Keith Sykes in Ardent's Studio B
The legendary Ardent Studios was dealt a major blow over three years ago, when John Hampton, one of Ardent's chief producers, and John Fry, the studio's founder and owner, passed away within five days of each other. Nancy Apple, Ardent's night/weekend manager and director of social media, puts it this way: “Everybody was stunned. It wasn't just John Fry who we lost, it was John Hampton too. Those are the two key figures of Ardent, with the exception of Jody [Stephens]. I think Ardent really needed that team feeling.” Then, mulling over the past few weeks, she adds, “And we finally have that feeling again. It feels like the old days. Even though we all miss Mr. Fry, it's feeling like Ardent again.”
John Fry and John Hampton.
One reason may be the recent hiring of a longtime Ardent-associated artist, Keith Sykes
, as the new chief manager. As a songwriter's songwriter who's had his work covered by the likes of John Prine, Jimmy Buffet, and Rosanne Cash, Sykes has traveled the world with his music, but has kept his home base in the Memphis area nearly all his life. His closeness to the Ardent "family" over the past four decades makes his new official post a very good fit indeed. I sat down with Sykes to hear how things are going today at the fabled studio.
Memphis Flyer: It must be a big change for you to move into a desk job like this.
Keith Sykes: You know, it's like in 1986 I when quit playing. I was building up my publishing company, and I did that for fifteen years, from 1986-2001. But then, I went out and did a tour with Todd Snider, just opening his shows. We were just having fun, basically. But I got to thinking, “This is fun, the publishing companies are up to where they're doing their own thing. It's pretty level.” So I thought, “I'm gonna go back to playing and just end out my days doing that.” And I did and I had a great time. I've been doing it 16, 17 years now.
So, my wife is [studio owner] Betty Fry's personal assistant, and Betty's been asking me to do this job since last summer. But I just said, “I'm happy, I'm good.” Well, after listening to my wife and Betty talk, and just getting a feel for things, I realized I could help out here and still do my gigs that I wanna do. The nicer ones of the bunch. I think I can manage the studio about as well as anybody. And we've got great recording engineers and great staff.
It seems like the place is really bustling with activity. New chairs, new ceiling tiles...
We're doing everything we can to get the place pretty again. The atrium is pretty again, the fountain started working again on Monday. The new roof, that's the first thing Betty did when she took control. We've got Nancy down to doing the things that she does best. But we all three, Jody and Nancy and I, trade off answering the phone. We'll do whatever it takes, clean up the place, whatever. We just want it to be a great place to record.
You go way back with Memphis and Ardent, don't you?
I lived here in Memphis from 1957 to 1966, when I was just a little kid. I moved away for eight years, but then I passed back through; I was going to California, but I saw Jerene Rowe, who's been my wife since then, and that was that. We've been together ever since. In 2001 we moved to Fayette County.
So I moved back to Memphis in 1974 and did the first record after that at Shoe Productions. And that did pretty good. I cut the first record that I ever cut at Ardent back in 1979. I'd done demos over here several times before, and it never really gelled until July of '79. I cut I'm Not Strange, I'm Just Like You
here and everything seemed to work with that. Everybody in my band had quit 'cos I was on tour with Jimmy Buffet that year. So they took the core of the band and named it Uncle Tom's Jam Band. It did good back then. But it left me with zero band to come over here and record with. And I was talking to John Fry and he said, “Well, you know Joe [Harding] plays bass, and the night guy plays drums.” And the night guy was John Hampton! So I ended up with two great musicians. I didn't mean to, it just worked out that way. And they were both fabulous engineers and Grammy winners and all that stuff.
So you had a very personal experience of Ardent in its heyday. Has that informed your move to manager?
Courtesy Jerene and Keith Sykes
Jerene Sykes, Keith Sykes, Joe Hardy at Ardent in the 1970s.
One thing that everybody told me when John died was, "What we're gonna do is exactly what we've been doing." I'm convinced that if we concentrate on it, and everybody uses their best intuitions and connections, we can make our mark again.
We're getting the place together physically, going through the gear, making sure everything's top notch, going over every microphone, every console switch. Everything. And hopefully we'll get the kind of clientele that appreciates all that. 'Cos one thing we can do that you can't do in your bedroom is get a good band in a great room and get creative. That's the magic in a bottle. You can get some great stuff in your computer, but we can still do that thing, where people get together and you just play it live.
There's nothing like the air of a great room.
I consider us a Golden Era studio. Everybody's got computers. Well, we're in a lucky position where we've got this great old gear too. And it's maintained really well. So many people are into the analog sound now. We've got three beautiful 24 track Studer [tape decks], ready to go.
What about other aspects of Ardent, like the label?
I'm not concentrating on the label, for the next few months at least, until we can really have our routine down. Right now, we're promoting the studio. Now, John Fry really did great with the Christian music. They were selling millions of records. I'm not in that. I'm not opposed to it, it's just not what I do. What I wanna do is get some great singer/songwriters in here and work around those people.
So I'm trying to use my connections. And you know, Jody's a gold mine. He knows everybody in the business. I sit here with him at least thirty minutes to an hour every day, trading Rolodexes. Just call the people you haven't talked to in a long time and say hello. One thing will lead to another after a while. And you may only get three or four big 'uns, and have to throw some back, but that's the way it goes, if we can get to fishing again, you know?