Mississippian Brett Orrison takes his love of music to Austin and beyond
The Mississippi Gulf Coast native is the first call for Jack White, Widespread Panic and other music acts
Story by Jim Beaugez | May 16, 2020
Ocean Springs native Brett Orrison has experienced plenty of highs during his nearly 20 years working in professional audio.
Mixing sound at Widespread Panic’s record-setting 50th sellout at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado in June 2016 was a big moment. Manning the mixing boards at the “Dear Jerry: Celebrating the Life of Jerry Garcia” tribute concert in 2015 for 20,000 fans at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, is also up there.
But as the lead sound engineer for “Imagine: The John Lennon 75th Birthday Concert,” he played a key role in producing an event that brought artists like Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton, The Roots, Sheryl Crow, Eric Church and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine together on the same stage to honor one of pop music’s greatest legends.
“[That was] one of the most amazing shows I ever got to mix,” he says. “I’m pretty sure I cried when Willie Nelson was singing ‘Imagine,’ standing at front-of-house in the middle of Madison Square Garden.”
Orrison’s years of tour-production experience brought his name into the conversation for the Lennon tribute gig, but it’s likely that his background in recording locked it down. Being able to understand the needs of live sound versus recorded music—and the talent to serve both ends in an unpredictable environment—is also what landed him his first high-profile touring role with Widespread Panic.
A friend and collaborator living in Austin, who also happened to run sound for the long-running jam band, called him one day in 2014 with a proposition.
“He knew I was doing studio and live sound, so he called me one day and says, ‘Hey, I’m giving up the Widespread Panic gig. You’re the only guy I know that does studio and live sound,’ which you kind of have to do with Panic because every show is streamed and every show is recorded for a live record.”
The move changed everything for Orrison. Although he was seasoned from running live sound on tours with The Black Angels, and ran a small studio in a converted toolshed behind his house, the gig launched his career into orbit with one of the most successful touring bands of the last 25 years.
Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, altered the course of many lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Orrison had just moved home from New Orleans, where he was running sound at House of Blues, to take the production manager role at the new Hard Rock Biloxi Hotel and Casino in Biloxi. It was a step up and he was eager to get established.
“I got to oversee the purchase of the entire live concert situation, sound equipment, video equipment and stage equipment,” he recalls.
He never got the chance to use it, though. Two days before the Hard Rock’s official opening, Katrina pushed a wall of water through the property’s lower floors and left the much of the surrounding northern coastline of the Gulf of Mexico in ruins. Instead, he ended up working at The Shed, the barbecue restaurant his brother and sister, Brad and Brooke Orrison, run in Ocean Springs.
“I stayed and worked at the Shed on the line, and cooked and served barbecue until Brad and Brooke were back up and running,” he says. “I basically had to pick another city that had a lot of music going on so I could get a proper job. I was looking at New York, L.A., Austin and Seattle.”
A few of his friends who had lost their homes in the storm had already relocated to Austin. He made the jump in February 2006 and landed the lead front-of-house production job at La Zona Rosa, a 1,200-capacity club in downtown Austin. After working short tours with bands like Galactic and Better Than Ezra, he hit the road full time with psych-rockers The Black Angels and established Austin Recording Service to keep him busy during breaks.
Taking the Widespread Panic gig in 2014 allowed him to flex both skill sets, and as the band dialed down its tour schedule, he had more time at home to work in the studio. That’s when the phone rang with the biggest gig of his life.
“I was on the road and got a call from a production manager that had done a bunch of Widespread Panic shows with me,” he says. “He works for different venues and festivals that I happened to be on, and he offered me the Jack White gig. So I jumped from Widespread to Jack White and did that for all of 2018.”
Orrison came onboard just in time for White’s first tour in four years, where he played major arenas and festivals across the U.S., as well as London, Paris and Amsterdam.
“I left my house for almost 10 months straight,” he says. “By the end of it, I came back to the studio and bought a console and all kinds of stuff that I’ve always wanted. I made the conscious decision to stay home this entire year, and only do studio stuff and hang out with my kids. For the first time in 16 years, I wasn’t going to leave the house.”
Orrison had already torn down his first studio and replaced it with a larger facility when he recorded an Austin-based eclectic soul band called Kalu and the Electric Joint at Austin Recording Service. Led by Nigerian Kalu James, the group earned wide acclaim for the blend of West African rhythms and American funk and soul on their Orrison-produced debut album, Time Undone.
He believed in the band so much that he created a record label, Spaceflight Records, to release the album. But what began as a one-off project soon turned into a fully functioning concern.
“Once I got home and had time to really think about it, [I saw] how a lot of bands were not getting a fair shake at proper distribution and marketing for their records,” he says. “We devised a plan to try to become a nonprofit that would allow you to get major donations and grants that would pay for the entire marketing, distribution and release of a record for an artist.”
Spaceflight Records is now recognized as a non-profit in Texas, and Orrison is working to get federal 501 (c)(3) status. The label’s mission is to educate artists on what it takes to release and manage a new-release campaign in the music business. By operating as a nonprofit organization, bands could start their careers without the debt artists usually incur.
“One of the big things around Austin is the gentrification and how the rent just went up ten-fold, half of our venues have closed and people aren’t being paid fairly,” he says. “It’s really hard for an artist in Austin that’s trying to do true art and not just make something that’s commercially sellable.
“If we can relieve that pressure and give them a proper release where they’re getting the same amount of marketing [as they would on a bigger label], we just did a huge one-up for that artist. That’s the goal.”