There might be different ways to quantify who the most successful producer in country music history would be, but Variety‘s Hitmaker of the Month, Scott Hendricks, is certainly in the running, with more than 70 No. 1 singles to his credit in a 35-year discography. What might be easier to quantify is who stands as country’s most commercially viable artist/producer team, ever — that’d have to be Hendricks and his primary client, Blake Shelton.
Back in 2014, Shelton set a record by having his 11th consecutive No. 1 single, all of them with Hendricks. Not content with merely breaking the record, they kept going from there, eventually getting to 17 in a row before the streak was broken in 2017. But that didn’t mean they’d crested. The singer and producer have accumulated six more No. 1s since then, including 2019’s “God’s Country” and 2020’s “Nobody But You” and “Happy Anywhere” (the last two both featuring Gwen Stefani), bringing their total to 23 that have reached the top in just 11 years. A newly released song, “Minimum Wage,” is a better bet than not to join the chart-topping company of those earlier smashes.
Hendricks is current working on Shelton’s first full album since 2017, due to come out later in 2021. On an afternoon off from that this week, the producer talked with Variety about their entwined legacy, and about his day job as EVP creative advisor at Warner Music Nashville, where he also signed and has produced artists like Dan + Shay. These twin duties represent a rare confluence of success for someone who’s been producing records for three and a half decades, as Hendricks has since he established Restless Heart’s career in 1985 and moved on to career-making work with Alan Jackson, Faith Hill, Brooks & Dunn and John Michael Montgomery.
VARIETY: When you and Blake are thinking singles, do you think about what the last few singles have been, and whether there’s a niche for a type of song he does that hasn’t been filled in a while?
HENDRICKS: Well, picking singles is always a very interesting and robust conversation between a small group of people in Blake’s camp and Warner Music. We’ve laughed many times that we should have recorded those conversations over the past decade or so,. It’s always interesting, and it’s never final until the very last second. We’ve picked the single only to re-pick a single a week or two later. And yes, we do think about, what have we done in the past? What makes more sense for right now? And “Minimum Wage” honestly was one that we had originally thought would be the first single off of this project. Because of the timing of it, we decided to go with “Happy Anywhere,” because everybody was at home, and we thought, you know what? You’ve gotta be happy wherever you’re at. So we switched to “Happy Anywhere” as the first single off of this upcoming album. But we recorded “Minimum Wage” almost two years ago, and I’ve been really anxious to get that song out for him as a single ever since we recorded it. I think this will ultimately be a show-opener song for him for years to come, because the energy that this song has is more than he’s had in many singles.
What was the need it filled at this point in Blake’s career?
Energy, for starters. It’s just a driving, up-tempo song. We’ve had a lot of songs that fall in the mid-(tempo) category, (but fewer) up-(tempo). here and there. Really, though, we try to just pick the very best song we can that we’ve got at the moment to put out and hope that each one stands the test of time, and is not just something that’s going to fill the moment.
How did the song come to you? You’ve talked about how many levels outside songs have to get through to get to you, let alone Blake.
This particular song was sent to me directly from one of the three writers. And I allow those writers that I’ve had hits with in the past to send me songs, because they they’ve earned that right to bypass the publisher and go directly to me. This particular writer, Jesse Frasure (who co-wrote with Nicolle Galyon and Corey Crowder) sent it to me and I immediately told him to lock the song down — don’t send it to anybody else. Sent it to Blake; he loved it and we recorded it and here we are, almost two years later.
It fits a country tradition of sort of working-man songs. When it first came out, there was a little bit of controversy, which Blake eventually responded to, about, “You’re a multi-millionaire, how can you sing about being happy living on minimum wage?”
Interestingly, none of us, no one — the writers, Blake, myself, and the label — none of us ever thought for a second that there would be those that would say what they said. It really is an uptempo love song — which is hard to find, to be honest. Just think about how many (up-) tempo songs we hear, and not a lot of love songs are tempo like this. We never thought of it in any other way than just a love song. And, you know, Blake has certainly lived that song. I mean, yes, he’s been successful, and rewarded for it. But trust me, he was in this (low-income) position for many, many years, as most artists have. It never even crossed our minds that there would be people out there — a few; just a couple — that could take it and twist it into something that it’s not. We knew the right thing to do was to release this song. And I’m very happy we did.
