Musicians Spotlight - Dick McVey
©2011 By Bronson Herrmuth
Dick McVey is well known and highly respected in the Nashville music industry because he's earned it over the last 30 years. Dick plays the bass guitar and he's worked as a band leader, road manager, manager, agent, publicist, promotion man, producer, studio owner, label exec, label head, writer, journalist, songwriter, and there's more. Cross trained in the music business Dick started out leading his own touring band when he was only 15 years old. Dick McVey operates using two words. Honesty and integrity. Dick is not only a great bass player, he's been helping other musicians find good gigs since 1986 when he first established his Dick McVey Musicians Referral Service. Over the years Dick has played bass guitar with Johnny Rodriguez, Kitty Wells, Jack Greene, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jean Shepard, Dave Dudley, Hank Thompson, Stonewall Jackson, David Frizzell, Jeanne Pruett, Bobby Bare, Jeannie Seely, Holly Dunn, Leroy Van Dyke, Nat Stuckey, to name a few. The following is taken from a on one interview in his studio in Hendersonville, TN. Meet Dick McVey.
You can listen to this entire 30 minute interview: 1 of 3 (4.7 MB) mp3 2 of 3 (4.4 MB) mp3 3 of 3 (4.4 MB) mp3
Bronson: Dick, thank you for doing this.
Dick: My pleasure.
Bronson: You've had such an incredible career and you've worked in so many different facets of the industry. Your mom and dad played?
Dick: Yeah. Well my dad was a guitar player and I had several uncles who played instruments, of course we grew up in the mountains of Appalachia where entertainment was basically you entertained yourself or you didn't have any entertainment. Obviously none of the frills that we have today were available. You know they would have square dances here and there, but my dad played guitar and had an uncle who played banjo, so they would get together and do these square dance things. Then later on my mom and my dad and another uncle put together a gospel trio and they would sing at local churches and that kind of thing but I can remember them rehearsing and singing those old hymns. It was a great time.
Bronson: How old were you when you actually picked up the guitar yourself?
Dick: Well my dad attempted to teach me to play about the age of 10 or 11, but when the Beatles came along, I was 15 at the time, I mean what a perfect time to be alive in the world. The Beatles came along and I saw all these girls screaming at the Beatles and of course I was kinda a shy guy in high school and I thought, "You know what? I might be able to talk to a girl or a girl might talk to me if I could play the guitar." So I went back to my dad, he wasn't a great guitarist but he showed me the basics and then I bought a chord book and taught myself the rest. Then as the Beatles music progressed and got more and more difficult, my fingers, I couldn't get my fingers to do all those things, of course I'm teaching myself, which is the worst thing in the world you can do 'cause I taught myself all these bad habits, but I could never quite get all of the fingering right on some of these really difficult chords that the Beatles were throwing in their music, and as bad as I wanted to play it, it was tough for me. But I put a little band together when I was 15 and I played guitar for probably 5 years.
Bronson: The Rondeaus. That was a fine looking picture too (laughing).
Dick: The Rondeaus. Oh yeah, it's a wonderful shot (laughing). I bet we all wish we could go back and change or get rid of all those pictures.
Bronson: With that, do you remember how old you were the first time you got paid to play?
Dick: I was 15. My sister was a school teacher and she was nine years older than I was and she taught Junior High School. So they had a little dance at the Junior High School and she asked me if we'd come up and play. We'd been practicing on the front porch and it was Summer time and as Fall came along they had a Fall dance so we put it together and went up and did the dance. I think we got $5 or something. It was ridiculous but you know, it was a chance to play.
Bronson: That's what I got the other night downtown, was $5 (laughing).
Dick: (laughing) I don't doubt it.
Bronson: So you came to Nashville based on a letter that you wrote?
