My longtime friend, Kyle Lehning, got a call from artist manager Jim Morey with an offer to produce an album on one of his clients, Michael Feinstein. Michael has had a glowing career making albums for almost 35 years, collecting Five Grammy nominations as well as making multiple Emmy nominated PBS specials. In addition, he has to be the most knowledgeable person alive on the Great American Songbook. He has worked tirelessly on his enduring passion to keep the genre alive in order to pass it on to the next generation by archiving and educating.
One of the premier songwriters of that genre was George Gershwin. Michael’s idea for an album was to do Gershwin songs as duets, with country artists as duet partners. Kyle said that when Morey presented the unusual idea to him, his head tilted in curiosity like Nipper, the dog on the old RCA logo. As he thought about the idea, he came up with what has become a brilliant thought. What if there was no piano on the album? Those songs were all written on piano, and in spite of being a pianist himself, Michael instantly loved the idea. Kyle put together a stellar group of Nashville musicians on acoustic instruments, including guitar, mandolin, accordion, fiddle, upright bass, and drums. This gives those gorgeous melodies and lyrics an exquisite backdrop with an incredibly unique feel for that genre. Among the duet partners are Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Lee Ann Womack, Brad Paisley, Mandy Barnett, Ronnie Milsap, and The Time Jumpers with Vince Gill. Having worked on quite a number of American Songbook albums, I can honestly say there’s never been one like this one.
We recorded most of the tracks at Blackbird Studio D. It was my first time working there, and found it to be - like many others would agree - one of the very best studios in Nashville. Michael jumped in on the sessions with musical ideas that helped put each song into focus. I saw right away his expertise in the songbook era. On breaks at the sessions, he would talk about and play from his laptop, seldom heard versions of popular and even obscure songs from the era.
I found Michael to be an exceedingly warm guy. On a trip to Los Angeles while working on Alya, he invited me to his home for a visit. He asked if I would like to see some of his collection, and I jumped at the opportunity. What I saw was like Disneyland for anyone interested in early popular music. Room after room, closet after closet, and drawer after drawer were original scores and manuscripts, sheet music, one off transcription discs, and records. There was also all kinds of memorabilia including movie posters and pictures … including a check George had written to Ira. Michael told me as a young man about forty years ago, he actually got to work for Ira, doing archiving and cataloging. This gave Michael the opportunity in his book, The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs, to write from behind the scenes about the brothers. With the minimal amount of time we have spent together, Michael has become one of my favorite people. I hope to be able to spend more time with him in the future - in the studio or out.
We are rounding third and heading for home on the album, needing one last vocal to complete it. Unfortunately, the pandemic we currently find ourselves in has put a damper on finishing. This unique album is honestly one of the best albums I have done in the last ten years. Look for Gershwin Country (hopefully) this fall.