Norbert Putnam has so many good stories, and he’s a cracking good storyteller. His sense of humor, his detailed sketches of events and people, his love of people, his passion for the music he plays, produces, and writes turn every story he tells into a humorous and fascinating tale about his life in the music industry. His presence in the studio — either playing bass or producing — and on the stage with everyone from Arthur Alexander, Elvis, Linda Ronstadt, Dan Fogelberg, and Jimmy Buffett, to name only a very few, provides him with plenty of tales to tell in his memoir Music Lessons: Volume One (Thimbleton House Media).
Reading Putnam’s book is like drawing up a chair in a friend’s kitchen for an afternoon or evening — well, Putnam has so many stories, you’d be sitting for days — as he regales you with story after story of his musical life. As Kris Kristofferson says, “He’s the most gifted, clear-eyed, unpretentious artist I ever met. Absolute absence of ego, with a quietly positive, good-humored attitude that allows him to focus on the business of Creation, with a brain that’s one of the best I’ve been around in my 75 years on the planet.”
Over 34 chapters of Music Lessons, Putnam traces his education in music from his early days as one of the original members of the first Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (Terry Thompson on guitar, David Briggs on piano, Jerry Carrigan on drums, Putnam on bass; sometimes Peanutt Montgomery or Forest Riley on acoustic guitar) to his years in Nashville, where played on over 9,000 tracks with musicians from Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, and Dolly Parton to Tony Joe White and the Monkees. In the book’s third section, Putnam shares story after story of his time behind the boards as a producer for artists ranging from Joan Baez (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) and Steve Goodman (“City of New Orleans”) to Dan Fogelberg (Home Free) and New Riders of the Purple Sage (The Adventures of Panama Red).
Putnam’s “music lessons” begin when he’s 12, when some kids from his neighborhood decide to start and band and play Elvis’ music. Since his father, who’d once played in a bluegrass band, had an upright bass sitting in one of the rooms of the house, Putnam’s friends recruited him to play bass in the band. Though Putnam had never played the instrument, his new friend Danny Cross tells him that rockabilly music is easy to play since it has only three chords: E, A, and B. “Surely to God you can find three notes,” Cross told Putnam. It’s not long before Putnam is sliding his fingers up and down the strings and picking out the more accessible notes that Elvis’ bass player, Bill Black, was playing. Although Putnam’s father warns him of the dangers of living life as a traveling musician — “Son, that way of living is just not conducive to a normal, happy life” — Putnam already “knew, from the overwhelming feeling rising in my chest, from that moment on, I would devote my life to the pursuit of music.”
Those early days with the Rhythm Rockets prepared Putnam for a career in music that developed quickly, and he never looked back. He was soon playing soul music with Jerry Carrigan in a band called the Mark V that played fraternity parties at local colleges; the band hung out a place called SPAR Music — Stafford Publishing and Recording, named for its founder, Tom Stafford — whose office was just above the Corner Drugs where Stafford’s father was the pharmacist. Putnam first met Spooner Oldham and Donnie Fritts at SPAR, and before long Dan Penn replaced Jerry Saylor as the lead singer of the Mark V. They renamed the group Dan Penn and the Pallbearers, a name they came up with because they drove themselves and their equipment around in a 1953 Cadillac hearse.
Very quickly, Putnam was playing for Rick Hall, the legendary producer at FAME Studios. “His drill sergeant methods provided me with an education for which I shall always be grateful. Indeed, it was Rick who taught us to look for another way, a more original way, to play a new song. I still have nightmares of him shouting, ‘Diff’ent, I need you to play something diff’ent, not just the same old thang!’ ”
Every page of Putnam’s memoir is chock full of funny, endearing stories about the lessons he’s learned as a player and a producer. After the success of Baez’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Putnam received an invitation from Columbia Records’ Clive Davis to visit Davis in New York. Excited and anxious — and with dreams of being asked to produce some of Columbia’s biggest artists, like Barbara Streisand — Putnam was a little disappointed when Davis asked him to produce the folk artists at the label, in particular a new artist by the name of Dan Fogelberg. Putnam took Fogelberg’s demo with him and after listening discovered, “this kid Fogelberg was incredible — he could sing like a bird, write like a poet, and play the guitar like Clapton. And his self-produced ‘demo’ sounded like a completed record … I had never heard a demo by a new artist of such magnitude. And — the young man was only nineteen years old.” The demo indeed became Fogelberg’s first album, Home Free, which Columbia failed to promote and so performed poorly. Putnam produced two more Fogelberg albums — Netherlands and Phoneix — and just last year, working with Fogelberg’s widow, Jean — produced a tribute album to Dan Fogelberg with artists including Donna Summer, Dobie Gray, Garth Brooks, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band singing their favorite Fogelberg songs.
Putnam’s generous spirit pervades all the stories in Music Lessons. While this may be the first volume of his memoir, it’s also a deep love letter to the palpable beauty of music and its transformative power, as well as a joyous celebration of the ways that these artists and songs have taught, and continue to teach, Putnam his music lessons.