Dick: Actually, in the late 70's I put together a show band because that was kind of the trend at the time, is that you had a show band. You didn't just go in and play cover songs, you actually did a show and there was energy, so I put this show together and we played it around locally and it was going pretty well so I called a booking agent out of Huntington,West Virginia, and he came up to Beckley and took a look at us and he said, "Yeah, I think I can put this on the road." So he put us on the road and one of our stops was here in Nashville and ironically, as the show bands would come through Beckley from all over the country, they would run that Ramada Inn circuit, the Holiday Inn circuit. There was a Ramada Inn in Beckley and one of the show bands that came through was from Nashville, and there was a guy playing bass named John Frost who later went on to be one of The Four Guys. Well by the time I got to Nashville, John said, "If you ever come to Nashville, call me." Well I didn't know he was playing with The Four Guys, I didn't know he was on the Opry or anything so we were playing the Holiday Inn at Briley Pkwy. That was our show band gig for that 3 week period, so I called John and he said, "Hey, I'm playing on the Opry." I was like, "Wow! Great!" He said, "You need to come out." So he invited me and I started going back stage and started meeting people, but we moved on with the band, continued to work the road, and I started thinking. I was 30 years old at that point and I thought, you know what? If there's any place for longevity in music, it's gonna be in Nashville in country music. So I called John up and I said, "I think I'm ready to maybe come to Nashville and try and see what I can do." and he said, "Well, come on, I'll help you do whatever we can do." After I got here as you know, these gigs are not easy to find or easy to get, so there were 3 people from my hometown that were doing fairly well here. Russ Hicks, the steel guitar player, Charlie McCoy, and Little Jimmie Dickens. I was a safety inspector at a coal mine in the 70's. I had worked with Little Jimmie's half brother. I sat down and wrote his letter, I said, "I worked with your half brother Frank Acord, in the mines, but I've been playing music for the last 3 or 4 years on the road and I'm here in Nashville now and I'm looking for a job." Well lo and behold the day the letter got there, he was in California, and his bass player and drummer, he had caught them doing something they shouldn't have been doing and he fired them on the spot. So the letter got to his wife and she's reading it to Jim over the phone and he said, "Hire him." (laughing) So they hired me.
Bronson: (laughing) That's a great story. We missed that little transition though, so by now you were playing bass guitar.
Dick: Well actually I went to college and I started focusing more on my real career which was mortuary science, so I've got a degree in mortuary science. I went to the same college as John Connelly. So I got that degree and that evolved, because the funeral homes had ambulance service I got my EMT license and became an EMT Instructor and then they hired me as a safety inspector at a coal mine because it became a law that you had to have an EMT on each site. They did double duty with me. I was their EMT but I also did other things for them as far as safety goes. I did that for several years.
Bronson: Now you're in Nashville. The first time I was aware of you was your Musician Referral Service.
Dick: Well I was working with Little Jimmie Dickens in '83 and Tom Holland was the drummer. Everybody would call Tom when they needed a musician and he kept saying, when we were on the road in '83, he kept saying, "I wish someone would start a referral service." So '86 rolls around and I'm thinking the same thing so I just started putting out a list to the music stores, just friends of mine who played. People that I knew would be available for sub work or even for road work, and I started distributing that list to the music stores and then gradually we started going to booking agents, we started going to managers, started going to artists direct. Then we started going to the theaters in Branson and in the late 80's and up through the mid 90's, it was a very popular way to find musicians and you know it became worldwide. I even placed musicians with Disney in Paris, that's how it spread. I still continue to do it but it's not what it was in the late 80's and early 90's because the works not what it was in the late 80's and early 90's. Even when people call me today about it I say, you know this never takes the place of making friends with somebody and doing it the political way because that's the way most people get hired. It always has been.
Bronson: Is that the point in your career that you slid over to the Industry side?
Dick: No I'll tell you how it all started. When I was 15, going back to that, I wanted to play so bad that I would go out and book the gigs. I would put up the posters. I did all the business side of the business in order to play, and I didn't know it at the time how it was going to affect me later on but I had a really good working knowledge of every aspect of the business by the time I was 18 or 19 years old. I'd pretty much figured out what not to do (laughing) at least, by being hands on and doing it. The other musicians, all they wanted to do was meet me somewhere on Friday evening and go play. They didn't have any interest in trying to book a gig. I was 15, I had to figure out a way to get me there. I couldn't drive so my sister and my brother in law, they would haul us around and the drummer was old enough, he had a car, so we would get to and from the local gigs, but we started there at home and then we would play in the next county and then it became the next state. As our popularity grew why obviously the more weight was on me to continue and I tried to build the act. I was pretty successful at you know, considering I was a teenager. So that's all translated to what I'm doing today.
