There's a staccato burst of snare at the beginning of "King of a One Horse Town," a song on the new Dan Auerbach record, which strongly resembles the little drum roll on Elvis Presley's 1969 hit, "Suspicious Minds."
It's not that Auerbach is aping the King's sound, or even that he was subconsciously influenced by it. That's just how Gene Chrisman plays. You'll hear that same little stutter before the line about kisses being sweeter than honey on Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and leading into the refrain on the Willie Nelson version of "City of New Orleans."
"I think a lot of the familiarity on the record is the actual musicians," Auerbach says. "It doesn't actually sound like something that reminds you of a song, it's actually the person that invented the sound that you're talking about—I mean, literally. Some of these musicians are that special. It's kind weird to think about it, but it's true in this particular case."
At his Nashville studio, the Black Keys singer can call a guy like Chrisman in to lay down some tracks. In fact, given the way things have gone down on Music Row—listen to the drum machines and R&B refrain of Kane Brown's "Heaven" and try to explain what country music is now, other than pop music with occasionally twangy vocals and mentions of Jesus—Auerbach has his pick of studio musicians.
"There's this incredible, rich history and all of these people who are still active and potent musicians and writers, who are kind of adrift at sea here because of the way the business is here. It's a little bit more, you know, on a grid," he says. "A lot of the successful producers, a lot of them worked in LA for years, making LA rock and pop records. I didn't come here to be part of that, and that's where all the money is. I drive down Music Row every day, but I'm not in those studios. I pretty much keep to myself, and I've created my own little space here, and I've found these musicians who are kind of hiding in the cracks—people who've made some of my favorite records of all time."
Auerbach moved to Nashville from his native Akron, Ohio, in 2010. It was a commitment to music, he says. He's recorded "hundreds" of songs in the past year, some of which made it on his album, Waiting on a Song. Some of them were co-written, some were by him. And he's done a dozen records with other artists, a few of which he's released through his label, Easy Eye Sound. He's built up enough of a repertoire to go on the road, playing his solo material backed by those same session musicians and showcasing his signees with the kind of old-school, soul-style revue rarely seen since the Motown days.
"I couldn't have even comprehend it three years ago, even, what I'm able to do now, after having spent the last years just kind of hunkered down and really working with musicians and making different records," he says. 'I definitely have an A team, a crew that work here all the time. All the gear's set up—all the guitars and all the drums. The drums haven't moved in years. The studio is its own living, breathing thing."
Not bad for a self-taught producer. Along with Keys drummer Patrick Carney, Auerbach produced and recorded the first four Black Keys records by himself. In fact, he'd never been in a real studio until meeting Danger Mouse, who produced 2008's Attack & Release.
The way he learned to record was by reading about how his favorite records were made. Now he can do that with the people who made those very records. No AutoTune, no grids.
"Those guys are still really addicted to that, and that's always what they've done, for decades," he says. "That's their bread and butter, and it hasn't been tested so much for a couple years, because it's just a little bit stiffer making pop records."
If there's any obvious precursor to Auerbach's current work, it's probably Ry Cooder—who flew to Havana to work with forgotten octogenarian talents for his Buena Vista Social Club project.
"I'm playing with the guitar player who wrote the riff from 'Pretty Woman' by Roy Orbison," Auerbach says. "I'm playing with him every week, and he's so creative. Stuff flows out of him. He's a fucking genius. There's a bunch of these guys—whether they're overlooked, or Nashville's moved on—I don't think there's any moving on from good music. When you hear good music, you feel something. It has nothing to do with retro or new or old. When it's right, it feels right."
SEE IT: Dan Auerbach and the Easy Eye Sound Revue plays Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., with Shannon and the Clams, on Sunday, Feb. 11. 8:30 pm. $35 advance, $37 day of show. All ages. Get tickets here.