1/14/2016 Award-winning producer Scott Sherratt brings musical touch to audiobooks

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Scott Sherratt and Elvis Costello (Courtesy of Scott Sherratt)

If it’s Grammy season, it’s a given that Scott Sherratt has a vested interest.

High on the list of “first call” producers/directors of audio and video specializing in the publishing industry, Sherratt has helmed seven Grammy-nominated titles, including this year’s Best Spoken Word nominee Yes Please by Amy Poehler. His productions have won over 20 Audio Publishers Association Audie Awards and more than 60 Audiofile Magazine Earphones Awards for Excellence.

Since commencing his audiobook production career, Sherratt has worked on over 600 titles, written and/or recited by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Billy Crystal, Rachel Maddow, Elizabeth Warren, Kim Kardashian, Gene Simmons, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Colin Powell, Mitt Romney, Ted Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, Michael Chabon, Harper Lee, John Waters, Robert Ludlum, Poehler and most recently, Carly Simon, Chrissie Hynde and Elvis Costello.

“I work with people for days and it’s a very personal experience for them,” says Sherratt of his award-winning methods. “I take their trust and confidence very seriously: It’s all about showing a side of them that’s best in telling their story.”

He distinguishes between the “producer” and “director” credit as applied to his niche in the recording industry.

“As they relate to standard music recording terminology they are essentially the same,” says Sherratt. “There is a lot of overlap and blurred lines between these job descriptions—meaning that the director is the person in the recording sessions guiding the performance just as a producer does in music sessions. I am most often producer and director–booking studios, contracting talent, directing sessions, and supervising edit, mix, mastering and delivery.”

Each project is unique and presents it’s own challenges and opportunities, he notes.

“It often comes down to communication. I am very comfortable speaking with performers, actors, narrators, and authors and helping to develop a vibrant, energetic, comfortable, and collaborative environment in which to create something amazing. I absolutely love working with creative people–brilliant actors, personalities, and fabulous writers. It is really thrilling and I find the whole process to be tremendously rewarding.”

Sherratt says he always looks to bring added value to his productions, “so each audiobook I produce can stand on it’s own as it’s own creative work rather than simply being a companion to or alternative way of consuming the printed version of a book.”

The audiobook, actually, “often kicks the crap out of the print version,” he adds.

Making it all work is a post-production team made up of editors and other crafts people around the country.

“We live in an exciting time where transferring large files is easy and fast, allowing me to hire the absolute best people in the business regardless of where they live,” Sherratt explains. “I am a bit of an audio nerd, and it is truly important to me that everything sounds great. The mastering legend Bob Ludwig recently complimented some of my productions, and that in itself makes all the extra effort feel worthwhile.”

Being an “audio nerd” comes natural to Sherratt, who brings his extensive background as a musician to his audiobook projects. A guitarist, bassist, vocalist and composer—as well as studio engineer and producer—Sherratt has also acted on stage, film and TV; he has managed stages and tours, and produced live shows in addition to albums and audio books. And he’s toured and recorded with various rock bands for years before settling into his current vocation: He toured with and produced three albums of music for experimental theater playwright/director Richard Maxwell, and produced The Lonesome High album with Willem Dafoe.

Sherratt has since composed and performed music on many of his audiobook productions.

“It’s the most fun when I can call upon some of my favorite musician friends to help out with music for a particular project,” he says. “Last year Rodney Crowell—for whom I produced the audiobook for [his 2011 memoir] Chinaberry Sidewalks–gathered some musicians together in Nashville and wrote and performed some terrific music for Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which I produced in L.A. with narrator Reese Witherspoon. Rodney also wrote and performed a perfect guitar piece for Sissy Spacek’s memoir [My Extraordinary Ordinary Life] that I produced a few years ago.”

Music artists frequently provide or perform exclusive material for their audiobook projects with Sherratt.

“[Sonic Youth’s] Kim Gordon gave me a track I loved for her book Girl in a Band and I was thrilled to record Elvis Costello playing guitar for [his new memoir] Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. It is, of course, perfect, and we also recorded some pieces for a track we included on the companion soundtrack album released by Universal Records.”

Observing that it’s a “golden age for audiobooks” in that “more audio is being produced than ever before,” Sherratt has a hard time naming favorites.

“I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities and recorded many amazing people in their homes, most notably Oprah,” he says. “She drove us around her unbelievable California estate in a golf cart and had her private chef prepare delicious meals. I even got her to sing on the recording—and yes, she can really sing! I also recorded Jennifer Lopez at her house last year—also fun.”

Poehler’s Yes Please was “a true production standout” in that Sherratt not only recorded Poehler in Los Angeles along with Michael Schur, but Carol Burnett in Santa Barbara, Patrick Stewart in New York, Poehler’s parents in Boston, and Poehler with Seth Meyers and Kathleen Turner at Saturday Night Live.

