Jim Messina: Master of Stage and Studio

It’s the rare individual whose work encompasses multiple and clearly-defined sectors of the music business: very few people can claim deep experience as recording engineer, producer, musician, recording artist, singer-songwriter and live performer. But Jim Messina has excelled in each of those areas, earning a sterling reputation as a pioneer in folk- and country-rock in the process.

Messina began his professional career as a musician when only 16 years old, releasing an album in 1964. From there, he soon moved into the technical side of the business. “I used to work as an engineer,” he recalls, “sometimes from 10 in the morning until two or three at night, every day. I’d go home, get in bed by three, up at eight, and then back in the studio.” His engineering work included sessions for Leon Russell and actor-singer David Hemmings.

And that experience served Messina well when he produced and engineered sessions for a folk-rock band called Buffalo Springfield. He eventually took over for Bruce Palmer as the band’s bassist, appearing on their final LP, 1968’s Last Time Around. After that band folded (with Stephen Stills and Neil Young soon teaming up with David Crosby of the Byrds and former Hollies singer-guitarist Graham Nash), Messina had the idea to pursue a synthesis of country and rock.

He and Springfield founder Richie Furay formed Poco, pioneering the distinctively California flavored genre. The band earned critical plaudits and influenced countless artists, but Poco’s commercial success was measured; they were just slightly ahead of the listening public. At the time, “we were too country for rock, and too rock for country,” Messina says.

Internal conflicts led Messina to leave that group in 1970; his plan was to get off the road and instead return to production and behind-the-scenes work. He passed on opportunities to work with a number of artists including Olivia Newton-John (“You need a pop producer,” he told her). Messina had a six-album deal, and he had to find artists to produce. “I’d already gotten paid three to four months into my contract with CBS,” he recalls with a chuckle. “And I was starting to feel bad; I hadn’t found anybody!”

But soon enough he met Kenny Loggins. The singer-songwriter played some of his original tunes for Messina. “He sang ‘Danny’s Song’ and ‘House at Pooh Corner,’ I think,” Messina recalls. And rather than simply producing Loggins, Messina became half of a duo with him. And rather than stick with a particular style, the duo made a point to emphasize its versatility. “We would do as much diverse material as we could,” Messina recalls. “And hopefully it would create a situation where people were interested in hearing what the next album would be about.”

Loggins & Messina were hugely successful, eventually selling more than 16 million records. The duo formally split in 1976, but have reunited on occasion in the years since then. After he and Loggins went their separate ways, Messina for the first time launched a recording and performing career under his own name. To date he has released more than eight solo albums, and mounted many successful concert tours. His recorded work and live performances emphasize his varied musical interests: flamenco guitar, rock, country, folk and more. And his production and engineering work continues.

Messina’s current project brings together all of his skills and experience. Like his most recent release (2015’s In the Groove), his upcoming release – street date still to be determined – is a live album. And as is his custom, he’s producing and engineering the release himself. “I’ve been on both sides of the glass,” he points out. He’s been both a producer and an artist, sometimes both at once. “And I know what it takes to get the job done,” Messina says.

Having recently relocated his world-class recording studio from California to Franklin, Tennessee, Messina has everything he needs to complete the project. “We recorded each night on our last tour,” he says. “And out of the four months or so that I recorded – probably 60 recordings – I was able to find some that were really well recorded, with performances that were really well done.” Drawing from the best of those – as luck would have it, one acoustic and one electric set – he went about building a live album.

While the joy Messina experiences playing onstage is clearly evident at his shows, after 60 years in the business, he says that he finds all the pieces of his immersion in music to be fulfilling. “It’s all part of who I am,” he says. “From the resistors to the legalese, I enjoy it all.”