Over the past four years, no producer in Music City has been hotter than Jay Joyce. He has twice topped the Billboard 200 with albums he produced for Eric Church (Chief, The Outsiders), and reached No. 2 twice with a record for Cage the Elephant (Thank You Happy Birthday) and one for Little Big Town (Tornado). In addition, he helmed about half of Gary Allan’s Set You Free, which also hit No 1. Four other albums he produced during that time reached the chart’s upper echelon: It Goes Like This for Thomas Rhett hit No. 6, Trouble for the Randy Rogers Band went to No. 9, Melophobia for Cage the Elephant reached No. 15, and Hard Bargain for Emmylou Harris made it to No. 18. That’s a lot of gold and platinum.
But before Joyce became an in-demand, chart-topping producer, he was a go-to session guitarist, Nashville’s number one rock guy. He recorded with an array of artists, including Iggy Pop, The Wallflowers, Macy Gray, Crowded House, Nanci Griffith, Shawn Mullins, Radney Foster and Gillian Welch. Even now, when he is best-known as a producer, he still gets calls to add his six-string savvy to other people’s productions.
“It all starts with guitar still,” he says early one morning at St. Charles, his spacious East Nashville studio which is housed in a beautiful, former church building. “I’ve got to sit down and play that thing — or I just forget everything and start going around in circles. Any of my ideas, any of the production, the sounds, it all starts there.”
Although he doesn’t like to make a big deal of it, he often plays guitar on the records he produces, as well as other instruments. “I play guitar all the time,” he says. “I’m all over the place on records.”
Growing up, Joyce remembers his family having an old acoustic guitar. “It seems like we always had a four-string, five-string beater guitar sitting around the house, so I always knew how to hold it and pretend like I was playing it,” he says.
But the Ohio native didn’t get serious about playing the instrument until his teens. He remembers the defining moment when he knew he wanted to be a guitarist. “I grew up in Cleveland in a black neighborhood, and I heard some noise coming from the school across the street from where I lived,” he says. “I snuck in, went down the hall and looked into this room, and there were these three black dudes with Afros playing [Sly & The Family Stone’s] ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,’ over and over and over — and I had never heard that song [before] then. They just played that riff over and over, and it was the most amazing thing I had ever heard or seen in my life. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do right there.’ That was it for me, man. I was in.”
Joyce got his first real axe, a Japanese Stratocaster copy, not long thereafter. “It was bone white like Hendrix’s,” he says. “I was off to the races then.”
He recruited his younger brother Tommy to help him practice. “I wanted to play fast. I didn’t even learn chords — I was just off jamming. I taught my brother to play like three chords over and over and over, so I could just solo. I would kick his ass if he stopped — his fingers would be bleeding and shit,” Joyce recalls with a laugh. “He totally knows how to play guitar because of that,” he adds, then laughs again.
It wasn’t long before Joyce was playing with other people. “I got kicking around with some kids, just kind of playing in the basement, learning stuff, just jamming around,” he recalls. “As I got into it, I started to realize the important thing is the groove, and the rhythm.”
Although he does mention a few guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Carlos Santana, he says as far as his influences go, “I never had one guy — it was all over the place for me.”
Joyce never had any formal training on guitar, not even lessons at the local music store. “I’m self-taught. I never studied or anything,” he says. “I know quite a bit about music theory now, just from playing and working in studios, but I still don’t know the number system when they do it here. I just learn the song. It’s only three-or-four chords anyway.
“I think I learned it probably the wrong way, but made it right,” he continues. “I probably went the hard way, you know. Some of the things I do, probably I could have been taught an easier way to do it. But because I started mentally in that way, I think it gave me a little bit of a style.”
When it comes to his axes, Joyce says, “I traded and switched around a lot of guitars I wish I had hung onto. I don’t really like Strats or Les Pauls now. My main guitar which I have really used all these years is a Fender Tele Deluxe. The head is a Strat headstock, so it’s kind of an odd one.
“You know, I’m an addict, man, with guitars and amps,” he says. “I’ve just got so many it’s ridiculous. I have to be able to reach over and have a lot of options at my fingertips soundwise — because of the variety of what I do. I do everything from straight-up punk to about as country or folk as you can get.”
