John Berry Heads to Muscle Shoals for New Christian-Themed Album
When John Berry burst onto the national scene in 1992, he already had a huge following in his native Georgia–even selling 10,000 copies of an indie album. His appeal wasn’t the same as some of the other neo-traditionalist, hat-wearing country singers but more on the “gentler” side of country music. Now back in his home in Athens, life’s come full circle for Berry. Still very active in touring, he’s putting together an independent Christian-themed country album in soulful Muscle Shoals.
With a distinctive and wide-ranging tenor voice, Berry has recorded more than 15 studio albums and charted 19 songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts. They include the Number One single “Your Love Amazes Me” from 1994 and six additional Top Ten hits: “What’s In It for Me”, “You and Only You”, “Standing on the Edge of Goodbye”, “I Think About It All the Time”, “Change My Mind, and “She’s Taken a Shine.”
John took some time out of his busy schedule building a new home and getting his new project ready to talk with The 9513.
Your father listened to concert pianists, your mother was passionate about gospel music and your brother became an opera singer–how on earth did you end up in country music?
Well, one went opera and one went Opry. I started playing guitar in 1972 and singer/songwriters were awfully prevalent at that time. John Denver, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, Jackson Browne, Dan Fogelberg. And there’s James Taylor, of course. There was some great music. And I was really drawn to that kind of stuff, the singer/songwriter stuff. I started writing my own little songs and my dad built me a little studio in our house and I messed around enough to make very basic recordings of things. By the time I got into making albums for the majors–although I was in my mid-30’s by the time I signed with a major label–what I was doing was kind of pop-country at the time. But I didn’t grow up listening to Hank Jr. or Hank Sr. or Patsy Cline or Merle Haggard. I just didn’t grow up listening to that. But the grounds were such that there was a real acceptance in country music for the type of music that I was doing.
Coming full circle from those early childhood days at the house studio, I know you’re close to getting back into the studio to begin working on a new album.
We’re getting ready to start. We’re busy doing our song hunt and we’re getting ready to get some songwriting done for the album and see what all we can come up with. I’ll be working with Lenny LeBlanc. Folks might not recognize his name immediately, but he was part of LeBlanc and Carr, a duo a few years back. They had some great songs on the radio. He seems to be a really terrific guy. We haven’t met personally, but we’ve talked on the phone quite a bit working on this thing already. I’m hopefully going to head to Muscle Shoals in Alabama this weekend and start getting all of our ducks in a row.
Is there something tangible you’re looking for in song selection or is it one of those things where you know it when you hear it?
A lot of it is I know it when I hear it. But we are specifically cutting a Christian-themed album. They’re songs of faith, songs that Christian people that live Christian lives would relate to day to day. It doesn’t all have to be specific Christian songs, but just songs about life. Songs that people can relate to in a real way. They’ll be songs that are specific in being faith-driven.
And why Muscle Shoals in lieu of recording in Nashville?
Lenny lives in Muscle Shoals and we’ve got some other friends over there that are going to be helping us out. We’re really excited about that. Alan Schulman is going to be engineering and we’re going to do it in his studio so it’s going to be great. The studio is actually owned by Alan Schulman and Mac McAnally. I’m a huge fan’s of Mac’s and have enjoyed his music over the years. He’s written so many wonderful songs, so it’s really exciting being able to go there and work with some guys whom I’ve really looked up to all these years and record and do some work there. My music has a little bit of soul to it and they’ve got a whole lot more soul in Muscle Shoals. It’s kind of a cool environment to be able to go do this in. It’ll be different for me as well.
Have you started sweet-talking Mac to come play guitar on the album yet?
You know, I haven’t met Mac quite yet. But when Lenny called, Mac had some very nice things to say about my vocal performances and it was very nice to hear. They made a wonderful offer for me to come down and record there. It’s a very cool thing.
Are you going to be doing some writing yourself for the album and do you have some songs in the can already?
I’ve written a couple of things already. And there’s a specific song that I’m holding onto that I want to write with Lenny. And if these other guys can come and join us, I’d certainly love to include them as well. But I have this specific number to get written. But we’ll see, we’re going to take this next month to search out songs as well as write some music.
Obviously, it’s pretty early, but do you have a goal for a release date set for it yet?
I’m not sure yet. If we release it on our own, we’ll have it with us on this year’s Christmas tour. But we are going to shop it around to see if any labels are interested. If there is some interest, we’ll hold off and weigh that out; make sure that we make a smart move with it. I’d hate to have it out there on the Christmas tour and then lose any momentum we could have with a major label or something.
When I talked to you last, you mentioned that one of your biggest regrets was selling your home in Georgia and moving to Nashville back in the beginning of your recording career. That stuck with me. Would you expound on that?
The problem was that it wasn’t at the beginning of my major label music career. If I had moved to Nashville at the beginning it probably would have been okay. By the time I moved to Nashville, my Capitol days had ended and I was with Lyric Street. I moved to Nashville and when I moved there, they dropped me off the label. It was basically because I was a rude and arrogant individual who wasn’t much of a team player, I’m afraid. It was my own fault that they dumped me off the label. It’s one of those things where we live and learn, you know? Had I moved up there when I got signed by Capitol, it probably would have been the best thing. The best thing would have been staying where we were. We had a great little farm. It was paid for. Debt’s an awful thing. I don’t care who you are, debt is an awful thing. I don’t care if it’s a mortgage on a house or a payment on a car. I’m not a fan of any of that stuff. And here I am getting ready to sign a mortgage on a new house we built. But I’m going to work my tail off to get it paid off. That’s not a place that I want to be.
Being in Georgia looking in to Nashville rather than vice-versa, did that have any influence on your sound?
I think that had I moved to Nashville years ago, I would have become more of the industry and that probably would have been a good thing. I would have had more daily access to songwriter friends and I really could have honed that skill even more and become a better songwriter. I probably could have been a better musician all-around. I think it would have made what I do better all-around. But I didn’t. And I haven’t. So I just got to do the best I can with what I have and get Lenny LeBlanc to come produce a great record for me. People like that can help define the record so that when people hear it, they say, “Oh yeah, that’s John Berry.” That’s what we’re after with this record.
At this stage in your career, what other music goals to you have ahead for yourself?
I don’t know, really. I’m not sure. We want to create this next record and see where it leads. I think with whatever this record does, it will help define what goals I have long-term. When you’re 51, long term is all relative in an industry being driven by 14-year-olds. (Laughter) What’s long term?
What is country music to John Berry?
Country music is songs about real life, as mundane as that might be. So it’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Country music to me isn’t cheating songs and beer-drinking songs, because that’s not part of my life. It’s not what I do. It’s about raising kids and living and living in this country and fighting for this country. It’s about going through the struggles that people go through every day. That’s what real life is to me. And I want to sing songs about real life and the different roads it takes us down. Hopefully people will hear some of these songs that I write and say, “Yep, that’s where I’m at.”
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