“I also produced and recorded a live show with Amy at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in Hollywood, which we included on the audiobook. Add to that terrific music by Freddie Khaw, and a track from Steve Albini, and it’s a one-of-a-kind, fabulous item.”

But working with Costello “really was a dream come true,” says Sherratt. “I have been a fan for so many years, and it was such a treat to go to Canada and lock myself in the studio with Elvis for a week. He is every bit as brilliant as I knew him to be.”

Besides working with all the major publishers and numerous independents, Sherratt is additional dialogue replacement (ADR) and casting director for the U.S. version of the animated U.K. TV series Chuggington, and produces and directs other TV and video projects.

Sherratt will stay in Los Angeles after the Grammy Awards to produce a project with X’s John Doe and music publisher/former A & R rep Tom DeSavia. “They’ve written a fabulous personal history of the L.A. punk scene called Under the Big Black Sun—named after an early hit by X.”

But he now laments the one that got away.

“My ‘Great White Whale,’ the long-rumored autobiography by David Bowie!” says Sherratt. “But even if it happened now it wouldn’t be the same: Every author should narrate their own memoirs while they can, because every autobiography that is not read by the subject is less than it might have been.”

Bill Gaither and the Bessman Homecoming

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For the record, that’s Bill Gaither on the right, photo by Kevin Williams

It was Christmas in September—Sept. 3, to be exact—when the mail brought the new DVD box set Bill Gaither’s Homecoming Hymns, a 10-disc set of 150 performances including a disc of Christmas hymns, not to mention a 48-page hymn book. Special guests including George Jones, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Stuart join such Gaither Homecoming stalwarts as Jeff and Sheri Easter, The Isaacs, the late Jake Hess and Vestal Goodman, and of course, the Gaither Vocal Band, whom I was lucky enough to see in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Mother’s Day, May 8.

The last time I was in Brooklyn—not counting a few doctors appointments—was to see Richard Smallwood & Vision, D.C.’s top gospel group, back in January at the Kumble Theatre at Long Island University. Valerie Simpson was concerned about the rough start to 2016 and brought them all up for a private show for friends in need of something positive and good. The last time I’d seen the Gaither Vocal Band was way back, at the post-9/11 Homecoming show Bill Gaither did at Carnegie Hall in 2002, which came out later that year in a two-part video set, Let Freedom Ring/God Bless America. Like all Gaither Homecomings, it was a huge show, starring besides GVB—if I remember correctly–Mark Lowry, Gloria Gaither, The Martins, Jessy Dixon, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, The Isaacs, The Hoppers, members of the New York “Firefighters for Christ” organization, Jeff and Sheri Easter, George Beverly Shea, David Phelps, Ben Speer, James Blackwood, Howard and Vestal Goodman, Jake Hess, J.D. Sumner, Buddy Greene, Guy Penrod, Russ Taff, the Crabb Family and maybe Dottie Rambo, and, by the way, Paul Simon!

But you didn’t see or hear Simon, who had brought Jessy and his Jessy Dixon Singers on tour with him for eight years (and used them on the Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’ and Still Crazy After All These Years albums) and had been invited by Dixon to the show, on the Carnegie Hall Homecoming videos and CDs: He didn’t sign off on his performances, which included a stunning version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Otherwise, there are three songs from the concert that I regularly post from YouTube: Sandi and Larnelle’s “More Than Wonderful,” The Martins’ “So High” and The Isaacs’ “Star-Spangled Banner”—far and away the best version of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. A year or so later I walked past Marty Stuart’s booth at Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville and Marty yelled out that he’d seen me in the audience on the DVDs. Sure enough, they had me front row, center. Had I known in advance, I’d have dressed a whole lot better.

All of this was thanks to my dear friend Bill Carter, Secret Service agent for Kennedy and Johnson (no, there was no JFK conspiracy—Oswald acted alone) and later tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones (Bill first appears on the first line of Page 2 of Keith Richards’ memoir, having sprung Keef from his Canada heroin bust) and manager of country artists including Reba McEntire and Rodney Crowell prior to handling all of the Gaither projects. Through Bill I’d done a lot of work with the Gaither organization, writing bios and liner notes for Jake, Jessy, James, GVB and others. Indeed, my association with the Gaithers is among my proudest and most enriching.