Bronson: You actually have experience as a road manger. You did that for Little Jimmy didn't you?
Bronson: Is that when you first started being a road manager for national acts?
Dick: Yes, although we were on the road and I was the guy who took care of the rooms so it was really the same thing. Road band /artist, very similar. There are certain things artists demand or want or require that we would say, well, we can do with out that that I had to be a little bit more adamant about at times to the get things I felt that we needed when we were out on the road you know, as far as the rooms, how we got paid, those sort of things.
Bronson: You worked a lot in promotions. You were with Performance Magazine for 5 years?
Dick: 5 or 6 years until they went out of business, yes. Performance had Bill Littleton who's a very respected writer here in Nashville. Bill had been writing for Performance for I don't know, 20 years, but they decided to put a physical office in Nashville because you know, when country music got really hot in the late 80's with Garth and all that, everybody came to town because country music became a viable offering at that time. So Larry Smith, who was one of their sales directors, he came to Nashville and set up and office. He called me one day and he said, "You know we love Bill and what he's done over the years but we're looking for somebody that's fresh and who's willing to get out and do a lot of things so if you're interested in doing that." He actually called me to take out an ad in the magazine and when I went into him and talk to him about the things I was doing was when he realized I could write because I had done all these publicity things so he offered me a job as a writer.
Bronson: Now the studio part, being a studio owner. When did you get your own studio going?
Dick: When I came to town in the early 80's. Being on the road and meeting people and I was starting to meet songwriters who were asking me about Nashville and how you get started. The typical questions that people in the audience that might have a talent to write or to sing. They started coming up to us at the shows and they were asking questions, so I had a girl in Ohio who wanted to do a demo, she was a songwriter. So I came back and I researched it a little bit and I ended up working with Bob Angelo who had a studio down in Madison at the time and cut my teeth there and as things progressed I started working with Ronnie Lite over at Reflections, Gene Lawson over at Reflections Studio and I started using A Team musicians on stuff. I didn't play bass myself at that time, but I learned a lot. You know, from watching David Smith, Glenn Wharf, and people like that, that I would hire just to kind of help me (laughing).
Bronson: Pay 'em for a session and get a lesson at the same time, right (laughing)?
Dick: Exactly, man those guys are great. But actually it was probably in the late 80's. I had a situation similar to this. I had a big room in a house I was renting at the time. I bought a little 4 track Fostex and I would bring singers in and let them sing with their Karaoke tracks just to cut my teeth, and I had a compressor and I had a reverb and I had to route all that stuff and so I was starting to get my basic ideas there of how to set up a studio. From the 4 track I went to the 12 track. From the 12 track I went to the 24 track, and now today we're here with a computer that can do however many tracks a computer will hold. I haven't been able to fill it up yet so I don't know.
Bronson: You put out some records and had success. Talk about that a little bit.
Dick: Well back in the late 80's and early 90's there were a lot of independent acts out there. And as always the independents have always been, it's always been a struggle. There's always been some semblance of corruption involved in records and how they got played, and the independents were always, there was always someone taking advantage of somebody. I tried to stay away from all that and tried to do good records, put them out, hire the right promotion people. We actually had records in the charts not only in Cashbox and in several of the independent magazines, but we actually hit Billboard with a couple of records which I thought said a lot about the production and the way things were being done because a lot of things weren't being done very well and a lot of people were getting taken advantage of. My two words in this town have always been honesty and being realistic with people about how they do business. The music business is tough as you know and I don't wanna sell anybody a dream. There's a lot of people here that I call car salesman who think they're producers and they're trying to sell the dream, and there are people buying it unfortunately and it gives everybody a bad name. So for me I've tried to keep the integrity, and be honest with people and be realistic about their chances and do the best job that I could for them and I never wanted anybody to ever leave here being unhappy with what they've got.
Bronson: Your reputation is stellar in this town, top notch.
Dick: Well I appreciate that. I've tried to do that, I've tried to maintain it.
Bronson: With all these things you do, is there any one of them that you like more then the rest?
