Rounder Records at 40

Rounder Records at 40
March 3, 2010
The Wall Street Journal

Airing on PBS stations this month (beginning Saturday) is "Rounder Records' 40th Anniversary Concert," a celebration of the storied and thriving Massachusetts-based independent music label. Artists performing range from bluegrass superstars Alison Krauss and Union Station to New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, rocking actress Minnie Driver, multigenre banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas. They're all on the Rounder label—in some cases, for decades. (A companion CD with additional performances included is being released Wednesday, and an extended DVD on May 4.)

For the most part, independent record labels come and go, or get swept up into larger music-making conglomerates with new management, often with little institutional memory at all. Remarkably, Rounder—begun in 1970 with a recording of old-time banjo player George Pegram, and the home last year of the Grammy-winning Album of the Year (Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's "Raising Sand")—is still helmed, if with a much larger executive staff, by the same three roots-music aficionados who started up the company with no industry experience whatsoever. The '60s folk-music revival was waning, and the whole range of music that Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy and Bill Nowlin loved was becoming frustratingly hard to find.

In a recent phone interview, Mr. Irwin recalled: "Basically, this was my college roommate and my girlfriend of the time. We started out in the same three-alcove apartment, as a living and working collective, going to festivals to hear all the music together, traveling on that VW bus, seeing Muddy Waters and Bill Monroe and Doc Watson at Club 47 in Cambridge. We didn't even own a tape recorder. We were fans and hobbyists, thinking of the labels we'd known, 'Well, if they're not going to do it, maybe we could make available music that we like and think others would.'

Listen Up

Hear clips of tracks from the new CD "Rounder Records' 40th Anniversary Concert":

"Restless" by Alison Krauss and Union Station & Jerry Douglas
"He Thinks He'll Keep Her" by Mary Chapin Carpenter
"Beloved" by Minnie Driver
"Early on, especially, we felt it was a mission; we were aware of how much music of the past was around that wasn't available, and how much was being made that needed to be preserved and shared. We would go to NAIRD [the National Association of Independent Record Distributors] with little notebooks and ask people 'Where do you go to get an LP made?' and 'What does it cost?' just trying to learn."

In "The Never-Ending Revival" (University of Illinois Press, 2008), author Michael F. Scully tracks how the firm came to realize that the performers themselves, whether "hippies" or "southern good ol' boys" on the face of it, wanted their music to be heard, to reach wider audiences, to be commercially successful. He described to me, in a separate interview, how the "Rounder Founders" proceeded from there:

"They went on to raise that roots-music flag high. The sheer quantity—over 3,500 records by now—and the quality of their releases demanded attention for it. They made it plain that roots music was not just 'old stuff,' or even old-sounding stuff, but could be vibrant and beautifully recorded, and they put out records by working musicians who were ready to tour in professional shows, rather than just reviving older recordings. Unlike most post-folk-revival roots labels, they were never a one-genre label; they were more like a 50-genre label, and they showed that 'roots music' could be cool stuff. When you do all that, and reach as many people as they have, you start changing the concept of what roots or folk music is in the modern world."

Rounder's evolution, fittingly, can be tracked with some specific releases as milestones. The label was already enlarging the careers and audiences of jump-blues-era performers such as Charles Brown and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown when it signed the young blues rocker George Thorogood, whose 1977 debut album sold tens of thousands of copies just in its first few months.

'The George Thorogood experience was incredible for us," Mr. Irwin recalls. "Very much a case of throwing the baby into the water and seeing if it could swim. We were excited when the distributor ordered 500 copies of it—shocked!—and then went through that process of calling up radio stations who never would have been interested in anything from us, dealing with promoters, with the industry that we used to 'peacefully co-exist' with. But this is what we had to do."

Another milestone was the 1975 LP "J.D. Crowe & the New South," which featured Mr. Crowe, already established as one of bluegrass's premier banjoists, and a lineup of young musicians that included Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas, playing modern bluegrass versions of everything from Utah Phillips's "Rock Salt and Nails" to Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'." Its style and content made such an impact on the genre that bluegrassers still refer to the album simply as "Rounder 0044."

Ten years later, the label signed a 14-year-old Illinois fiddle player whose own career would evolve to the point that she could fill huge halls with her band—or with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant. Her 1995 compilation "Now That I've Found You" would go double platinum. Alison Krauss spoke of her 24-year relationship with Rounder Records in a recent phone interview:

"Rounder is about tending to the whole career of a musician. I was a kid when I started there; I thought I was going to be a choir director. They seem to enjoy the process of someone's whole musical adventure, good and bad. For me, that's meant not just the ability to record, but being left alone, musically, to play with the band and become who I was going to become. Everybody in the music business wants a successful record, and so do the people at Rounder, but they have that love for music, and for traditional music, for what it is. I love that, and I love being on the same label as a hog-calling album. That's my speed!"

Today, the label's impulse to preserve—which led it to projects with the Smithsonian, Alan Lomax field recordings and the recent Woody Guthrie "My Dusty Road" collection—is focused particularly on moving the vast Rounder catalog to digital availability. As for what Rounder looks for in working Americana artists, that's not much changed—as Mr. Irwin suggests: "It's that their music speaks to us, some passion or emotion that the artist can communicate. If you look across the roster, and the 40 years of collected works, you'll find very little that's cookie-cutter. Most of it is emotive music that touches us and, we hope, will touch some others."
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