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There were undoubtedly a lot of Country Music fans glued to their TVs on November 5, the night of the 47th Annual CMAs – the Country Music Association’s annual awards ceremony. But there were probably few as excited as local family members of former Newtown resident Matt Wheeler, whose work as a Nashville recording studio engineer was featured on seven CMA nominated albums and songs by Miranda Lambert, Eric Church and Keith Urban.
As the awards ceremony wrapped up, Wheeler was proud to learn that he was recognized for his engineering skills on Lambert’s CMA winning Album of the Year Platinum, and for his work as Assistant Engineer on her CMA winning Song of the Year, “Automatic.”
Flashing back about a decade, however, a Nashville recording studio was the last place Wheeler thought he would ever find himself. But after two years studying at UConn-Storrs studying software coding, the young man found himself at a crossroads.
“After two years, I really couldn’t see what kind of future this course was going to afford me,” Wheeler said in a phone interview from his Tennessee base of operations. Then the reality of a DUI arrest after a UConn football game cemented Wheeler’s desire to change his life for the better by following his true passion.
“We didn’t hurt anybody. I got lucky,” he said, “but sitting in a cement cell on a cold steel cot with a thin wool blanket makes you reflect on your choices,” he recalled, adding that the incident precipitated a move to Arizona.
“I started to reflect on my interests, and one of those interests was music, even though I was not a musician,” he said.
Trying to find a way to be part of the creative process, without hands on playing or writing talents, Wheeler went looking for a place where he could learn recording and sound engineering. An Internet search brought him to discover the Arizona based Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences (CRAS).
“There were only a few schools out there that were doing this anyway,” he recalled. “But the conservatory’s curriculum and focus on both the studio and live environment was really in line with what I wanted to do.”
After a tour of the facilities, he was amazed.
“It was an extremely interesting environment with multiple studios in one building, each with a slightly different environment, geared toward either digital recording with surround sound, as well as some analog equipment” he said. “They were able to teach me both the basics of audio engineering and equipment, but also to get hands on a lot of equipment.”
A big boost to Wheeler’s career came as a result of the internship that was required by CRAS to graduate. That precipitated a move to Nashville and an intern position at SoundStage Studios, where Wheeler formed a relationship with Reid Shippen, a multi-Grammy winning mixer and engineer.
Shippen started Wheeler out slowly, doling out simple responsibilities from coffee boy and gofer while allowing the Newtown native to watch and learn during a variety of recording projects. Those sessions included working with the Backstreet Boys and alongside Eric Church on his the country musician’s groundbreaking album Carolina.
“I even got to work on his ‘Drink a Little Drink, Smoke a Little Smoke’ record, which Reid was mixing at the time,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler’s work at SoundStage also brought him into proximity with another notable musician and producer, John “Jay” Joyce, who eventually tapped the young protégé to assist him installing some brand new technology and eventually brought him on as a studio assistant.
“I worked for Jay for about seven years,” Wheeler said. During that time, Wheeler saw Joyce’s operation grow from a sophisticated home-based studio to acquiring an old abandoned Baptist church.
Wheeler threw himself, he said, into helping Joyce convert the church into a multi-room studio, often building baffles, cabinets and other studio features from scratch.
“I got to experience a lot of cool things and work on a lot of interesting gear,” he said. “Without Jay’s willingness to take me under his wing, I would have never been able to build the level of experience I have now.”
Among the stars Wheeler worked with most recently were Keith Urban, Emmylou Harris, and Little Big Town, including the latter band’s recent hits “Pontoon” and “Tornado.”
The tracking for Lambert’s CMA winning record was primarily handled at SoundStage by legendary producer Chuck Ainlay, although Wheeler was in the room assisting.
“He’s the engineer for that CMA winning record — I was one of the engineers – I can’t take the credit for being the engineer of Platinum,” Wheeler said. “I’m not really sure how I was finally recognized as the engineer. The producer ends up submitting credits for the album.”
While he was rooting for his new friend Church, he said the CMA honor for the Lambert project came very much by surprise.
“I did not see this coming,” Wheeler said.
Thanks to his diverse work in Nashville, Wheeler believes there may be a future Grammy nomination or two tied to the hits that already captured CMAs.
Today, Wheeler has moved into an even greater niche area of specialty. Several months ago he was retained by Church to handle all the artist’s online merchandizing, and to accompany the country artist on the road setting up and mixing pre-concert live VIP acoustic performances. Church is currently on a tour that criss-crosses the country for the next few months.
While his current and future work with Eric Church keeps Wheeler busy, he is certainly looking forward to returning to Newtown and visiting with family members when his Nashville superstar boss eventually brings his next tour toward Connecticut.