Feature Review: Rounder Records Story

Various Artists
The Rounder Records Story
[Rounder [2010)]

The Rounder Records Story was released just as it became part of Concord Music Group to celebrate the label’s four decades in the business. The four-disk set commemorates their journey to becoming a major force in the direction of roots music. It features selections from some of the many albums released under the label arranged according to the decades when they were released. Like the label and the host of talented recording artists that have graced its albums over those decades, it’s something of a kaleidoscope of musical genres that somehow come together in a cohesive collection.

Rounder’s history is as much a story of the post-Second World War generation’s search for cultural identity as it is of the story of the label itself. The children and grandchildren of the great migration from the rural south and west to the urban industrial centers in the war years and beyond found the traditional cultural model of their parents as out-of-tune with the popular culture they encountered as any foreign born immigrant’s children might have. And their tastes included a fickle and ever-changing range of styles. The early 1960’s youth market music was intermittently and simultaneously marked by rockabilly, preppy pop, and bubble gum. R & B was just finding a market with white youth, and Motown was flying high on Billboard’s charts at the same time that folk music revival was flourishing on college campuses. By the mid-1960s, it was the Brits who were dominating American charts, and ironically they seemed to have a more diversified and intimate knowledge of American roots music than the typical American recording artists that the established American labels were pushing via the radio and juke box.

Rounder came along at just the right time to fill the boomer generation’s need for new direction at the tumultuous beginning of the 1970’s. They seemed to possess a special sense of what it was the market was searching for. From the very beginning, Rounder went looking for something that was missing from the polished, sanitized sound of the big labels. Something that was gritty and real and working class, honest and perhaps rooted in something basic to the American identity that would pull it’s vast tangle of mixed cultures all together into something that was suited to the times. Fittingly, it coincided with the do-it-yourself, back-to-basics ideal that the generation was exploring with the rise of the hippie movement—trying to get in touch with themselves and make sense of the period in history they found themselves in and looking for where they fit in in an ever-shrinking world that few of the ideals they had been infused with growing up seemed to quite prepare them for. This was the Nixon years, the post-Camelot and Great Society years, the height of the cold war. The generation was infused with the hope that the first two had to offer and felt unjustly burdened with the imposition of the latter and especially put off by the cold war and the country’s continuing involvement in what many saw as an illegal war in South East Asia and insinuation of its might on the side right wing despotism elsewhere in the world.

Rounder’s infancy has its roots a decade earlier with its founders (Bill Nowlin and Ken Irwin) college experiences in the early sixties. They contracted an affinity for bluegrass music while listening to an album by the Lilly Brothers and soon infected fellow student Marian Leighton. Eventually she became the third the third partner in the fledgling company. But it was during a hitchhiking trip to the 1969 Old Fiddler’s convention, in Virginia, that Irwin that changed a hobby interest into the reality that became Rounder. The very notion that you could start a record label with no money and no studio of your own might have seemed ridiculous to a business school graduate, but, as Dylan put it, the times they were a-changing, and dreams were finding substance and that was the era the team found themselves in.

The first decade, as revealed on disk one, establishes Rounder’s identity as more than a documentary niche label, but as a catalyst for the integration of various seemingly unrelated genres into entirely new directions and as a label that can make good things happen for artists that might not otherwise come to the public’s attention. Just listening to the selections from the 1970s, even though they are not in consecutive order by release date, one can get a sense of this identity and, more importantly, how they begin to influence, by their associations and the products of them, the music itself. More specifically, how their exposure to diverse mix of artists and their own vision drew both the label and the those diverse influences into a cohesive set. At first glance, the diversity might appear too ambitious a reach for success, especially for a newly established label with almost no capital and no prior experience to go on, and conventional wisdom would have advised against it.  Thankfully Rounder did not seek such “sound” advice and so did not fail to dream big and succeed.