Dick: I think I like the variety of the possibilities because I may get a call today to do a press release for somebody, I may get a call to do a bio for somebody, I may get a call from a magazine to go out and do a magazine article even. I don't pursue any of the writing things so much, it's not the thing that I love the best. I mean I've been playing, now this is probably 46 years I've been playing so I still love to play. I went out and played a weekend gig last weekend at a little family center up in Pleasant View, and this weekend I'm going out to play with an act that I manage, the Elvis act. His bass player has another obligation so I'm going out and fill in with him this weekend and play for several thousand people out there.
Bronson: This artist is?
Dick: Travis LeDoyt.
Bronson: And you've been working with Travis for a long time now?
Dick: Since 2000, almost 11 years now. I've made more money doing that then anything I ever did in the music business and if you'd have told me I'd be managing an Elvis act I'd have told you you were crazy. But this guy is so good and so believable and so far above the typical Elvis impersonator that it's really hard to get people to understand how good he is and how well he pulls off that show and that impressed me so much. I remember the first time I saw him I was promoting a rockabilly festival in Jackson, TN. The promoter, unbeknownst to me, had brought this guy down from Massachusetts to do Elvis, I didn't know it. It was one of the many surprises he gave me over the time that I worked there. But I'm standing at the stage with D.J. Fontana, who was Elvis's drummer in the 50's. I'm standing there talking to D.J. and this kid comes walking across the parking lot and D.J. said, "I'll be damned. Take a look at that." And I looked over and this guy was the spitting image of Elvis in the 50's. He had on a sport coat, no fancy jumpsuit, no nothin', hair slicked back, young guy. He went on to perform, Marty Stuart was on the show. Marty invited him up and they did some stuff together and D.J. was playing drums and it was just amazing. So D.J. has given me a quote that I use to this day. He says, "This is as close as you're gonna get to seeing an Elvis concert in the 50's." Of course D.J.'s worked with us several times now, we've worked with The Jordanaires several times, so it's been a real treat, it's been a lot of fun. It's a challenge at the same time because when you call somebody up and say you've got an Elvis act, they conjure up the fat guy in the jump suit and it's really a hard sell but once he gets into a place he goes back and we've been doing it so long now that he's established so the phone actually rings for him now, which is good.
Bronson: With the current state of affairs in 2011 on Music Row, do you have any advice for somebody new that's just coming to town?
Dick: Well the towns changed so much even in the time that I've been here which is now 30 years, it's changed so much. I would love to think that there's still what I would call a legitimate record deal to be had. That somebody could come in here with the talent, somebody like a Vince Gill and be able to be accepted and could walk into a record label office and say, "Check this out." Unfortunately I don't think that's going on right now. Of course with the state of the economy and it doesn't seem the labels are willing to put the kinda money into an act to build it and to bring it to fruition. It's a hard, hard thing, unless you've got an investor or you've got somebody who's willing to put up some money to help the process. On the other hand the internet has opened up a lot of doors, so for an act I would say I think right now what we need is a unique act, with a unique look, with a unique sound, and we need to get away from a lot of the cookie cutter stuff that's been going on now for 15 years or 20 years even. I think labels would welcome a refreshing sound, look, something unique and I think going to the internet is probably the way to get that across to them because I'm not sure they'd be interested in talking to you if you just walked in. I think you have to sort of force it on them now. I mean we're seeing that happen over and over where an act shows up on Youtube and then all of a sudden it's like, "Woah! We gotta find this guy!" I think the problem is on the internet, we've got everybody trying to do the same thing now and it's kind of gotten watered down with the good, and the bad, and the ugly so we have to deal with, "If I go to the internet, how am I going to find a great act?" And it's usually because that act has done something very creative to drive traffic to that site. They've done something that's borderline nuts or amazingly funny, something that's going to drive traffic to that particular site. I think right now, if you don't have money which most of us don't, most of the artists don't, most of the songwriters don't, you need to come up with some way to get your talent seen and heard on the internet via Youtube or whatever outlet. Youtube seems to be the one of choice. But I think you're going to have to do something that's commercial but yet borderline crazy. You don't want to be so crazy that they think, "That guy's nuts!" You don't want to be so crazy that it's not a commercial viable product when it's all said and done but I think there has to be some way, a gimmick. I'd love to see things go back to the P.T. Barnum days and they have to a degree. He had a theory about audiences and he would watch the audience and maybe the audience wasn't quite into what was going on, he'd say, "Bring out the elephant." And because back in those days people hadn't seen elephants and when he would parade those elephants around, so mid show if the show was kind of iffy with the audience he'd bring out the elephant and strut them around. People like P.T. Barnum, I mean their theories, and it's a part of the business that's been lost in a lot of ways. I think that's what an act has to do, is bring out the elephant.
