Writer Ed Condran on Americana Producer Wes Sharon
“If it sounds like hell, it must have been recorded at the Devil’s Workshop.”
That’s the clever slogan on the back of the rare t-shirts, (too few were printed) promoting the Devil’s Workshop, Wes Sharon’s initial recording studio in red dirt country. Sharon’s current production house, 115 Recording, in Norman, Oklahoma is in a different locale but the process is the same. The albums produced at the Workshop and 115 sound like hell if you speak in the sort of parlance, in which bad is good.
The laid-back Grammy nominee converses in many different sonic languages in order to connect with an array of recording artists, who ironically never had idle hands, while crafting albums in the Devil’s Workshop or 115.
The bad ass bassist is like a young John Lydon since he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. “I try to make a record that I would want to hear,” Sharon says. “I want to make an album that I would buy. But I also want recording artists to make the finest album they can make.”
Sharon has succeeded again and again while behind the board at the studio he built. John Fullbright, The Turnpike Troubadours and Parker Millsap are among the recording artists who made sonic documents at 115 Recording.
Sharon’s latest project, Jared Deck’s self-titled debut, which drops in May, has considerable buzz behind it. “17 Miles,” the initial single, is the reason Deck was picked as one of Rolling Stone’s 10 New Country Artists You Need to Know” in March. Sharon produced, engineered and even co-wrote some of the songs on Deck’s album. “Wes understands songs and the people who write them,” Deck says. “He helped me find a voice I didn’t know I had.”
The amusing sage gave Deck valuable direction. “When Jared came in, he didn’t know what he wanted to do,” Sharon says “He was a guy willing to take advice. He’s talented. He wanted some feedback. He wanted me to tell him the truth. I told him to open up more. If you listen to “17 Miles,” it’s not the song he brought in. He sung it in a sing songy manner I told him to sing harder and he did and it’s a very different song from what I first heard.”
The insightful Sharon is part therapist, part sleuth and part friend. “I work with people to find their voice,” Sharon said. “If they feel safe with me, that’s good. They want an opinion. They want to know if what they’re making is good. I’m there to protect them from themselves. When they make a record with me, I’m their best friend at that moment.”
Sharon knows the industry and passes along his wisdom to recording artists. “I let them know that I don’t want them to make a record for now. I want a record for the long haul. I want to make a record that represents the recording artist two-years from now. Preferably we can make an album that is timeless. There would be nothing greater than that.”
Sharon does all that he can to enhance a song but he realizes one size doesn’t fit all. When he recorded John Fullbright’s critically acclaimed 2012 release “From the Ground Up,” he focused on the sound, not the tunes, which is to be expected. Fullbright is akin to a young Townes Van Zandt.
“I’m very proud of that record,” Sharon says. “I’m proud of how it sounds. It’s very ‘70s style audio, which fit John. In terms of the songs, he nailed it. I told him nobody is going to love your music like me. I would follow him into the sun. I told him to let’s just try to make the best John Fullbright record possible. John is a one in a million talent. He might not sell like Katy Perry but he’s a golden unicorn. He’s a rare talent.”
“From the Ground Up” was nominated in 2013 for the Americana Album of the Year Grammy, which is essentially a nod to the producer. “I lost my fucking mind when John told me about the nomination,” Sharon recalls. “My heart started beating faster. We had a great time going out to Los Angeles for the Grammys.”
“Goodbye Normal Street,” the rollicking 2012 album by the Turnpike Troubadours, was a completely different animal for Sharon, who produced and engineered the roots-rockers’ high-water mark.
“That album sold over 50,000 copies,” Sharon says. “These shitkickers want something they can easily play in their car. So they buy hard copies and they made it (“Goodbye Normal Street) the biggest selling record in the red dirt Americana scene. (Singer-songwriter) Evan (Felker) writes really good songs. They’re not that hard to put together. I helped the band with conceptual ideas. The Troubadours are a great live band. I tried to make what they do live work in the studio.”
Sharon produced Parker Millsap’s 2014 eponymous album. Millsap, then 21, arrived with a soulful voice and plenty of potential. “The thing about Parker is that he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He will be a great artist, he’s going to do fine. He is so proficient. I was trying to capture what he was doing. My job with him was sonics. His songs have to sound big and on that album they sound enormous.”
It all started for Sharon when he was the bassist for a number of punk rock bands during the ’80s. such as Shoe Papa Blue and Burn Wagon. “We used to go up onstage with black tape over our genitals and nipples,” Sharon recalls. “We had fun. We were the opposite of Fugazi. We wanted the drugs and we wanted to get drunk.”
In 1993, Sharon, through a friend, ended up living with Scott Weiland just as his band, Stone Temple Pilots were breaking. “I remember driving around Hollywood with Scott and he was blasting Stone Temple Pilots in my car,” Sharon said. “The weird part was he was singing along with the songs he’d recorded, it was beyond strange hearing his voice with his voice next to me and coming out of the speakers.” Just after he left Weiland, Sharon became a staff recording engineer and producer at San Francisco’s Prairie Recording Studio in 1994. Sharon worked with a disparate bunch of talented recording artist, such as the iconic Gregg Allman, the underheralded Remy Zero and classic rockers The Doobie Brothers.
“Remy Zero was America’s Radiohead,” Sharon says. “They were really good. Stunningly talented people if they had their opportunity. The timing was just not right for them. (Singer-songwriter) Cinjun Tate would have been a better frontman for the masses than Thom Yorke. I worked with Remy Zero and also with Gregg Allman, who said two things while he was around. ‘Where is the head, Oh, God bless you.’ And I can still hear his stoned voice saying, ‘where can i get that fine humboldt county green bud?’ It was all a learning experience.”
“I wouldn’t be here without all of that. I look back on that as I get ready to move forward to my next projects.”