The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 9, 2013

Recording engineer who has Joplin ties could win Grammys

Vance Powell has already earned three of the honors

By Wally Kennedy
Globe Staff Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — Recording engineer Vance Powell, a Joplin native who has found repeated success with rock musician Jack White, could take home another Grammy tonight — maybe two.

White’s debut solo record — “Blunderbuss’’ — has topped the charts since its release last year. It is nominated for album of the year and best rock album. A single from the album, “Freedom at 21,’’ is nominated for best rock song.

White, who will perform at the Grammys, will compete with The Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, F and Frank Ocean for the album of the year honor.

Powell, now a resident of Nashville, Tenn., will attend the Grammys with members of his family from Joplin.

“It has a good chance. It’s a fantastic artistic statement by a great artist,’’ Powell said in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he was attending Grammy-related events.

Powell said he views the awards “as a cool perk to the business, but in the end the awards don’t really matter that much in the long scheme of things. My parents love it, and that is awesome.

“But a Grammy is a peer-reviewed award that reflects artistic excellence. It’s not about sales and marketing,’’ he said. “That’s what makes it special.’’

Three previous Grammys

Powell already has won three Grammys. He has accepted the award in connection with “The Eleventh Hour’’ by Jars of Clay in 2003. It won for best gospel-rock album. He accepted the award in 2009 for “Consolers of the Lonely’’ by the Raconteurs, a Jack White project. In 2011, he won in connection with Buddy Guy’s “Living Proof’’ for best contemporary blues album.

Powell could win two Grammys tonight. He also is a nominee for album of the year. He is not a named nominee for best rock album but would still receive the award if it wins in that category.

Powell has worked closely with White on hundreds of recordings over the course of the past four years or so. With “Blunderbuss,’’ White took a different approach.

“He chose a group of musicians, most of them female, to play on the record. He wanted to do something different. They recorded the bulk of the record with him,’’ Powell said.

“He has two different bands to take out on the road — an all-male band and an all-female band. If you go to one of his concerts, you weren’t sure what band you would see. They all learned the same music.’’

Powell, a 1982 graduate of Joplin’s Parkwood High School, became interested in electronics, computers and recorded music while a student there. A friend in a band who thought Powell’s stereo system sounded good asked him if he could make his band sound better. That would launched career running sound and being a live-sound guy.

He had his first studio experience with a local musician, Greg Krutsinger, at Rick Massey’s Massey Studio in Joplin in about 1986. From there, he went to the Lou Whitney Studio in Springfield in 1990 and eventually to Nashville.

His decades of work as a live-sound expert helped him become someone Jack White could rely on.

“It made me be able to work really fast. That’s something that Jack really likes — getting sounds fast, and getting things on the tapes quickly that sound good. In the studio, you spin to win — you spin the knobs to make it work.’’

Powell said he tries to be almost invisible when he works with White.

“I just try to stay out of the way and record what happens in the best and most interesting way possible. If he wants 15 horn players with a tuba, I have to figure out how to do that,’’ he said.

As the recording engineer he is not the artist, but he knows that “inevitably my own fingerprints are around the outside edge of it.’’

Awards show

The 55th annual Grammy Awards will take place today at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It will be broadcast at 7 p.m. on CBS.