Mark Neill Interview: Sheet Iron Roof Chronicles Part Two
By James Calemine

Mark Neill operates as one of this generation’s preeminent producers. His Valdosta, Georgia, Soil of the South recording studio, remains quite busy these days. Neill grew up in Hahira, Georgia, on a farm in an area called Snake Nation. He’s a tone guru of the highest order.

I recorded my spoken word EP for The Local Stranger with Bloodkin at Neill’s studio in 2014. Neill appears in my book Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2. Neill won a GRAMMY for the Black Keys album Brothers. He also designed studios for Toe Rag in London, the Band of Heathens Finishing School in Austin, Black Shack Studios in Germany, Dave Cobb’s Low Country Sounds and Dan Auerbach’s studio in Akron.

In Part One of the Sheet Iron Roof Chronicles we discussed the death of his friend Richard Swift and a few other on goings at the time. In Part Two, we continue the saga. Yesterday (Sunday March 20, 2022) we went on the record for this episode. We discuss his successful recordings with Charley Crockett, Georgia’s recording scene and a few records he produced that will be released later this year. Mr. Neill is not a big fan of social media, but you can peer into some of his photos on his Instagram account.

JC: So, let’s start with the two recent Charley Crockett albums you recorded–they had tremendous success.

MN: Yeah, five weeks in a row #1 on the Americana Country chart. That one’s called Music City USA–the latest one I did with him. We had incredible sales and exposure on Welcome To Hard Times–the record right before it, which opened with the pandemic. It seemed like we wrote it about the pandemic, but we didn’t. We were writing about the sorry state of the music industry then the pandemic came and it just layered over the material perfectly. It was so close to the pandemic that it really did fit. Welcome To Hard Times did really well. Music City USA came out as fast as two records can after each other.

JC: How long did it take to record under those conditions?

MN: Well, each one of Charley’s took roughly a month to make. Songwriting. Arranging. Not to say the song ideas on Charley’s part weren’t there or well on their way. I co-wrote some of it. That took about a month. We would do phases–we’d do a week of just me and him sitting around throwing song ideas at each other–putting chords together. Then there’s a week of arranging and then the band slowly file in and then we have a week of tracking, and backing vocals. Then four or five days of every kind of vocal you can imagine because there’s quartet singing. I’d do harmonies, Charley’s guy CoCo would do harmonies. Then mixing and mastering–the whole thing took about four weeks.

Each one of them was like that. It was very efficient. Even though the pandemic meant Welcome To Hard Times couldn’t be toured on things started picking up when we started doing Music City USA. The threat of not playing didn’t lend itself to spending a lot of time and money from idea to final product. I really like those records. Charley really liked them and really the fans loved them. We were overjoyed that everybody bought them. There was a lot of independent country radio airplay that’s unique to the south. It really did well. I was surprised how these little radio stations all over the south were all over this style of country music, which we would call traditional. Most people don’t know anything except outlaw country so they don’t really know what that means. Traditional country was pre 1972.

JC: Talk about the state of Georgia’s recording industry right now…

MN: Well, there is no state of the industry. Everything here is DIY. As normal, Georgia will farm and develop a team and then the players will get drafted to other states, not to use a sports analogy because I don’t like to do that. Great talent in Georgia goes to other cities, and the other cities get the credit. Nothing has changed. Essentially, I’m it in South Georgia. In North Georgia, as in Athens, we have David Barbe and Normaltown Records. There’s activity there. There is a lot of desire for people to say, ‘We’ll take it to Nashville because that’s really where it should be done. We’re going to move to Los Angeles because that’s where it’s hip’. I don’t know if these jokers know, but I’m sure it occurs to them when they move to their big cities that wow they need us here to do this because L.A. doesn’t have any indigenous Georgia music (heh heh). 

You meet a lot of people from the south in L.A. It bothered me because I’ve been there off and on my whole life. It bothered me every time I went there–so we are what they make this scene out of. L.A. portends to be a great place to assemble. Everyone saw Echo In The Canyon, the movie. But that only lasted a year and then it was gone. If anyone wants to be part of that transient culture then that’s for them. I, myself, like something more secure, permanent and grounded. I never got tired of a good Gibson or a Martin guitar. I never felt the need to buy a modern style acoustic guitar. Why do we have to cut more trees down to make disposable guitars? There’s no reason for it, and that’s how I feel about music. How many Steinway pianos do we need on this planet?

People talk about sustainability. Well, live it then. You say you drive an electric car–big deal, you play a plastic guitar. You support an industry that throws everything away. They are constantly looking for new technology. New technology is not new ideas. Technology is a tool. Entertainment is entertainment. Music is music. These things do touch each other and they do intersect. If you’ve got all this together then you’ve got something really fun. You’ve got perhaps a Sergeant Pepper or a really good George Jones record. If these things intersect that’s great, but if it’s money then that’s totally something else. Music is different–it lives in its own world if its good. If it’s not good then it’s just entertainment. Jim Dickinson once said to me: “Noise modulated by music is music.” That’s the most basic thing there is, noise. That’s raw as it gets (heh heh). Music is not technology. What does that have to do with Georgia? It’s just perception. Everybody thinks they gotta go somewhere else. If you write the kind of music we write in South Georgia you don’t have to go to Chicago to do it. That’s just my feeling.

JC: What other groups have you recorded recently? What should we be on the lookout for?

MN: Oh man. I’ve recorded the Delta Bombers. Ben Hale–an amazing singer/songwriter who is like a cross between Mickey Newberry and Nilsson. I use that only as a reference. Ben would laugh if he heard me say that. That’s the style of it, but Ben is his own thing. He’s real unique. Nick Waterhouse just made a record here. It’s a complete departure and to me an incredible piece of work. The songs are stunning–and he sings the living daylights out of them. We just wrapped that up last week. I’ve got a band coming in next week from Nashville–two brothers–the Cerny Brothers, they’re like a two piece band.

The Delta Bombers are about to launch their singles and videos. There will be a lot of fall releases that came out of here. You know how it is in my studio. You sit in the lounge, put your head back, close your eyes and if you sit still long enough and put a guitar in your lap a song will blow into your brain. The Deep South–everybody knows this–has an incredible sound to it. As you know James, it’s all about songs. It’s not about drum sounds, plug-ins or awesome guitar pedals heh heh). It will always be about songs…


Soil of the South Instagram

Photo Credits: #1 Charley Crockett Selfie #2 Matt Ross-Spang