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McEntire's non-studio experience is also valuable, according to Ha Ha Tonka vocalist/guitarist Brian Roberts. "Whenever we were recording Buckle, [we were] extraordinarily green in all aspects of the industry. He's toured with other bands, he's worked in different aspects of recording and artist development. He has a wealth of knowledge on every issue that a young artist — or an old artist — would need to know."
Indeed, McEntire was the touring soundman for industrial rockers My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult for years, and was a keyboard player in the high school incarnation of St. Louis rockers Colony. (He also grew up playing piano, clarinet and drums.) Still, McEntire was always fascinated by recording music. After brief sojourns at the Ohio Recording Workshop and a gospel studio in Owensboro, Kentucky, he returned to St. Louis in the early '90s, determined to work for a local studio. Because of the diverse groups of artists it attracted, he zeroed in on Hill stalwart Music Masters.
"I remember one night, I walked up to the door when I knew there was a big session going on, there were a bunch of cars parked out front," McEntire says. "I knocked on the door, and a guy came out. I was like, 'I mailed a résumé a couple of weeks ago, I called last week and you said you got [it]. I just want to make sure you're looking at it. Here's my résumé.' The guy looks at it, and he goes, 'What's your favorite vocal mic?'
"I paused for a second [and] I said, 'Who's singing?' and he said, 'Huh. Why don't you come in?' I didn't know I had even said the right thing, it was a legitimate answer. Turns out, he was the owner — they wound up hiring me as an assistant, and I stayed there for, like, six years."
After leaving Music Masters in 1998, McEntire went to the Upper Room, the studio owned by ex-Uriah Heep member Ken Hensley. There, he had the opportunity to engineer a session with a pre-Survivor Destiny's Child. (The track was never used, although McEntire speaks highly of the group's talent.) When the Upper Room suddenly closed in 2000, leaving McEntire and other freelance studio engineers with bookings but no room, the church in Union became his new base.
What was meant to be a temporary relocation turned into a five-year stint. But all along, McEntire had a vision for what a studio should be like — an idea inspired by his experience going to Vancouver with Colony in the mid-'90s as it recorded its major-label debut, Siren, with Ben Mink.
"It was a really big studio with the right mentality, the right people," McEntire recalls. "It was when I knew: This is how studios should be — laid-back, run professionally. It was like you went to a factory, but it was a Willy Wonka factory you were working at. You always left with a smile. I knew I needed to be in this trade, no matter what."
The atmosphere and décor at Sawhorse reflect a certain childlike whimsy. (Think Pee-wee's Playhouse for audio geeks.) Magazines, musical instruments and knickknacks are strewn about the control room — everything from a Kiss figurine and a miniature version of the fishnet-leg lamp from A Christmas Story, to a cardboard cutout of Christopher Walken's head and Snoopy paintings on the wall. McEntire himself is an overgrown big kid, with a positive and optimistic attitude, quick smile and mischievous (but amiable) demeanor. During sessions he's fond of grabbing a melodica and working out abstract melodies, or thinking of raunchy phrases that match the cadence of drum rhythms.
But Sawhorse's gear is anything but child's play. For instance, the studio's centerpiece is an SSL mixing board which used to belong to the late Austrian pop star Falco. Such high-quality pieces let Sawhorse compete with studios in bigger cities — and attract marquee industry talent. Noted producer/mixer John Agnello mixed most of Son Volt's The Search at Sawhorse, while Chris Testa, who has produced the Dixie Chicks and Jimmy Eat World, has been in town working with local act This Is Energy.
"It's not like we don't have things that New York, LA, Nashville and Chicago have — we have them," McEntire says. "We can bring those guys to us, we don't have to go out of town to do it anymore.
"I realize that I'm not the only game in town, I'm not the guy that's going to be cool to do every record. I don't have to be that guy, and I'm fine with that. I don't have to have my thumbprint in everything. I want to have tools that other people can use — or bands can bring in other guys, [and] they can use it."
Indeed, while his is the name most associated with Sawhorse, he's hesitant to take full credit for its reputation. He says he'd rather "be thought of as the guy that's working out of this place" and wants freelance studio engineers to work there and keep the studio humming. It's clear he just loves being at Sawhorse for reasons that have nothing to do with ego or micromanaging: Even when he isn't scheduled for a recording session, he might show up and putter around — adding insights if needed, or staying out of the way if not. It's all a function of what McEntire calls "transparency" — the idea that everybody who works there, from freelance engineers to interns, has a hand in its success — and dislike of hierarchy.