ACM Surprise: How 'Golden Hour' Brought 6 Nominations to a 'Hack Of All Trades'

Ian Fitchuk Kacey Musgraves
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Ian Fitchuk and Kacey Musgraves accept Best Country Album for 'Golden Hour' onstage during the 61st Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 10, 2019 in Los Angeles.

When Ian Fitchuk showed up at a Nashville studio on Feb. 20 for a Carly Pearce recording session, the moment had an awkward air about it.

The Academy of Country Music had announced its nominations just hours earlier, and Fitchuk -- who had never been an ACM finalist -- appeared six different times on the ballot. He was up for producer of the year, and Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour -- which he co-produced with Musgraves and buddy Daniel Tashian -- was in the running for album. Fitchuk also became the first person nominated simultaneously in four different musician categories: bass player, drummer, piano/keyboards player and specialty instrument(s) player of the year.

At least three people at the Feb. 20 session --Pearce, drummer Aaron Sterling and guitarist Derek Wells -- were fellow nominees, but Fitchuk was the center of the conversation. For someone who makes his living in a support role, that spotlight brought some uneasiness.

"I felt a little sheepish," says Fitchuk during a break at a session in north Nashville, where he's producing new music for Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. "I have trouble accepting recognition."

Fitchuk has gotten plenty in recent years, particularly the kind musicians want most -- numerous calls for repeat business -- as he has steadily built his reputation in Nashville. He plays keyboards on most of the tracks on Maren Morris' new Girl album and contributes piano and/or drums on the latest albums by Shania Twain, Chase Rice, Lucie Silvas, Midland, Ruston Kelly and Brett Eldredge. Fitchuk also plays bass on Dierks Bentley's The Mountain, which will compete with Golden Hour for album of the year when the ACMs are handed out April 7 in Las Vegas.

"He's such a musical guy," says The Mountain co-producer Ross Copperman. "[Engineer] Reid Shippen actually told me after we booked Ian on the session, 'You know, Ross, Ian doesn't really do bass on sessions, but I know what a great musician he is.' Reid was that confident in him. We flew him out to Telluride [Colo.] to be the bass player."

Fitchuk's approach to the instrument shows a nuanced uniqueness. In Bentley's current single, "Living," the bass lifts and rolls quietly from one measure into the next through the first verse, creating subtle movement to help push the narrative forward without calling attention to Fitchuk. He clearly works well with others.

"The fact that Ian plays drums doesn't hurt," says Bentley. "He and [drummer] Matt [Chamberlain] really spoke well together on a musical communicational level."

Fitchuk is well trained for that sort of communication. The Chicago native's parents are classical musicians with side pursuits: His father plays viola but earned his college degree by studying voice; his mother is a flutist who is also a member of a bagpipe band. Both are music teachers as well, and they schooled their son by example to meld personal creativity into the needs of the group.

The younger Fitchuk was particularly enamored of pop records that featured complex arrangements or emotions, and he moved to Nashville in 2000 to study jazz piano at Belmont University. That didn't last long -- he joined jam band The Dahlia Llamas and toured long enough to realize he preferred steady local work over the grind of the road. Producing an album by singer-songwriter Griffin House in 2004 helped him transition into regular studio work, and Fitchuk became a part of Nashville's underground scene.

Two 2009 projects -- Landon Pigg's melancholy track "Falling in Love in a Coffee Shop" and Mindy Smith's moody album Stupid Love -- made a particular impression within the community, though it was years before that became apparent. Both Musgraves and Morris cited Smith's album as an influence.

"It just goes to show: Do your best at all times," reflects Fitchuk. "The seeds that you plant, you don't have control over how they're going to grow in the end."

Morris had flirted with Fitchuk as a producer before she instead landed with busbee, but she recommended Fitchuk to Musgraves, who worked with him and Tashian to write and produce the first five tracks for what became Golden Hour. Her management, Sandbox Entertainment, thought so highly of the work that the company self-financed the album and unveiled it to Universal Music Group Nashville only after it was completed. Commercial expectations were not particularly high -- "It seemed too arty," says Fitchuk -- but the album's mix of acoustic and programmed elements, plus its moody vibe, connected at a deep level with her audience and the Nashville music community.

"She has this melancholic voice that is both comforting and sad at the same time," he says. "Then we have that song 'Happy & Sad.' The topic of that song somewhat frames, I think, the album as a whole, which isn't just trying to make you feel one way or another. It's trying to accept the human experience as a complex and layered experience."

Not surprisingly, Fitchuk has layered more work atop the notoriety Golden Hour has yielded. His professional dance card of late has included Edwards, Eldredge, Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town, and he's expecting to work with non-country acts Leon Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. Some of those efforts have been joint projects with Tashian, who is likewise a fellow band member in Skyline Motel, a Fleetwood Mac-like ensemble they formed on the side with Nashville singer-songwriters Sarah Buxton and Kate York. Fitchuk primarily plays drums with the unit, which opened for Musgraves during her recent four-night stand at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in advance of a forthcoming EP.

Meanwhile, Fitchuk's versatility is evident on Musgraves' "Rainbow," which is currently No. 38 on Country Airplay. His piano is the sole instrument backing her on the recording, taken from perhaps 11 attempts on 11 different days; she sang it at the close of each Golden Hour recording session, and the single is the best take of those informal performances.

He was the lone visible musician when she performed it at the Grammy Awards, where Golden Hour earned album of the year, and it was -- much like the day that he secured those ACM nominations -- a bit awkward. After he flubbed some chords in the dark at dress rehearsal, he asked for a light on the keyboard, but it was never clear until the on-camera live performance started that that request had been fulfilled. He froze slightly at the bridge, missed a chord and, for a split second, harbored a fear that without that chord, the whole song would fall apart. It did not -- "Rainbow" was one of the highlights of the telecast -- and Fitchuk does what comes naturally in explaining that situation: He puts the focus on the artist.

"Kacey, thank God, came back in, and everything was fine," he says. "It was terrifying, but I thought she did a great job."

Fitchuk, who calls himself a "hack of all trades," can thus be taken at face value when he looks ahead with humility to the ACMs, downplaying his role as a single musician and focusing on how he syncs up with the larger group, in which he clearly belongs.

"I don't necessarily expect to win any of those musician categories," he says. "I don't. I'm just thankful that of all those people in all those categories, pretty much most of them are really close friends."

2019 ACM Awards


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