When Dan Auerbach took the stage at ACL Live a couple of months ago to tape “Austin City Limits” with a band that included several legendary session players, you could almost hear the beaming smile on his face. To hear him tell the story, it’s been like that ever since he began writing and recording his 2017 solo record, “Waiting on a Song.”
Auerbach remembers the day the album’s title track emerged from a writing session with John Prine, Pat McLaughlin and Richard Swift. “As soon as we started playing it, we were all singing it together, and we all had smiles,” he recalls. “I would look across the room, and there’s Prine smiling and singing, and I’m smiling, and Pat McLaughlin is smiling and singing. It was kind of ridiculous how that one just rolled out of nowhere.”
The song’s immediate and infectious spirit serves as a perfect introduction to an album that’s helping to redefine Auerbach as an artist. The Nashville-via-Ohio guitarist reached the top of the charts with his garage-rock band the Black Keys, and in recent years he’s become an in-demand producer, winning a Grammy for his work with acts including Ray LaMontagne, Cage the Elephant and Dr. John.
But “Waiting on a Song,” which came out last June, may well be the best thing he’s ever done. Its 10 tracks unspool effortlessly like a long-lost hit parade from a bygone era of classic American roots music, in part because Auerbach recruited some of the players responsible for shaping that sound.
Foremost among them are drummer Gene “Bubba” Chrisman and keyboardist Bobby Wood, a pair of 77-year-old aces who recorded some of the biggest hits of the late 1960s and early ’70s as members of the Memphis Boys house band at American Sound Studios. One or both of them played on such classics as Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” B.J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
Introduced to Wood and Chrisman by his friend David Ferguson, who shares writing credits on many of the new album’s songs, Auerbach gladly recruited both of them to become regular session players at his Nashville studio Easy Eye Sound.
“Bubba was pretty much retired,” Auerbach says by phone from Nashville. “He was playing some weekends here and there, but he wasn’t doing much studio work. Bobby was doing some, but not a ton. These guys were definitely kind of slowing down.
“But I quickly found out that they slowed down not because they wanted to, but because the business in town changed, and it went in a different direction. The style that Bubba has as a drummer has so much personality. In a place where you record on a grid and things are very formulaic, it’s hard to deal with somebody like that. It’s just a different school.”
Auerbach’s old-school inclinations meshed perfectly with Chrisman and Wood’s playing. “When we got together, it just felt like long-lost family or something,” Auerbach says. “Me having a studio that’s basically built around the way that they used to make records, it’s just in their wheelhouse. So they’ve been flourishing here.”
Part of what makes it work is that Wood and Chrisman have no ties at all to Auerbach’s work with the Black Keys. “Neither of them knew who I was or what I had done, so I don’t think there were any preconceived notions. Which made it better, I think,” he says. “We just got in there and started working, and whatever happened, happened. That’s the fun of it, you know.”
For Chrisman and Wood, it was so much fun that they’re also hitting the road for the first time in ages. They were with Auerbach when he taped “Austin City Limits” in November for an episode that airs at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 on KLRU, and they’ll be in Auerbach’s band for the national tour stopping in Austin on Feb. 23 at Stubb’s.
“I told them, ‘You know, you guys definitely could say no.’ But they immediately said yes,” Auerbach says about asking them to tour with him. He laughs joyously when he mentions that the last time Chrisman and Wood went on the road was with the Highwaymen, the country-legends supergroup of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson that last toured more than 20 years ago.
The rest of the crew from that “Austin City Limits” taping also will be on the tour, including McLaughlin, Dave Roe, Russ Pahl, Nick Bockrath and Ray Jacildo. McLaughlin plays mandolin with Auerbach onstage, but he also was heavily involved in the writing for “Waiting on a Song.” A longtime Nashville songwriter with cuts by many major artists, he’s also made a handful of solo albums (including two in the mid-’90s for Austin-based Dos Records, then a subsidiary of Antone’s).
As with Wood and Chrisman, he also came to Auerbach’s attention via Ferguson, a studio engineer renowned for his work on Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” albums. A Nashville native, Ferguson also portrayed legendary producer Cowboy Jack Clement in the 1989 Jerry Lee Lewis biopic “Great Balls of Fire!” To hear Auerbach tell it, Ferguson (he calls him “Fergie”) is central to most everything Auerbach as accomplished in Nashville.
“Fergie was one of the first people I ever met in Nashville,” says Auerbach, who moved there in 2010 from his hometown of Akron, Ohio. “He introduced me to everybody — Merle Haggard, Del McCoury, John Prine, Cowboy Jack. He opened this world up to me, and I’ll be forever thankful to him for that.
“But it’s the reason why I came to Nashville. It was like my ‘Field of Dreams,’ really. And Fergie’s been that person to kind of open the door for me.”
Auerbach’s life in Nashville revolves largely around his Easy Eye Sound studio, where he’s produced quite a few records that will soon see the light of day on his new Easy Eye Sound record label. “Waiting on a Song” was the label’s first release, followed two months ago by “Goin’ Platinum!” from Robert Finley, a charismatic bluesman who made a cameo appearance on Auerbach’s “Austin City Limits” taping.
Finley also will be with Auerbach for the upcoming tour, which he’s calling the Easy Eye Sound Revue. Opening the shows will be Bay Area band Shannon & the Clams, whose new album “Onion,” out next week, also was recorded at Easy Eye with Auerbach.
The new label seems a logical outgrowth of the studio, and Auerbach sounds excited at the opportunities it may bring. “I’ve got the same distribution that Warner Bros. has, and the ability to tailor the money spent, depending on what the expectation of the album is,” he says. “If I want to make a record with a no-name gospel singer and put it out, I can do that. But if I want to do something that I feel like has radio potential or something, I can do that too.”
At some point, almost certainly, the Black Keys will kick into high gear again. It’s been almost four years since the duo’s eighth studio album, “Turn Blue,” became their first chart-topper. In the meantime, though, Auerbach seems plenty busy and quite content with his role as a studio impresario in Music City.
“I love making records; that’s my favorite,” he says. “I’m so addicted to the whole process. I’ve spent basically my entire adult life building this studio. Almost everything that’s in my studio now was in my house in Akron, Ohio, when I moved to town eight years ago. I put it in this space, and it’s sort of become this living, breathing thing. It’s a lot like the music — it’s got a respect for history, but it’s forward-thinking.”
Dan Auerbach on “Austin City Limits”
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 10 on KLRU
What: Half-hour of Auerbach and half-hour of Austin band Shinyribs
Watch Party: Shinyribs will perform after a viewing party at the Mohawk (7 p.m., $17-$20, 912 Red River St., mohawkaustin.com).
Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound Revue
When: Feb. 23 (7 p.m. doors)
Where: Stubb’s outdoor, 901 Red River St.