He doesn’t sing things that he hasn’t lived. Every song is he’s done has been something that he can relate to. He’s been there and done it. It doesn’t mean he’s there right this second. We can come up with a million song titles sung by artists that you go, “Well, that’s not exactly what you’re going through right now.” Of course it isn’t.
Blake started his career with Bobby Braddock producing. Time has flown, so it’s interesting to realize that by now it’s not a recent switch and Blake has been working with you for more of his career than he wasn’t.
It’s been the greatest artist relationship I’ve had in my entire career, because for some reason, we’re like brothers. We both have red dirt in our veins. [Both are native Oklahomans.] I find the songs and make his records and he performs them and it’s just worked. And we try really hard to keep getting better at what we’re doing. His hunger is still there, as well as mine, to keep going until the people go “We’re tired of you.”
For a few years there, you were on that incredible streak where Blake had the longest unbroken streak of No. 1s in country history, and he still has the most overall. Is there any pressure in keeping that going and having every song go to the top? I don’t know if it might have actually been a relief when there was finally one that didn’t go to No. 1 and you could stop worrying about which one would break the run.
Honestly, my expectations and goals are to be No. 1 every single release, not just with Blake but with everybody. And it wasn’t a relief when we broke our streak. It was a disappointment. But it’s not like we feel pressure to continue streaks. It’s just that we want to peak it at No. 1 every time. And I think in my career I’ve had something like… I got to look at it to see… something like 18 or 19 songs that went to No. 2. Those are the ones that sting more than anything, to get to 2 and not get to 1. On one hand, I’m thankful and blessed to have had something that got that high. But on the other hand, I want the blue ribbon. Not the red one.
As far as putting out two songs in a row that had Gwen on them, obviously it worked out well because they were both No. 1s. And you just said that “Happy Anywhere” was kind of put in there as a pinch-hit song because it fit the quarantine mood. But did you have any doubts about whether two songs in a row with Gwen would be so accepted?
Well, that was certainly discussed in those single meetings, at length. And we came to the conclusion that “Happy Anywhere” was the right song to put out at that time. It just so happened that Gwen sang harmony on that one, whereas she sang (full duet) lines on the previous song. To say we didn’t discuss it wouldn’t be true. We did. But we just went with what we thought was the right song at the right time, and it worked out.
You’ve still got duties at Warner, and you’re cutting with Blake a lot. Does that limit how many other projects you can produce?
The drive is certainly there as much as it’s ever been. I’m in a unique position in that I’ve also been executive vice president of A&R at Warner Music Nashville. And I only produce Warner acts, but I also only produce acts that want me to produce their records. I don’t and have never forced myself onto any artists that didn’t ask me to produce them. I signed, as an A&R person, Dan + Shay, and they asked me to produce their records with (Dan Smyers). I did the first three albums, and this (forthcoming) album, Dan wanted to do it himself, which I respect. I’m still their biggest cheerleader.
Did your role at Warner change recently? You’ve said you feel more freed up to focus where you want and let Cris Lacey handle certain things.
Yeah, I’ve got a new title. I’m now EVP creative advisor. And Cris runs the A&R department, which I’ve done for I don’t know how many years. Cris and I are tied at the hip, and it’s just been great for everybody.
You’re the rare person who seems comfortable wearing either hat… as a producer and a label exec.
I’ve run two record labels as president and CEO, Capitol Nashville and Virgin Nashville. Those were interesting times and a great learning experience for me, and we signed a lot of great acts – Keith Urban being one of them (when he was fronting the Ranch), and Trace Adkins and several other ones that went on and still have done pretty well. But when Espo (John Esposito, the head of Warner Nashville) came in, Warner was the perfect fit for me. Because the part that he deals with is the part of it I never did like to deal with when I was a label head, and he’s perfectly equipped to do that.
So you don’t miss being head of a label?
I don’t. I love the creativeness more than I liked the other side of the business — the political side.
Your taste in songs is pretty broad, even when you’re working with one artist as much as you have Blake.
