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Producer Jimmy Bowen's life has been a "Rough Mix."

By Ted Drozdowski

ROUGH MIX, by Jimmy Bowen and Jim Jerome. Simon & Schuster, 302 pages, $25.

JANUARY 5, 1998:  Jimmy Bowen is the music-biz sharpie who made Nashville's country industry what it is today -- a multi-billion-dollar-generating machine. For that, he's both loved and hated.

Bowen made a practice of cleaning house when he took over operations such as MCA's and Capitol's country branches, and that alone generated plenty of animosity. He's also alienated fans with his bottom-line mentality, cutting artists loose from his labels as if they were spoiled grapes. And while Bowen considers himself a pioneer in the efforts to bring the music closer to its traditional roots, a quick listen to country radio shows that he's left a legacy of cookie-cutter tunecraft behind. A genre fixated on play-it-safe-so-it-sells hits.

If you don't like Bowen, reading Rough Mix won't change your mind. His loutish exploits with alcohol and the thick streak of egocentrism that rises unsaid from these pages are not endearing. Neither are his relationships with women; Bowen is not the kind of guy who believes in quality time unless he can do whatever the hell he wants with it. At least for most of his life; in the book's final chapters -- after a life-threatening bout with cancer -- he seems to have found peace in his latest marriage and in retirement in Hawaii.

But Bowen may win your grudging respect as he spins his tale. He grew up a reg'lar Texas kid who fell for the early rock sounds he heard on the radio, and after barely learning to play bass, he gave it a shot himself. Miraculously, it worked. The sides he recorded with two friends in a lowdown Texas studio became the hits "Party Doll" and "I'm Stickin' with You." "Party Doll" hit number one, and Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids hit the road. Rocketing from the Texas dust to New York City rock-and-roll revues promoted by legendary dj Alan Freed was delicious culture shock. Bowen and his pals were exposed to girls, booze, drugs, and all kinds of other excess, including Little Richard. They were especially confused by Little Richard. They'd never encountered an avowed homosexual before, and didn't know how to speak to him or even be around him. He made them, Bowen explains, nervous.

So did Morris Levy, the notorious head of the Roulette label who signed them to a highway robber's contract and then enforced it with the strong-armed tenacity of a mob goon. This is where Bowen gets his first hard lessons about the music business. The next come when Knox and the Rhythm Orchids skid off the charts and all the way back to the barndance and chicken-wire-fence circuit.

The prose is unspectacular throughout Rough Mix, but Bowen's post-Orchids rise is pretty fascinating. He rapidly makes his mark as a producer until, at age 25, he's tapped by Sinatra to come work with him at Reprise Records. Bowen and Sinatra didn't have a personal relationship, but his encounters with the Big Man depicts Frank as a decisive Boss who takes the advice of his smart hires -- even when he hates hearing it. And woe unto he or she who screws up. One by one, Bowen restores almost the entire Rat Pack (Hey, what could he do with Joey Bishop?) to the pop charts.

On Nashville, Bowen says he had two goals: to improve the sound quality of country albums and to return to the artists the control over their own careers. He embarks on the first campaign by increasing production budgets, compelling studios to update their sound-processing gear, assembling top-quality players, and then initiating the construction of Music City's first digital studios. Working with artists, he does seem intent on getting them to take more control over all their business affairs and to wrestle creative control away from producers. Ultimately, Bowen sees all of this as a way of making better records that will sell more copies. He enjoys repeated success with the Oak Ridge Boys, Steve Earle, Reba McIntyre, the Judds, Wynonna, George Strait, and, finally, Garth Brooks.

Brooks, who Bowen says he tagged as an enormous talent the moment he saw him, proves to be as much Bowen's undoing as the cancer. Brooks is portrayed as a venal, arrogant ego-maniac in down-home cowboy's clothing. They lock horns fast, and as Brooks's sales (and his ego) swell to mind-boggling proportions, the balance of power shifts from the executive to the artist. Bowen leaves the industry to enjoy the new appreciation for life his cancer scare's given him -- and to avoid the impending career-crushing blow from Brooks.

Hey, such is life in the music biz. And Rough Mix clearly relates Bowen's enthusiasm for having lived his hard and well.


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