June 11, 2014 11:01 AM ET
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for ACM
With a resume that includes fronting a glam-metal band and playing guitar on Madonna's "Like a Prayer," Dann Huff insists no one is more surprised than he about his gargantuan wave of success in country music.
"It was all rock & roll," the renowned producer laughs of life before around age 29. "All I wanted to be was a session guitar player — that was my dream."
Beyond his wildest dreams, the Nashville-bred musician started booking sessions at just 16 years old, eventually moving to Los Angeles and strumming for superstars ranging from Madonna and Michael Jackson to Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand. A short-lived stint as the lead singer of Giant (one-hit-wonders with 1990's "I'll See You in My Dreams") taught Huff that his talents were a bit further behind the mic.
"Giant came and went quickly…. Pearl Jam came along, and that was it! We moved back to Nashville," Huff reflects to Rolling Stone Country. "I was a horrible frontman. I hadn't been born to be that. So I just jumped back into what I knew, which was playing sessions. In the changing face of country music, it was perfect."
Huff credits legendary producer James Stroud with hiring him to play guitar on "pretty much every record he did," including projects by Tim McGraw, Clay Walker and Tracy Lawrence, just to name a few. And it was Mutt Lange, producer for the likes of Def Leppard and Shania Twain, who encouraged him to try his hand behind the board.
"He's one of the greatest, living or dead, producers. He's my hero," Huff says of Lange. "He told me early on, 'You're a producer.' I took that as a compliment and said, 'Well, please call me for gigs!'"
Huff's first time at the helm of a country album was for a brother-sister duo called the Wiggins. But it was while he was producing a Megadeth record when his big springboard to country came calling: Faith Hill was looking for co-producers on what became one of her most successful — and polarizing — albums, 2002's Cry.
"Artistically, it was phenomenal. But she just got murdered for that record," Huff reflects of the criticism Hill faced for her melodic infusion of pop and R&B. The backlash from country purists continued to haunt him through projects with Lonestar, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and a laundry list of other big country names, but, ultimately, blurring the lines between country and pop is what has kept Huff one of the most in-demand producers to this day. Major country record labels have him on speed-dial, booking him for budding acts such as Hunter Hayes, the Band Perry and Cassadee Pope.
"Music evolves," Huff muses. "You tend to be most critical of what scares you. The debate about too much pop in country has been going on well before I [started producing]. We just took it to new levels."
One of Huff's longest working relationships has been with Urban, teaming with the Aussie superstar for his last six albums. He describes their pairing as yin-and-yang, with opposite musical visions that made for grueling recording sessions, but chart-topping music.
"It wouldn’t be unusual to sing a song, comp it and come back a week later and do it again — sometimes three, four, five times," he recalls of recording with Urban. "It wasn't that he couldn't sing it, it was that he was trying to live it. We'd spend days on just one vocal, looking for that moment where it feels like a known thing. Keith is very performance-driven, which makes him a great performer. I honor and respect that; I love going to shows after all these years. But that doesn’t affect me when I listen. It's not a moment, it's a clinical endeavor — trying to bring life out of something. We'll argue, and out of that comes a lot of great music."
In fact, when asked about the magic that is his producing method, Huff's answer has nothing to do with electric guitars, drum loops or anything that involves Pro Tools. Instead, it's all about the moment. To him, the definition of "producing" is helping a recording artist pour the kind of raw emotion into their songs that is evident to even the untrained ear.
"I like working with people who really make you feel as if you're living a lyric," he says, citing both Urban and Hill as two of the best vocalists when it comes to making deep connections through their deliveries. "It's not just poetry; it's not just music. The combination takes you to another place."
And that — all rock roots aside — is country music.