for the soul. It has a healing quality and has the power to make people feel better. It can also help people express, amplify or uncover feelings they might not be able to feel otherwise. Music is a universal language that can go places where mankind sometimes struggles to go. Music played a significant role in the civil rights movement and tearing down apartheid in South Africa. At its best, music can build bridges and tear down walls. I’d like for music to make people feel good, to make them dance and sometimes to make them think or help them get lost in the moment.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

This is a hard one to answer. From the top of my head, I would go down to the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s with a field recorder and look up and record Robert Johnson on location in his prime. It’s a shame that he was only recorded twice in his lifetime and much of his repertoire is lost to time. Other places and times I’d love to visit would be The Staple Singers sessions at Muscle Shoals Sound studio in August 1971 where they recorded “I’ll Take You There” with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Eddie Hinton on lead guitar, a show of the Stax Volt Revue in Europe in 1967 (possibly the greatest concert tour of all time), the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey in the 1970s to see Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes with Bruce Springsteen and Ronnie Spector or the Lone Star Café in New York in the early 1980s to see members of The Band, Paul Butterfield and Bob Dylan play a few impromptu sets.

Crazy Chester Records - Home

(Photos: Funky Chester aka Andreas Werner)

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