When the Country Music Association handed out its 50th annual awards on Nov. 2, Chris Stapleton got a fair amount of attention for taking home two trophies. Only one other person was a double-winner that night, though most people didn’t pay much attention. He stood in the background as Thomas Rhett accepted single of the year for “Die a Happy Man.” He wasn’t even present when his other award, musician of the year, was announced off-camera. And he never made it back to the press room to have his photo snapped with his two trophies.
Producer-guitarist Dann Huff (Keith Urban,Brantley Gilbert) wasn’t trying to be difficult. He showed up late to the pre-telecast because he had work at the studio during the day — and spent his first 20 minutes apologizing for not being available. Then when it seemed like the best time to go backstage for interviews, TV producers wanted him to stay seated in the house in case they needed a reaction shot. In the middle of it all, Huff was distracted by Game 7 of the World Series.
“I kept trying to get out and watch the Cubs game at the bar,” he says. “In fact, the Cubs won. I’m an uber Cubs fan, so it was a great night.”
Huff hadn’t really expected much that evening. As a full-time producer, his playing is usually reserved for moments when he’s tinkering on a track that needs a little work.
“I’m incredibly honored, obviously, to get the musician’s award,” he says, “but the guys that were nominated against me, they play for me in the studio, and I feel that that [award] should go to the guys who do it every day.”
And while the sparsely produced “Die a Happy Man” became one of the definitive country hits of 2016, Huff didn’t foresee it as a career-making title for Rhett, and a rejuvenating one for himself.
“I’d love to say that I knew it, but I would be lying,” says Huff.
The idea that things have happened by accident — that he has stumbled into his successes — is a recurring theme in conversation with him, in part because he’s built to stay in the background. And in part because he’s still trying to perfect his craft.
“Dann is Dann’s worst critic,” says Gilbert. “He’s an amazing producer, and there ain’t a whole lot of wrong he can do in my book.”
While critics have focused on Huff’s rock-tinged productions and his -middle-of-the-road tracks, such as Lonestar’s “Amazed,” he actually has compiled a fairly diverse résumé. His hit list ranges from the Southern rock of Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” to Rascal Flatts’ poppish ballad “My Wish” to Maddie & Tae’s fiercely country “Fly.” He has worked with such big-voiced females as LeAnn Rimes and Martina McBride, overseen R&B-shaded males like Gary LeVox and Billy Currington, and helped fellow guitarist Urban build an ever-changing career.
And while Huff is quite capable on his own, he also gets credit for working well with others.
“Dann and I are both kindred spirits in the fact that we want to stay focused on the most important thing in the room: the artist and the song,” says Nathan Chapman, who has co-produced Taylor Swift and Cassadee Pope with Huff. “The production wasn’t about how good can me and Dann make ourselves look. It’s about making the song and making [the artist] shine.”
A Nashville native who went through the Belmont University system, Huff was already playing technically challenging guitar parts in sessions as a teenager, appearing on his first bona fide hit, Greg Guidry’s “Goin’ Down” (No. 17, Billboard Hot 100), at age 21 in 1982. In short order, he got contracted to play sessions in Los Angeles, keeping his Tennessee residence hidden until he finally bit the bullet and moved.
“I was so green,” he recalls. “I paid for all my expenses every time I went out there. I would have to fly all my gear out there, rent a car, get a hotel; I wasn’t even smart enough to know that there were cartage companies. Every time I played, I would go in the hole probably by a thousand dollars.”
During the roughly seven years he lived in California, he played on sessions for Michael Jackson,Barbra Streisand, Bob Seger, Whitney Houston, Whitesnake and Chaka Khan. So when he moved back to Nashville, his credits made it easy to get a gig. What was hard was finding a way to fit in in country, which he admittedly did not know well. Producer James Stroud (Clint Black, John Anderson), who had played drums on Guidry’s album, put him to work as the sound of country got bigger.
“He wanted somebody that didn’t come from the Nashville scene because he was wanting to change the styles,” says Huff. “He did just a ridiculous amount of records, and he hired me for almost every one of them for about 10 years.”
Producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange hired Huff, too, for the groundbreaking Shania Twain albums The Woman in Me and Come On Over, and it was Lange who put the production bug in Huff’s ear. Twain and Lange also recommended him to Faith Hill, who used him on her Vince Gill duet “Let Me Let Go,” a No. 1 single in 1998.
“Amazed,” which Huff says had been turned down by about 10 artists before Lonestar cut it, vaulted him into the A-list of Nashville country producers, though when Capitol chief Mike Dungan paired him with Urban, he met some resistance. Urban wasn’t sure, based on some of Huff’s records, that it would be an ideal match. By the same token, Huff wasn’t sure why everyone was so high on Urban’s talents.
“They told me what a great guitar player he was, but on the record, I didn’t hear it,” recalls Huff. “I’ve been making records for a long time and played on a lot of great records, and what I identified as great I didn’t hear in him. But I went and saw him play live, and then all of a sudden the light clicked on.”
“Somebody Like You,” which introduced the ganjo as a central Urban sound in 2002, was their first single as a unit. They’ve worked together regularly ever since, clearly bringing out the best in each other. Huff won the CMA’s musician of the year award twice during that decade, in 2001 and 2004, and while Huff was nominated a dozen times as a producer for an album or single of the year finalist, “Die a Happy Man” is his first victory in that role.
But that producer chair is the one he fills most often now. As much as he enjoys playing, he rarely has time to work other sessions, and he doesn’t even charge his clients when he plays on his own productions. That’s not out of character for a guy who was cool with his CMA victories going largely unnoticed beyond Music Row.
“Whatever I do as a guitar player, it’s absolutely the support role,” he says of his dual role as a producer-musician. “I love all the guitar players in Nashville. It’s a real treat for me to get to hire them, cast them and let them do really what they do best, and then I’ll fill in the gaps. It really works well.”