But it had been way too long since I’d had any live contact with Gaither stars other than Bill’s Rector Concert 2010, a fundraiser for the Rector High School Helping Hands Foundation in Bill’s tiny, impoverished hometown of Rector, Arkansas, which featured Mark Lowry, Jason Crabb, Gene McDonald, Charlotte Ritchie and GVB’s bandleader/guitarist Kevin Williams; also the August, 2014 annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a benefit to fund the restoration of The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in nearby Dyess, which Bill organized and Mark hosted. I’d also spoken with Mark and Kevin and Bill, Sandi and David and Jason for various examiner.com features over the years—which is why Kevin had contacted me ahead of the Brooklyn show: He wanted help getting the word out on his own Carter-inspired Kevin’s Kids concert fundraiser for at-risk kids in his hometown of Russell Springs, Kentucky. Of course, I was happy to oblige, and almost as an afterthought he told me he’d be at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that Sunday with GVB.

I’m pretty sure I’d seen the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir somewhere in New York—at a Madison Square Garden gospel show, maybe, or one of the Billy Graham Crusades–but never at its immense temple in the heart of downtown Brooklyn. Yet as excited as I was on the train from 42nd Street, there was also a feeling of guilt, of not being worthy. Putting it mildly, I’m not a believer. If there is an afterlife, I most certainly am going to hell, which is fine by me: That’s where most my friends already are or eventually will be.

And I don’t believe in a higher power…well, I take that back: Years ago when I went to Fan Fair every year, when it was held at the Fairgrounds, I’d always go out for lunch with Bill Carter, top Nashville publicist Judy Turner and his daughters Joanna and Julia, it being Joanna’s birthday lunch. They always had a hard time accepting my atheism, and at one point, Joanna turned to me and said, “I just can’t believe you don’t have a higher power!”

But I do have a higher power, I assured her, then turned to her dad and said, “Bill Carter!” He just proudly flashed that warm shit-eatin’ grin of his.

But really, I don’t believe in anything…well, I take that back, too. I believe in Ashford & Simpson. And I believe in doing good, which is the same thing. And I know I try to do good.

But what I love so much about Bill Carter and Bill Gaither and everybody associated with the Gaither organization is that they really are good people, “good and gentle people,” to quote from a song I remember by Jean Ritchie, though I can’t seem to find it anywhere. Wonderful people, actually. I am blessed to know them, let alone be part of them in my own small, unworthy way.

The Gaither Vocal Band did a set following one by the Tabernacle Choir, all following the first Sunday morning service. The 280-voice choir was stacked 10 levels high on a riser on stage, and their sound, obviously, was overpowering, under the direction of Carol Cymbala, wife of Pastor Jim Cymbala, who then introduced his friend Bill Gaither. Somehow GVB—now including, besides Bill, David Phelps, Wes Hampton, Todd Suttles and Jason’s brother Adam Crabb–was equally overpowering, if not even more so.

I’ve seen GVB with David, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod and Russ Taff—four of the 16 members the group has had in its 30 years, according to Kevin’s tally.

“They’re so young, talented and handsome. It makes you sick!” said Bill when he introduced the current lineup, which was backed by a band made up of drummer, keyboardist, guitar/fiddle/mandolin player and Kevin. Somehow he’s now 80, though he hasn’t aged at all in the 14 years since I last saw him, and he looked a whole lot younger even then.

The first four songs of the GVB Brooklyn Tabernacle set were “standard,” Kevin told me after. “We just winged it after that.” Most of the rest of the repertoire, then, were songs by Gloria, who sadly wasn’t there. But they did do the late Mosie Lister classic “`Til the Storm Passes By” and James B. Coats’ “Where Could I go but to the Lord?” The sound was simply stunning, as were the visuals: At one point the great bass vocalist Gene McDonald came out for a bass-off with Todd Suttles, who had to stand on a chair to stand up to his much taller opponent.

Gene came out again for the closer, Gloria’s “I Then Shall Live.” With its synth orchestration, it built and built and built like a classic Ashford & Simpson performance. Then again, Ashford & Simpson came out of gospel—Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson met at the White Rock Baptist Church in Harlem, and were first part of a gospel group called The Followers.

Besides being a great guitarist/bandleader, Kevin is very funny, and an experienced emcee who hosted Bill Carter’s Rector benefit. He’s taken over Mark Lowry’s role as comic foil to ever-befuddled straight man Bill Gaither in GVB shows, though he sees himself as more of a “wise ass” than Mark’s mischievous clown. He got a big laugh during the show when after Bill reminisced about Southern gospel Gaither Homecoming legends like Vestal and Howard, Jake and J.D., he pointedly said to Bill, “They’re all gone—except for you!”

But you’d be hard-pressed to guess the 80-year-old in the picture of me and Bill taken outside GVB’s tour bus after the show. On the bus we all talked about that Carnegie Hall Homecoming show, and how all those greats are indeed gone now—as is Nick. It was great seeing Bill, Kevin and Gene again, and regaling them all with Nick and Val stories.

For sure, I have known some good and gentle people. And I believe in the Gaithers.