Artists That Changed Music: Bil VornDick — One of Nashville’s Greatest Engineers. https://youtu.be/2PJFLT3_SAI

Bil playing Tibetan bells on my record THE FIRE TOWER SESSIONS (photo by LisaBeth Weber)

I’d like to tell you about my friend Bil VornDick. Bil was one in a million. His name is probably on album credits in your collections (or y’know, however you’re listening to music these days.). He received nine Grammys and was on projects that received over 40 Grammy nominations over his storied career in bluegrass, acoustic Americana, and beyond. Just some of the folks he recorded include Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Dolly Parton, Joan Baez, Mark O’Connor, Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, and countless others. It was none other than Chet Atkins that encouraged Bil to move to Nashville and Chet even helped him get into Belmont University which changed the trajectory of Bil’s life. And I was lucky enough that Bil engineered and produced my little album too. Let’s skip back almost 25 years to how we met…

Bil & Patricia. And sometimes it snows in Nashville! (Photo by LisaBeth Weber)

Bil and Taylor Swift. I don’t know where this was taken, but Bil sent it to me a while back. 


STORYTIME. 1998. The annual Folk Alliance Conference was in Memphis that year. I wanted to go to Nashville first and hopefully catch a lift with someone driving to the conference, so I emailed anyone on the registration list with a Nashville address. (This was early email days by the way.) A few people replied, including some guy named Bil VornDick who said I could drive with him. I’d never heard of him, so hearing my mom’s wise voice in my head, I wanted to check him out. I called Amy Kurland (founder and longtime owner of the famed Bluebird Café) to ask if she knew him. She did. She said something to me I’ll never forget: “LisaBeth….you WANT to be in a car for four hours with Bil VornDick” and proceeded to tell me all about him. It was an OMG moment and then I was appropriately intimidated, ha ha. I promptly said yes to Bil, made travel arrangements, flew to Nashville, and got a cab to Bil and Patricia’s, who made me feel at home right away. That led to the first of several visits and several road trips to and from Folk Alliance with Bil over the years, where I was thrilled to be a passenger, listening to his stories, wisdom, and humor he shared along the way. He loved telling stories and I loved listening. We became dear friends and we could always pick up the phone or send a text to catch up. Bil was super down to earth — blue jeans, baseball cap, a dry wit, and that distinctive grin. I called him Ben Franklin in blue jeans. We even wrote a song together on one of the road trips.

2017 — With Bil at legendary RCA Studio B.

A year after we met, the Folk Alliance Conference was in Albuquerque. It was 1999. I saw Bil there and got up the courage to ask if he would ever record someone like me, or did he only work with the bigger acts? He said, “Sure. Call me when you’re ready.” In 2000, my dear friend Maggie started singing harmony with me and playing upright bass and we were a performing duo for the next 12 years. I’d told Maggie & Jimmy (Maggie’s husband) about Bil many times over the years and about my dream of recording with him. Skip ahead to 2007, when the stars finally aligned. I called Bil and said, “I’m ready. Would you realllllllly record my album?” I’ll never forget his reply. He said, “Sure. As long as you’re having fun.” And fun we had.

MerleFest 2010 with Bil and Patricia. Photo by Jayne Toohey.
Merlefest 2010. Photo by Jayne Toohey.

ROAD TRIP!!! After months of arranging everything, rehearsing like crazy, and praying no one got sick, we piled into Maggie and Jimmy’s 28 foot camper “Harvey the RV” (named for a song I had written years before called “Get Back in Your RV Harvey”). With three adults, two dogs, one nephew, and one breakdown in Virginia, we made the trek from Maggie & Jimmy’s home in New Jersey down to West Nashville. We parked the rig at Bil and Patricia’s (a rare honor to get to park and stay there) and after some good ol’ fashioned hospitality (including Bil and Jimmy bonding over a grill-smoker Bil had, and Jimmy promptly being the grill king), we began my record. It was the experience of a lifetime, and to this day, one of the best experiences of my life.

We recorded the album in four and a half days and mixed it in three days. When you record with someone like Bil VornDick, there is SUCH trust, that for me at least, I was able to be really relaxed which is an awesome way to be in the studio. In this case, the studio was at Bil’s house, (sidebar trivia — it was formerly JJ Cale’s house, and formerly the old moose lodge, where the likes of Patsy Cline and the Oak Ridge Boys used to hang out). For my album, Bil brought in Johnny Hiland and a bunch of other great players. I brought in my friend (the incomparable) Jonell Mosser who ended up also recording an album with Bil! The two of them had each remarked more than once that week how much they admired each other’s work and all-around humanity and when it sounded like they each didn’t realize they were each saying that about one another, I put two and two together and told them! One thing led to another and voila, they recorded Jonell’s album Trust Yourself.

Jonell Mosser and Bil — when Jonell came in to sing on my record (GOSH her voice is beyond beyond!!) (Photo by LisaBeth Weber)

Bil knew I wanted to have my mom’s guitar somewhere on my record. It’s a 1947 00–18 Martin guitar and I don’t bring it out of the house much, but I brought it down to Bil’s, and he was more than gracious in understanding the sentimental reasons (not to mention sonic reasons) for me wanting to record with it. Bil also had a sentimental streak. His son had given him Tibetan bells that he had brought back from Tibet, and Bil was really stoked to put them somewhere on the record. It was such a sweet gesture and I was all for it. On the lighter side, Bil had the best sense of humor in addition to his massive talent. He loved going on about “fun with a nose flute”, so I double-dog-dared him to record it somewhere on the album too, so of course he did. (I still haven’t figured out where, but I’d like to think that was Bil’s little secret, and he’s probably up there somewhere still laughing about it.) I called him “the musical chef” cuz heck, if you can engineer the amazing Bela Fleck & the Flecktones records, I’m pretty sure you can engineer anything. Maggie and I were as ready as we could be and got a lot done on the first or second take which was such an awesome feeling. The very first time we finished a song, Bil said in only the way he could, “Well that’s a thank you very next!”