Bronson: You have a big web site, dickmcvey.com that shows all the things you do and how people can get a hold of you. You have any kind of events or any kinds of productions that you'd like to get out there that you've got coming up?
Dick: Not really, I mean I just plug along day to day and I'm working with Travis. We've got a project called Elvis X which we've got a little interest from Sony. We took it to Sony here in Nashville, they liked it. They called the people in New York and now we're dealing with the people in New York, which is not an easy task but we're plugging along with that. What we've done is we've taken all the old Elvis songs and we've put modern music to them. We've got "Mean Woman Blues" and "All Shook Up" with completely new melody and we've actually been able to isolate Elvis's voice in some cases and actually use his actual voice on some of these recordings. I'll give you a copy of it to take with you so you can check that out.
Bronson: Very cool!
Dick:What we're trying to do is bring a new generation of people to Elvis's music. I mean his music stands on it's own, don't get me wrong, but to bring younger people to his music you got to make it sound like what young people are listening to today. Actually Travis did all of this. He's gone in and arranged it, produced it, then he brings it over and we engineer and get it mixed out. It's pretty amazing really.
Bronson: You don't know for sure when people are going to be able to hear that or is it now available?
Dick: Well we've done a version with Travis's voice on it and that's the one I'll five you today. Obviously we can't do anything with Elvis's voice although we do have some of the tracks on Youtube with Elvis's voice on them and I think we're at 12,000 hits on one of them.
Bronson: So tell me about your new association with Acts Nashville?
Dick: Well when you say Acts Nashville a lot of people think it's Ax, but it's actually A C T s and it's a booking agency that's actually been around for a while. Right now I know they've got Ronnie McDowell and people of that caliber on the roster. Eddie Rhines has run that company for quite a while and what he's trying to do is bring a full service business to Nashville that can offer an act not only bookings but a publicity division and we're going to actually put a recording studio in the building. There's actually a recording studio already in the building, I'm just going to move my equipment in there. He's brought together 5 agents, it's Eddie Rhines, Lee Shields, George Mallard, Marty Martel and myself. We're all seasoned veterans and the primary purpose is to give these older acts, I don't want to say old acts because Ray Price at whatever age he is in his 80's, is still putting on a fantastic show and a very viable act, and to give these acts a place to go so that they can work again. We feel like between the 5 of us we have so many connections in the business that have been around for years and years, we know a lot of people. That we'll be able to offer these acts opportunities that have not been given them say in the last 10 years and the way the business has turned where there's not as much work as there used to be, but these are still very viable acts. They still sing well, they still perform well, they still entertain, to give them a place to come and be welcomed and dealing with people who are older as well and who can relate exactly what that act does to the buyers. Then there are also some younger acts, Eddie has been booking Mustang Sally, the all girl band for years. They've been in the studio recently and are getting ready to release a single and so there are a lot of things that are going on. Eddie's been very successful over the years, he worked with Dale Morris for awhile and so on, and George Mallard has been a big agent with the fair and festival, in those areas, he's worked closely with a lot of acts, so we're hopeful that we can bring together the 5 of us and not only do the older acts who haven't really had a place to go to get work, but to bring up some new acts, to bring along some new acts. I know that Ralph Stanley's grandson, Nathan Stanley is one of the acts that he's handling. I haven't been as active yet as I wanna be with the company but probably within the next 6 weeks we'll move everything into the studio, get the studio up and running, and then I'll be down there on a regular basis with that team of people and hopefully it will stimulate some interest in some of the older acts who may have been forgotten by some of the buyers out there.
Bronson: Well good luck with everything you've got going Dick, and I really appreciate you doing this interview with me.
Dick: My pleasure.
You can visit Dick McVey online at www.dickmcvey.com
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