Though the image of country music these days brings to mind big pickup trucks, bigger production, stadium concerts, and headset microphones, the origins of the deeply American musical tradition stem from acoustic guitars strummed on front porches or from the corner of low-lit barns-cum-dance halls at best. Despite the bloated modern commercialism, the essence of the genre still remains this simple, intimate form of performance. With the help of a local studio and a local label, country singer-songwriter Cory Cross was able to capture just a little bit of that essence on his latest EP.
Released this past Friday, Cross’ simply titled Cloudland Single Mic Session recreates some of the folksy intimacy of the classic country tradition by recording three songs live at Cloudland Recording Studios with just one microphone picking up the entire three-piece performance. The sessions were also documented on video and can be streamed on YouTube. The effort was a collaboration among Cross; Cloudland’s resident engineer Joe Tacke (Mean Motor Scooter, Uncle Toasty); and DJ Dugan of Smith Music Group, the local label best known for releasing most of the live recordings to come out of Billy Bob’s Texas.
“It was kind of coincidental how it came together,” Cross explained about the coordination. “I was already chatting with Joe [Tacke] about doing some recording for a duet I had written to record with [country singer] Jenna Clark” at her recommendation. “Then, around the same time, DJ [Dugan] also suggested I reach out to Joe [Tacke] on one of these single-mic things, which, I guess, they’ve done a few of together. Me and [Tacke] clicked right off the bat.”
The great professional relationship that developed between Cross and Tacke further solidified when the two began working together on a full-band version of the duet Cross envisioned with Jenna Clark, due out in the fall. Though most often found tracking full bands, Tacke has some pretty extensive experience with the novel single-mic technique that seems so compatible with the stark acoustic country that Cross presented for the project.
“I had wanted to do something like this for a long time,” Tacke explained. “Several years ago, I heard a story on NPR about a John Mellencamp record he had done at Sun [Studio] in Memphis. They still had all the original spots marked on the floor from where Elvis’ band had set up, and [Mellencamp] decided to record with the same method using those spots to put his band around a single mic. I spent some time studying the technique and listening to some of those records before finally deciding to give it a try.”
Tacke utilized the method briefly for a project called Just One in coordination with Travis Wright of the I’m a Fan of … podcast. The concept: one mic, one camera, one shot. Previous acts captured this way include the aforementioned Jenna Clark, Phantomelo, Bruce Magnus, Neutral on Paul, and Heart of the City.
“I love the challenge of this method of recording,” Tacke elaborated. “None of the band wears headphones, and there’s only one mic, so balancing the mix consists of telling this player to turn down and that player to move closer, et cetera. I do all of these straight to tape, so there is the added challenge of using that medium. The end result is so rewarding. Most artists are surprised by the sound that can be achieved with just a single microphone.”
The three songs Cross chose for the project — a cover of the John Prine classic “Angel from Montgomery” and two originals, “Home” and “New Year’s Eve” — as well as Cross’ tall, slender, Hank Williams-esque presence, lend themselves effortlessly to this simple method. Cross’ dusky tenor is sparsely accompanied by his girlfriend Abigayle Ryan and the gentle weep of pedal steel played by Burton Lee.
“Cory [Cross] was a perfect fit for this because of his voice,” Tacke said. “He has such a killer voice. There’s some young Randy Travis in there, I think, on top of his own uniqueness that makes him really fun to listen to. Plus, his songwriting is top notch. He immediately understood how to work with the mic and when and where to pull back. Him and I got it off so well.”
Cross, no stranger to a recording studio, said he found the experience calming in contrast to the normal tracking process.
“The atmosphere, at least for me, was a lot more laid back” than a typical recording session, he said. “I’ve been in the studio where it’s been my project, my money, with a timeframe, and my own specific vision, with people and plans. That can be a bit of a stressful environment. But this all developed pretty on the spot. We never really talked about specifics — how many songs and whatnot. I knew it was going to be good. Joe [Tacke]’s really talented, and it was DJ [Dugan]’s idea, and he loves music — we all do — but I didn’t really know what to expect. I wasn’t even entirely sure it was going to be released as an EP. I didn’t really have much of a vision for it, but the end result, I’m very happy with.”