I probably have a reputation here in Nashville as being hard on songs. And I accept that moniker proudly. I am hard on songs, and I don’t apologize for it. I get pitched thousands. For this Blake album alone, I have listened to probably no less than 3000 songs. That’s a lot of listening. And not every artist records outside songs, but at some point you’ve got to pick which ones with the artists that write their own songs, too — which ones do we release? And that’s a whole ‘nother level of getting hard on songs. And none of us are 100% correct. Look at a professional baseball player; the best ones to play the game hit somewhere around three out of 10 pitches. I want to do better than that when it comes to picking songs. That’s where I put the pressure on myself — what songs do I filter out to send to artists that are looking for outside songs. I think being hard on songs has been a very important part of why I’m still here.
When you and Blake convene, are you in lockstep almost all the time in terms of what you think will work, or are there ever moments where he’s just turned down what you were sure was going to be one of his biggest hits?
Yeah, a lot of them. I brought him “The House That Built Me” (later made into a smash by Miranda Lambert), and it wasn’t that he didn’t think it was great. He knew it was. But we didn’t record it, and it broke my heart, because I knew that was a massive song. When we deal with as many songs as we deal with, there’s always going to be songs that are, I hope he records this song, I want him to do it,” and when he doesn’t… it’s his album, not mine. Nobody knows who I am. So he gets every jump ball, which any artist should. It’s their career, and I’m just here to serve them.
How often do you think your tastes do align with Blake’s?
In this case, a lot. We’ve recorded well north of 200 songs together. So there’s no secrets and no surprises. I just try to filter out so he doesn’t have to listen to 3000 songs. He only has to listen to, let’s say, 300 out of that 3000 — maybe 10%, or less, even, sometimes. I’m the filter that gets ‘em to him, and then he picks and he decides. Occasionally he wants some opinions on ‘em, but it is ultimately the artist’s decision.
Are people ever able to get songs to him directly? Or is it always, “No, you have to go through Scott”?
No, there are a few friends and writers that can get songs to him directly. We’ve had it both ways. But 99% of the time they go through me.
When you’re dealing with an artist who is a co-writer on most of the songs — like a Dan + Shay — does being tough on their songs become difficult?
It can be difficult at times, but it’s so important in the grand scheme of things. I liken it to watching a movie sometimes, where you see incredible cinematography, incredible direction, incredible actors — but the script is just not good enough. What I bring to the table is saying that the script has to be right, and then we’ll get everything else, right? We’ll get the cinematography the actors and all the other separate elements, but we’ve got to have the right script or it’s not going to matter. And those conversations can be tough with artists that want to write all their own material. You’ve got to have the right script.
When I signed Hunter Hayes, I got him with the publisher that he worked with, to hook him up with every great songwriter in this town. And he wrote, and he wrote, and he wrote, and they would bring in song after song. And for months, and actually a couple of years, I would have to be the one that says, “Hunter, we don’t have the rocket fuel. This rocket fuel is not going to get us into outer space. It’ll get us a couple miles up, but we need to get into orbit.” It was frustrating for him, and I totally understood it, and it was very hard for me to be the guy that said, “We need the rocket fuel.” And one day he walked in and played me a song on guitar and said, “I wrote this last night. I don’t know what you’ll think of it.” He played “Wanted.” And I just put my hands up in the sign of a touchdown. I said, “That’s the rocket fuel we’ve been needing. That’s the song.” And he looked at me like, really? And I said, “God, that’s so obvious. How can you not see that?” When they recorded it, they went with a piano version instead of the guitar version. but that was the discipline it took to wait until he had the right song to get to where he needed to be. And it was difficult, honestly, for me to have to be so critical.
Are you in suspense when one of your songs with Blake comes out about whether it’ll make it to No. 1, or are you always thinking, clearly, this one will make it, too?
Interestingly enough, most of the songs I get released, I never hear them on the radio — only because I’m listening to demos. I don’t really have time to listen to what it sounds like on the radio, because I’m listening to the next demo of what’s going to be something that’ll come out in a year from now. So I don’t get caught up in watching the chart and watching every little forward or backward move, and then forward some more, backwards. I don’t let that chart dictate my happiness. I did the best I can do, and let’s hope. Not every song goes to No. 1, and like I said, I just want to have a better batting average. I want to hit as many of them out of the park as I can. I’m swinging for the fence on every single one.