James Stroud: From Rock To Country
Several years ago a popular beer commercial made its mark with the slogan “go for the gusto” so successfully that the phrase has become a part of our everyday terminology. On Music Row in Nashville there are several individuals who could be said to have adopted this as their personal motto, but it seems particularly appropriate when applied to Giant Records president James Stroud. He has not only worn a lot of hats in his time, he’s done so with the kind of energy and enthusiasm that leaves most of us feeling anemic.
The initial impression of the congenial executive lounging in his comfortable office with his feet up is that of your favorite uncle, or every guy next door who always has the time to lend a hand. Stroud’s laid back air belies the fact that since coming on board in 1992, Giant has exceeded its original sales projection by three years, with more than nine million copies sols since 1993 alone. He discovered the platinum-selling Clay Walker, revitalized the careers of John Anderson and Carlene Carter, introduced newcomers Daron Norwood and Tim McGraw, and steers Clint Black, Doug Stone, and Tracy Lawrence to continued success. Perhaps his crowning achievement to date is the acclaimed 1994 CMA album winner, Common Tread: The Songs of The Eagles reunion project.
One of five children of an oil field worker, Stroud grew up in Louisiana and East Texas, influenced by various musical styles from Rock, Blues, and Cajun, to R&B, but very little country. At fifteen he began playing drums in local beer joints with a cigar shoved in his mouth by fellow band members to make him look older. As a drummer he achieved success mainly in Rock and R&B, playing with artists like Bob Seger, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Paul Simon, Melissa Manchester, and the Pointer Sisters. He first came to Nashville in the early 80′s to play on Eddie Rabbit’s Horizon project, a resulting country and cross-over success. Stroud laughingly recalls this musical transition as something of an attitude adjustment for a rocking guy from L.A.
“I had no idea what country music was about, all I knew was there were some real nice people here. I came down here thinking it would be easy to do, when in fact, it’s an extremely difficult and articulate music. I thought I would pick it up right, and boy, was I wrong. It’s a completely different feel, it was a learning experience.”
Already established as a musician and sometimes producer, Stroud decided to stay in Nashville. He continued playing sessions and began producing artists such as Ronnie Milsap, KT Oslin, Fred Knobloch, and Charlie Daniels. Then his path veered into publishing, a transition he admits was not the most expected, but one brought on by necessity.
“I wanted to produce country music when I got here and I just wasn’t making good records. People kept telling me ‘it’s your songs.’ I noticed on sessions how the producers and artists all worked towards the songs. One day I asked Tom Collins how he’d reached that point, and he said to study the songs. Well, the way to do that was to be in publishing. Then I produced our demos, studied the songs, and that taught me how to produce country music. I think it really helped. It wasn’t natural evolution, it was hard, but it was the way to go.”
Stroud founded The Writers Group, now owned by EMI, which was known as the launching pad for the careers of writers like Tom Schuyler, Fred Knobloch, and Paul Overstreet. Obviously the experience was a fruitful one. Not only was he successful as a publisher, in 1989 he was named Producer of the Year by the ACM and voted Top Independent Producer by Billboard and Music Row Magazine in 1990. In 1993-94, Stroud produced 31 top singles, 21 of them charting number one.
Stroud says his basic criteria is the same whether signing a writer, producing a new project, or being an executive. In any situation, he looks he looks for talent, potential, commitment, and, most importantly, personality. He exercises a hardline policy against involving himself with people he doesn’t feel a strong connection with.
“If I can’t get along with an artist, for instance, we won’t make good music. When I take a project, I’ll go see them perform, we meet and talk about what they want to do, how they want to make their music. If I feel like it’s going to be a hassle, I just won’t do it. In today’s music you don’t have a lot of jerks. You’ve got to be a people’s person and get along with everyone besides pleasing yourself. If you waste your time on someone you can’t get along with, your product won’t be consistent or last.”
His arrangement with Giant allows Stroud to continue producing outside projects. Which he feels is beneficial for both him and the label. As an administrator, he prefers the same hands-on approach he uses in production, working closely with each new artist signed. He has a clear picture of what he looks for.
“I try to be involved in every aspect of an artist’s career, to see a total picture. I look for someone who is a great singer, a media person who can handle themselves in public, looks good, can make good videos. I look at them as a business person. An artist is not an employee; they’re a business partner, and sometimes a friend. I look for a strong, solid management team. If the artist writes, I’ll hook them up with other writers who can help them enhance their music through their writing.”
Discussing song selection for a project, Stroud explains that the process varies depending on the circumstances. “Most of the artists I work with are real good writers. I start with their songs, see what they have available. Then we decide what else may be needed to balance their material. If we have three or four people who are looking for material all the time. The artist finds songs sometimes and others come to us through A&R people and so on.”
“The artist and I decide what works for them. I very seldom push a song on an artist unless I absolutely believe in it. Casting is important. I think of range, style, what fits that individual. You sort of hear the artist singing certain songs in your head.”
With so many demands on his time, Stroud readily concedes it’s sometimes difficult to stay grounded. The bulk of his time goes to running Giant and producing artists. He also owns Loud Recording Studios and Stroudivarious Publishing, although he’s not involved in the day-to-day operations. He comments somewhat wistfully that he rarely gets to play drums, giving a longing glance at the set in one corner of his office, kept ready to play.
“It’s real hard sometimes to keep your priorities in line. Sometimes the different hats get stuck. When there’s a conflict I try to go with what’s best for the artists. Sometimes I just have to pick one hat and wear it and deal with a situation. I didn’t start out wanting to be executive, but there were things that I wanted to do that just led me to it. I like being able to take an artist from the beginning and develop them. Clay Walker is a shining example; he’s our baby. I’m not a good administrator- I think we’re doing well here at Giant more because of my creative side. We work as a team here to do the best product we can.”
Whatever stress he may feel in filling so many roles, Stroud indicates his feet are firmly on the ground with his personal bottom line. “I love music, I love to make music, but the overall view has always been to secure my family. To let music work for me as a person but not get so involved that I can’t enjoy my life. I have wonderful kids and a wife that come first. That’s what I strive for. You can get caught up in doing all the things you’ve wanted to do, but you have to remember why you’re doing them.”
Then he gives a grin that somehow lets you know at heart he still feels the enthusiasm he felt at fifteen playing the bars, rocking hard, and sums it up. “I enjoy listening to the music. I love to crank it up, and I surely do.”