The first recording to be included on the album is not from the first album they recorded but more appropriately from the record that establishes the label as the premier label of string band music and puts them on the road to their eventual destiny: The cut is from Rounder’s 1975 release by J. D. Crowe and The New South, commonly referred to by bluegrass affectionados by its library of congress number, Rounder 0044. J. D. Crowe was a breakaway banjo player from Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys who took a whole new approach to Bluegrass and became the center of innovation that led to a whole new revival of the genre and roots music in general. His association with the label also opened the door for Rounder to a vast new slate of future feature artists and a stable of accomplished studio musicians with no fear of trying new things to fill out sessions and make things happen. The track on the set is “The Old home Place,” which although its lyrics and vocal styling could pass as traditional bluegrass piece, the presentation has a whole new feel, as does the album itself. The record marks the beginning of the genre known as “New Grass”; which makes the album a landmark in music history and made Rounder a trend setter. It did two other things for Rounder: One was that it establish the label’s identity as a major player in the genre and would lead to Rounder’s first mainstream country recording artist, Keith Whitley, whose recording of I never Go Around Mirrors appears on disk 2, from the 1982 release of Somewhere Between, also a J. D. Crowe and The New South album on the Rounder label. The second big bonus that came along with Crowe’s association is the collection of Bluegrass Album Band records over the years. The Album band was not so much an organized unit as it was a gathering of some of the best pickers and singers in the genre getting together for a recording session. There is another significant recording on this first disk that deserves mention from Hazel (Dickens) and Alice (Gerrrard),  “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” which was written by Hazel, who would eventually become a successful Country music recording artist with the label.

The first hints of future diversity appear with a venture into Cajun on a collection of artists of that genre released in 1976. The cut on the album is “Parlez-Nous A Boire” by the Balfs Frerez (brothers), which was actually recorded in 1965. There is an early venture into world music with Alhaji Bai Konte, from June of 1973, by Marc D. Pevar and a medley from an album by Joseph Cormier called Scottish Music from Cape Bretan, also from the same period. That first decade also sees the label’s flirtation with the Rock market. In 1978, they release the album that definitively marks their exodus from the niche market, a mainstream rock record by an upstart blues rock musician, George Thorogood, that blows the lid off their small-time status and establishes their cred as the sought-after label for blues musicians looking to make it in the big time. “Who Do You Love” was released in October of 1978 on the album “Move It On Over.” Almost immediately, it got picked up by radio DJ’s and spread like wildfire on the airwaves. Almost overnight, Thorogood was a rock superstar. Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately, because the lessons it taught and the attention it provided for the label—Rounder wasn’t able to reckon with the sudden demands of a chart-topping hit record. Thorogood turned to a more established label for his next album. Perhaps the silver lining in the cloud was that the founders recognized what they needed to do to prepare for the next big opportunity when it came their way. By the end of the 1970’s, Rounder was established as the premier string band label and had showed that it could produce hits in the mainstream.

In the coming decades, Rounder recorded some exceptionally well known artists of the era, from The Cox family to Gatemouth Brown, Cathy Griffin to Alison Krauss, and Wilson Picket to Robert Plant. The box set reflects the diverse nature of that mix: Hazel Dickens’s “Momma’s hands,” “Cowboy Jubilee” by Riders in The Sky, “Tipitina” from Professor Long Hair, “Once in a Blue Moon” by Nanci Griffith, “Birches” by Bill Morrissy, Alison Krauss’s huge cross over hit “Baby Now that I Found You,” “False Friend Blues” by Ruth Brown and Clarence Gatemouth Brown, “Man With the Blues,” “The Crow” by Steve Martin (yep, that Steve Martin; he’s also a pretty capable banjo picker),  “Fibber Island” by They Might Be Giants, Kathleen Edwards’s “Back To Me,” and “The Only Sound That Matters” by Robert Plant. This is just for starters. There are 87 cuts in all. This is an eye-opening collection, even for anyone already well acquainted with Rounder’s accomplishments, and an extremely entertaining collection of music.

—Steve Patton (Baltimore, MD)

2 comments on “Feature Review: Rounder Records Story

  1. Great review, and I might have missed the book otherwise so I’m very grateful.

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