Brian Ahern, CM, guitarist, record producer (born 1945 in Halifax, NS). Brian Ahern started out on CBC-TV’s Singalong Jubilee before becoming an acclaimed country music producer. He was a key figure in the careers of Anne Murray and Emmylou Harris, and was married to the latter from 1977 to 1984. From the mid-1970s to the late 2000s, Ahern produced more than 40 gold and platinum records for such artists as Johnny Cash, George Jones, Bette Midler, Rodney Crowell, Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson. Ahern has won four Juno Awards and one Grammy Award. He is a Member of the Order of Canada and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
Brian Ahern grew up with four siblings in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His father was the musical director at their local Catholic parish. He gifted Ahern his first guitar when he was hospitalized due to asthma at age 12. Ahern played in several bands while in high school; he even convinced his school to buy the necessary equipment so that bands could perform at school dances. Ahern continued playing music while attending Saint Mary’s University, where he also played junior varsity football.
Ahern started his career as the guitarist on Singalong Jubilee, a CBC-TV program out of Halifax that ran from 1961 to 1974 and featured performances from local artists. In 1964, Ahern first heard Anne Murray sing when she auditioned for the show and he accompanied her on guitar. “I thought she had a really good instrument, and she seemed to know how to use it,” Ahern later told Billboard. Though Murray did not make the final cut that year, Ahern and producer Bill Langstroth kept in touch and hired her two years later, when Ahern was the show’s musical director.
During this period, Ahern played in three bands simultaneously: Brian Ahern and the Offbeats played on the CBC-TV show Music Hop; The Nova Scotians played Celtic music; and Badd Cedes, the most successful of the three, signed with Verve Forecast in the United States and released several singles.
Career with Anne Murray
In the late 1960s, Ahern moved from the East Coast to Toronto to work with such artists as Ronnie Hawkins, with whom he produced a hit single of a Gordon Lightfoot cover, “Home from the Forest.” While also working as a jingle writer, Ahern wrote countless letters to Anne Murray, who at that time was teaching Physical Education in Summerside, PEI, persuading her to join him in Toronto and pursue a music career. (Murray later said, “I wasn't ready and I simply ignored his letters.”) Murray finally quit her teaching job and moved to Halifax in 1967. She moved to Toronto in early 1971.
Ahern recorded Murray’s debut album, What About Me (1968), which was released by Arc Records. Ahern dissuaded Murray from signing a three-year deal with Arc, encouraging her to instead sign with Capitol Records. Her first hit single, “Snowbird,” written by Gene MacLellan, spent six weeks on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and was certified gold in the United States for sales of more than 500,000. Murray became the first female Canadian solo singer to have a No. 1 single in the United States. “Snowbird” landed Ahern the 1971 Juno Award for Best Produced Single. He also won three consecutive Junos for Best Produced MOR Album for Murray’s Honey, Wheat & Laughter (1971), Talk It Over in the Morning (1972) and Annie (1973). Murray has worked with Ahern on 14 albums and has sold more than 55 million records worldwide.
Ahern moved from Toronto to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. Coming off the success of Murray’s ninth studio album, Love Song (1974), which reached No. 24 on the Billboard albums chart and yielded the Grammy-winning single “Love Song,” Ahern was recruited by Reprise Records to produce Emmylou Harris’s major-label debut album, Pieces of the Sky (1975). This partnership led to Ahern producing more than a dozen of Harris’s albums in the decades that followed, including the critically acclaimed Elite Hotel (1975), her first No. 1 country album, which earned her a Grammy Award.
During this period, Ahern also produced Anne Murray’s No. 1 hit “You Won’t See Me” (which John Lennon declared his favourite cover of one of his songs); Johnny Cash’s No. 2 hit “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”; Rodney Crowell’s debut album, Ain’t Living Long Like This (1977), which boasts such perennial, oft-covered hits as “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”; and Roy Orbison’s first Grammy-winning single, “That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again,” a duet with Emmylou Harris.
In 1991, Ahern moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he continued to record. He produced five studio albums for Johnny Cash, including his 2006 duets album with June Carter Cash, as well as Harris’s All I Intended to Be (2008) and the first duets album between Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon (2013). It won Ahern his first and only Grammy Award, for Best Americana Album in 2013.
Beyond his long list of award-winning production credits, Ahern is also well known for creating the Enactron Truck — a 42-foot-long semi-trailer he converted into a mobile recording studio. Dubbed a “control room on wheels,” the versatile unit allowed artists to record whenever and wherever they wished. The first three shows Ahern recorded with the truck were performed by the string section of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Massey Hall. It was also used to record The Last Waltz (1976), the final concert by the Band. Other artists to record with the truck included Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and Black Sabbath. The Enactron Truck has been acquired by the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville, which plans to include it as a permanent exhibit.
In addition to the Enactron Truck, Ahern also frequently recorded at his home studio (Easter Island Surround) and at the Sound Emporium in Nashville. He has also played numerous types of guitars on various recordings and produced the occasional soundtrack album.
Country music stars who have worked with Ahern over the years include Gene MacLellan, Mary Kay Place, Billy Joe Shaver, Don Williams, George Jones, Linda Ronstadt, Ricky Skaggs, George Fox, Rosanne Cash, Marty Stuart, Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson.
In an interview upon the release of All I Intended to Be, Harris described what Ahern brings to the studio: “One of Brian’s many talents is his ability to sense an artist’s strengths and encourage them without putting you on the spot. He allows you to grow at your own pace and gives you just enough room so that you don’t hang yourself, but you also start to get confidence.… It’s a very nurturing presence.”
Johnny Cash once told the Washington Star: “I learned a lot from [Ahern], he produced like no one I’ve ever seen. He takes days on one song just to get it right. And he’s got all sorts of ideas on what instruments sound right with each other that I’ve never thought about before. He even got me learning something about running the board, just by watching him.”
Ahern and Emmylou Harris were married at his home in Halifax in 1977. The couple had one child together (a daughter, Meghann, born in 1979) and divorced in 1984. Ahern also had another daughter (Shannon), with singer and actor Patrician Anne McKinnon, who died of cancer in 2001.
Honours and Awards
- Best Produced MOR Album (Honey, Wheat & Laughter) (1971)
- Best Produced Single (“Snowbird” – Anne Murray) (1971)
- Best Produced MOR Album (Talk It Over in the Morning – Anne Murray) (1972)
- Best Produced MOR Album (Annie – Anne Murray) (1973)
- Best Americana Album (Old Yellow Moon – Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell) (2013)
- Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame (2006)
- Lifetime Achievement Award for Engineer/Producer from the Americana Music Association (2010).
- Member, Order of Canada (2019)