One of my favorite stories that Bil and I used to talk about, happened at yet another conference. Bil and I were gabbing, when someone walked up to talk with him. Bil introduced us and mentioned recently finishing my record. The person looked surprised and said in a not-so-subtle tone, “How did LisaBeth get YOU to record her album?” Bil looked at him in only the way Bil could, and said slowly, “She asked.” To this day, one of my favorite moments.

Bil & Patricia — MerleFest 2010. Photo by Jayne Toohey.

Bil passed away July 5, 2022, at age 72, just days after being diagnosed with cancer. He was someone who grasped life fully, and it’s still hard to process that he’s no longer here. We used to talk at length, and he would share the latest projects he was working on, both recording-wise and behind the scenes. Bil was always helping others, and leaves a lasting legacy behind, from being instrumental (no pun intended) in music professionals getting access to health insurance, to working on projects with UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Bil was kind, generous, spirited, talented beyond imagination, intelligent, and a mentor to many. He was on multiple boards over many years, and above all, no matter what he was doing, Bil loved to have fun. Just ask anyone who knew him. Case in point: One of his favorite events was the annual legendary golf tournament benefitting the Nashville Engineer Relief Fund of which Bil was one of the founding board members. Bil loved regaling stories from the annual tournaments! (If you know, you know.)

2017: Playing for Change Foundation board members LisaBeth, Whitney, Gail, and Bil (advisory council) —Bil gave us a tour of Ocean Way Studios.

When I was on the board of Playing for Change Foundation (PFCF), I talked to Bil about getting involved, and next thing you know, he came on board in an advisory capacity. When PFCF had a booth at Nashville NAMM, Bil took us all around Nashville and made sure we got introduced to the folks at NARASBMIASCAPOcean Way Studios, the legendary RCA Studio B and so much more, all the while making sure they all knew and understood what PFCF was all about. Bil truly cared.

(2017) — Tour by Bil of legendary RCA Studio B, with Gail, Whitney, and LisaBeth.
2017 at a NAMM event. Standing in between a legend (Bil) and a legend in the making (Ryan Hewitt).
2017 — When we ran into Joseph Wooten (Steve Miller band & of course The Wooten Brothers!) and Stephanie Wooten at BMI! Or was it ASCAP!?

Bil always had projects in the pipeline and was always looking ahead to what was next. Here’s one that amazes me to this day. Bil was brought in to record the sound “auras” for the Martin Retro Series guitars through Larry Fishman. These were sounds recorded on vintage Martin guitars with vintage mics which transitioned to Fishman pickups in order for the new guitars to have a retro sound. Vintage Martin guitars were brought from the Martin Guitar museum to Bil’s studio in West Nashville (yes, same place I recorded!) and you can watch the whole story here, narrated by none other than Chris Martin himself: https://youtu.be/K2WrUUtvBA8 (Needless to say, I REALLY want one of these guitars!).

Bil was the real deal. Bil was one of my HEROES. Bil was fiercely political. One look at his Facebook and you would know that. He didn’t hold back, and all I can say about that is let’s make sure none of that was in vain when we cast our votes. Bil loved talking about his family; he loved talking about the kids and the grands, and the new RV that he’d gotten. I had been talking with him about coming to the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival this year. He was thinking about it and really wanted to go. I’d like to think he’s out there somewhere smiling with that grin of his, while the musicians are pickin’ and grinnin’ on stages, at festivals, and in studios hither and yon. Miss you Bil.

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LOTS OF LINKS……

A photo album of some folks Bil knew, including YES one of Bil and DOLLY, and another with Bil and Taylor Swift!! I’m a huge Dolly fan and a proud Swiftie, and Bil sent that same photo to me several years back!! https://www.bilvorndick.com/photos

Producer Warren Huart created a video about Bil and all the amazing folks Bil worked with, (hint — it’s an OMG list) and about his gear that’s in the ongoing auction. I hope you can find 24 minutes to watch it. Artists That Changed Music: Bil VornDick — One of Nashville’s Greatest Engineers:

Bil’s discography: https://iowahomegrown.com/bil_06.htm

More about the auction, and Bil, and his gear — The Bil VornDick Historical Gear Collection:

Martin Guitar Retro Series with Bil, Chris Martin, Larry Fishman, and more:

More on the recording of the Martin Retro Series:

Muriel Anderson and Bil, with Jake Groshong from Playing for Change Foundation (PFCF is about 11 minutes in):

Great interview in Premier Guitar magazine: Studio Legends: Bil VornDick – Engineer/Producer Bil VornDick Shares His Secrets https://www.premierguitar.com/diy/studio-legends-bil-vorndick

Bil’s obituary in the Tennessean: https://www.tennessean.com/obituaries/ten232963

Our friend Micah Solomon had just come out with his new book. I brought a copy for Bil and asked if he’d pose in a photo for it. Thanks to Jayne Toohey for capturing these images….!
Remember I mentioned Bil’s sense of humor? He was totally in on having some fun with Micah’s book!