Solomon Burke and Irma Thomas. Allen Toussaint and Mose Allison. Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Loudon Wainwright III. Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette. Those names could make up a hall of fame induction class—if, that is, a hall was built to celebrate artists from the worlds of soul, jazz, folk and hybrids in between. Meanwhile, that roll call serves as a partial list of musical artists with whom Joe Henry has worked as a producer.
To call that a veteran list would be an understatement, with, oh, about 500 combined years in the music business represented. In that regard, it could also be an intimidating one. How do you prepare for Solomon Burke or Allen Toussaint entering the studio?
"Well, my approach is always the same in as much as I try to dedicate myself—and invite the artists to, as well—to leaving ego out of the process in favor of simply illuminating the music," Henry says. "But, of course, what is necessary to create music that stands on its own as a luminous thing can be different artist to artist."
Thus, flexibility is a virtue, especially when working with artists closely tied to a particular musical form. "The thing for me is to find a way to be authentic to a sensibility, but not be stubborn about the ways that sensibility might need to be flexible," he offers, speaking also as a recording artist who has explored a variety of genres across an 11-album catalog. "I know the way home, so to speak, but you always have to be prepared for an off-ramp to be closed for repairs."
Henry points to two of his recent production efforts, each centered on vintage songs, to underscore this need for an open mind by all parties involved. For 2009's A Stranger Here, Ramblin' Jack Elliott accepted Henry's pitch to interpret a selection of Depression-era country blues, a style not entirely in the influential folksinger's wheelhouse. "He arrived knowing that he was invited to engage some old music in a way he never had," Henry says of Elliott, "and, fortunately, found himself excited by stepping into the river at an unfamiliar access point." (The results earned Elliott a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.)
Earlier this year, Henry worked with the Carolina Chocolate Drops on Genuine Negro Jig, the trio's debut for the Nonesuch label. The relationship to music from the early part of the 20th century is different for the band—Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson—than for Elliott. "The Chocolate Drops, by their nature, are always discovering and rediscovering what it means to honor traditions much older than themselves," Henry says. In his role as producer, he offered guidance and space to enable the young group to, in his words, "stand with those traditions and not be trapped by them." The reverence is tangible throughout, but it's trumped by exuberance, making it a springboard and never an anchor.
As for the other side of the collaboration, how did the Carolina Chocolate Drops prepare for working with Joe Henry? It's not like they've had much free time over the last couple of years while playing on A Prairie Home Companion, in The Great Debaters and at the Grand Ole Opry and the Cambridge and Newport folk festivals. "Dom had known about a few of his records and a few of the ones that he produced as well, especially Solomon Burke's Don't Give Up On Me," Giddens says. "Justin and I boned up a bit on his repertoire."
And as for the approach, Giddens sums it up in simple terms: "Joe was really great about not trying to change things around a bunch." By all accounts, another successful illumination.