Brent Maher: Sets Up a Country Music Talent Incubator with Moraine Records
By Jim Patterson

It's a portrait of a man in his natural element. Brent Maher is grinning ear-to-ear sitting in his recording studio at Moraine Music Group, listening to a new recording by one of his protégés, Sean Locke. "If you smoke a cigarette, they'll be talking about your breath/In a town this size/There ain't no place to hide," Locke's voice rings out while producer Maher listens intently before giving the engineer instructions to tweak the mix.

"Now THAT'S a Country song," Maher exclaimed about the song written by Kieran Kane. "We're going for a sort of Don Williams vibe with this one."

Kansas native Locke, who wrote the Pinmonkey hit "Barbed Wire and Roses," is part of a small stable of talented performers Maher has in various stages of development at Moraine Music Group, one of Nashville's leading publishing and production companies. With the addition of Moraine Records, Maher is taking a bold step, betting that he can break new acts with his small, aggressive staff. It's a response to the frustration of honing artists, only to have projects falter as they vie for attention when they finally get a major recording contract.

"I'm not trying to change the system," Maher said. "I'm just trying to find ways for us to be more successful. We need to take more shots than the big giant labels can get rolling through their systems. It's happening in the world of rock, and I think the same thing needs to happen in Country."

So-called "incubator labels" have been set up by Warner Music Group to help break urban and rock acts. Maher, the visionary who made his name recognizing and realizing the potential of Naomi and Wynonna Judd, considers Moraine Records to be Nashville's answer - a safe place for artists to find direction, learn the ropes and test the marketplace. 

Maher has assembled a lean radio promotion staff, headed by industry veteran Stan Byrd, who will take Moraine singles to radio.

"I have lots of friends at the major labels, and they tell me they're really excited by what I'm doing," Maher said. "If we can develop an artist, take something to radio and the phones start lighting up, then we can consider whether to continue on our own or partner with one of the major labels," he said. "Why would they say no, when we've done half the work?"

Moraine founder Maher is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed producers and songwriters in Nashville. He has co- written hits including "Why Not Me" (The Judds), "Lesson in Leavin'" (Dottie West, Jo Dee Messina) and "Some Kind of Trouble" (Tanya Tucker). As a producer, he has worked with artists including Shelby Lynne, Messina, Nickel Creek and Kenny Rogers.

Songwriters for Moraine Music include Kane, Billy Montana, Mark Selby and Kevin Welch and they have written hits for Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, Sara Evans, Tim McGraw and many others.

Maher's most famous accomplishment was discovering The Judds and helping mold their unique acoustic sound. He produced all of their albums and co-wrote many of their biggest hits including "Girls Night Out," "Rockin' with the Rhythm of the Rain" and "Turn it Loose."

Byrd, Moraine's Vice President of Promotion, puts it best: "I joined Moraine because Brent has always been a magnet for great artists." 

Moraine currently has Locke on the road visiting secondary radio stations to promote his single "Don't Look Away."

"He's out there doing on-air stuff, playing for programmers in their conference rooms and fielding questions he had no idea would be flying at him," Maher said. "An artist has to know how to deal with that for their whole career, and it's better to learn it in an environment that's a little bit more forgiving."

Another Moraine act, Country artist Jenai, had a brief run on Curb Records but is now regrouping in the Moraine cocoon.

"As a songwriter, she's had a huge No. 1 record with Sara Evans called 'Suds in the Bucket,'" Maher said. "She has matured immensely as a songwriter over the last couple of years. We'll be taking new Jenai music out to the mainstream, probably the end of the first quarter," Maher said.

Moraine is also working with Keni Thomas, a former Army Ranger and member of the elite Task Force Ranger assault unit that fought in Somalia, and was part of the events that resulted in the Black Hawk Down book and film. He also served as milita ry advisor for the film "We Were Soldiers."

"He's a young man who actually went back a second time when the helicopter went down and tried to get his comrades out of there," Maher said of the Georgia native.

Thomas received the bronze star for valor and the combat infantryman's badge. He is also a singer and songwriter who wrote a batch of songs about his military experiences. Part of the proceeds for the resulting album Flags of Our Fathers - A Soldier's Story, are going to the Hero Fund and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides college scholarships to the children of military veterans who died in training or combat.

"He's just unbelievably dynamic as a performer and one of the best lyricists that I've had the pleasure to work with," Maher said, who produced the album with Selby.

There are a number of high-profile guests on Thomas' album, including BlackHawk, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Michael McDonald, Shawn Mullins and Kenny Rogers. 

"Maybe because we weren't trying, we got a record ("Not Me" written by Thomas, Maher and Billy Montana) that Stan Byrd - our promotion man - said he thought he could get on the radio," Maher said. "We may have hit on our hands."

It's the kind of circumstance that keeps a veteran like Maher completely engaged in the music industry.

"I'm not a babe in the woods," Maher said. "I know things are harder at retail. I know things are harder at radio than maybe they were 20 years ago.

"That toughness has sort of hardened some people's hearts to where some of the bloom is off the rose," he continued. "I've got to go down the road that music is everything, that good music will prevail, and that hard work will be rewarded. That's the reason we're doing what we're doing."

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March 22, 2005
© Mark DeLong