In his early 20s, Joyce was living in Cincinnati for a while, playing with a blind bluesman. As the holidays approached, he visited Nashville to catch a ride back to Cleveland for Christmas with his brother Mike, a professional bassist in the city.
“He was doing session stuff, so I went to a session with him and I was just blown away that that was how it was done,” he says of the demo session he attended. “Some guy played the songs, they all wrote charts out and they recorded the songs. Before that it was a mystery. The veil was lifted, and I was like, ‘All right, I know how it’s done now.’ I just wanted to get back down here and start doing that, you know.”
Back in Cleveland, he ran into an acquaintance, Emma Grandillo, who asked him to do a gig with her. That led to them forming the punk/new wave trio In Pursuit. They soon moved to Music City, and within a year of their arrival, the band had landed a recording contract with MTM Records, a subsidiary of Mary Tyler Moore’s MTM Enterprises which had major-label distribution through Capitol Records.
“Yeah, we came down and right away started playing Cantrell’s a bunch,” he recalls. “Then we heard about this label in town and they came to see us, and boom. It was pretty quick.”
In Pursuit was one of the more successful bands to come out of the Nashville rock scene in the mid to late ’80s. They released an EP (When Darkness Falls) and an album (Standing In Your Shadow), had music videos in rotation on MTV and appeared on the network’s New Music Awards Show, toured with A-ha, and opened for R.E.M., Starship, Nick Lowe and Mr. Mister. But when MTM Records was bought and absorbed by Capitol, the members of the band went their separate ways.
“There was no breakup or anything,” he says. “The label folded and we just got busy with other things.”
In the early ’90s, he made demo recordings of some new material with two former members of The Questionnaires, guitarist Doug Lancio and bassist Chris Feinstein. “We did a few gigs as an unnamed band, I think it might have even been my name,” he says. “MCA just happened to be in town, and saw [a show], and heard the demos. Again, we ended up signing it pretty quickly.”
The band, which ended up being called Bedlam, released an eponymous EP and an album, Into the Coals, on MCA. “That one we didn’t have as much luck,” he says of the full-length. “The entire promotion staff was fired the day it came out. Typical scenario where it wasn’t very long-lived, you know. It never really had a chance.”
Although Bedlam didn’t sell a lot of records, Joyce’s work with the band earned him a lifelong fan in director Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino used two tracks by the group — an original by Joyce and a cover of the Steppenwolf classic, “Magic Carpet Ride” — in his debut film, Reservoir Dogs, considered by some critics to be the best independent film of all time.
“Somebody called and said he wanted to use this song — an original acoustic thing of mine called ‘Harvest Moon,’” Joyce recalls. “He was nobody then, he was just some crazy dude from Knoxville.
“I started getting into sessions around the time of Bedlam,” he says. “I started working with a lot of other people and getting into studios.”
Joyce and Feinstein put together another band with drummer Brad Pemberton called Iodine, and released two albums, Maximum Joy and Baby Grand, on independent labels in the mid to late ’90s. The group toured the Eastern half of the U.S. in support of the records, but with the release in 1998 of Patty Griffin’s Flaming Red, which Joyce helmed, his career as a producer began to take off.
Over the next decade, he worked with a number of critically acclaimed artists, including John Hiatt, The Derek Trucks Band, Tim Finn, Shelby Lynne, Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise, Jack Ingram and John Cowan, lending his guitar to the music whenever it was appropriate.
He began working with Eric Church in 2006 and the success of their collaboration put him on the radar of other country artists who “want to do something different.” And that something different which Joyce brings to a record almost always starts with his guitar work — the riffs and the soundscapes which are his signature.
“Honestly, Nashville has some of the worst guitar players ever because they’re all trying to be the best guitar player, you know what I mean?” he says. “There is something about rock ’n’ roll — it’s just not the guy who learned, it’s not the guy who went to school, it’s not the guy who studied and knows all the right notes to play. It’s the guy who just grabs it and plays how he feels.
“But it’s all schooled now, man,” he continues. “Fucking rock ’n’ roll is a curriculum now. Kids in school have rock ’n’ roll class — and they don’t see the danger in that.
“I’ve spent years in basically getting back to the point of not knowing anything. I’m better off just not trying to make everything so fucking difficult. The simpler, and the more basic, and just straight from the heart the better.”