Frank Gutch Jr: Grown in Charlottesville, An Early Look at Rounder Records (via Warner/Reprise and Peter Stampfel), and Notes…..
When I first started getting into music, really getting into music beyond AM radio and the string of hits I always thought was everything music, there were three cities. Only three. Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Those were the three graced by the large offices of the major labels and those were the three which produced the vast majority of music which made it to the airwaves. Or so it seemed. Isolated in Oregon (and trust me, kiddies, it was isolation), the world looked so simple and yet so daunting, even on AM radio. Generalizations were common. Vocal groups all came from or at least came out of New York City. Soul was courtesy of Detroit and Chicago and Detroit. Surf music was West Coast and sand-infested. Country was all Bakersfield or Nashville. But they all were filtered through the Big Three: Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. That’s where the major labels lived. That’s where the money was. That was where artists went to make it big, no matter where they originated.
That was also where the industry began to crumble, long before anyone noticed. Truth is, the industry began to live too much within their own bubble. The labels began to think they could do no wrong, that they had the right to live within their own rules, and even set about supporting legislation (much of it originating from attorneys representing those labels) to make sure they had a stranglehold on the business. And it worked for a long while. Until they ignored digital. Man, was that a game changer!
What that did was give record company execs an excuse for falling sales. What that did was allow musicians without deep pockets to record. What that did was kick the shit out of the Big Three (cities, not labels). All of a sudden, music scenes, some there before digitization, began to emerge. Among all of those, one is an anomaly: Charlottesville’s.
I once wrote, and not that long ago, that you could not throw a pop bottle in Charlottesville without hitting a musician. I would venture to bet that per capita there is no area which has a more dense artist population. When I asked Sarah White and Paul Curreri why that was, the best they could come up with was C-ville’s nicknames: The Velvet Rut. Seems people come to C-ville and don’t leave— at least not the artists. That rut C-ville is in is maybe a very pleasant one. It might lull you right to sleep.
What I do know is that when I was introduced to Charlottesville, it opened up a whole new world of music to me. I was writing for Swampland.com a number of years ago and both Danny Schmidt and Devon Sproule each had new albums out and I was asked to review them and, well, the rest is history. Don’t know those two names? Well, neither did I, but I soon learned. And I learned a whole passel of other names. And slowly but surely I became aware of the heart and soul of a city off the beaten path but vibrant with music and the arts. And I fell in love with it.
Danny had left C-ville by the time I found him. He had returned to his home in Austin, Texas and settled down, rejuvenating a music career he had been considering leaving. The album I reviewed, Little Grey Sheep, has given way to two more— Instead the Forest Rose To Sing and Man of Many Moons— and I have no doubt that he is working on another as I type. Danny was my first connection to C-ville. From him I learned of Paul Curreri and Shannon Worrell and John D’earth and a host of others he thought I needed to contact. See, it was Danny who started me on my C-ville quest. I mentioned to him that I wanted to do an in-depth piece about him and he said, why just me? Why not write about Charlottesville? So I have tried. More about that later.
After talking with Devon Sproule, my list of musicians to contact got longer and longer and before I knew it, it was longer than my arm. Thus began a journey. I contacted people and asked for interviews and review copies of albums and advice on which directions I might go to find out even more. The response I got was overwhelming. I soon became aware that the project as I had envisioned it was impossible. There was seemingly no end to the talent in and surrounding C-ville. There still isn’t. So what I have been working toward, and it will be a work in progress for some time, is an article which will contain links to interviews and articles about everything C-ville and its music, from reviews and clever little pieces to interviews and maybe a few updates on the scene here and there.
And it is partially due to Sarah White and Stuart Gunter. Sarah, after a long recording hiatus, released a single a few months ago: Married Life b/w ily (which stands for “I Love You”, evidently). It is a real single, a 45, seven inches and vinyl (although this is a little record with a little hole as opposed to the old little records with the big holes). What spurred my interest is how it was marketed. Tiny WarHen Records (and probably Sarah herself) decided to pressed a limited quantity on white vinyl and, yes, it is nothing new, but it struck me that maybe it is once again time. Time to limit the numbers. Time to put out specialty product. WarHen is not the only one. Many small “companies” are doing it.
What Stuart did was start sending me more lists. New bands. New artists. Older artists I might have missed. New releases. Anything he thought I might be able to use or would like. He barely mentioned that he was in bands himself. He plays drums, for instance, on the Sarah White 45. He has played drums on a lot of things. And he plays drums for Wrinkle Neck Mules. Now, Stuart didn’t tell me so right off. It came out in an email long after we had started communicating, just a dropped mention, and when I asked him about WNM, he admitted to being in that band. Not really a C-ville band, per se, but close enough. You have to understand that Virginia, like C-ville, is loaded, musically.
Anyway, I got my hands on WNM‘s three albums and Virginia is all over them. There are mountains and mines and creeks in the music, and moonshine and backwoods and history. A ton of history. It is not Southern but it obviously comes from The South. It is brassy and folksy and on the rock side of Justified and Longmire, for you TV freaks. Let me put it this way. They call themselves Wrinkle Neck Mules for a reason.
Anyway, I take Stuart’s emails as a push in the direction I started long ago with Danny and Devon. Here are only a few things I found when I started out.
Paul Curreri— To my mind, Curreri is pure adventure in music. His roots are folk and blues, the folk side of, but that was then. Since, he has branched way out, grabbing any influences which struck his fancy. His last album, The Big Shitty, trips among a variety of styles and is almost manic in places. It is on the whole electric and when it comes to his guitar, I will take as much electric as he will give. The guy’s a monster player.
Sons of Bill— Who are, in fact, sons of Bill. Bill Wilson. The father of three young musicians who decided that they would throw in together and, judging from their constant gigging, seem to be doing quite nicely. They just released their third album, Sirens, and look like they will be around for a long time. I would call them country rock but they are actually more rock country, if you get my drift. They like to rock. They like to have a good time. More importantly, they like their audiences to have a good time. Seriously.
Bobby Read— Bobby is a jazz saxophonist/wind synthesizer player who lines up on the jazz side when he records on his own but who can play just about anything. His adaptability landed him a gig with Bruce Hornsby a number of years ago as part of Hornsby’s touring band until the bottom dropped out of the high-budget live performance market. He has a number of albums to his credit, some basically his and a couple with the group Modereko. He has spent a lot of time in the studio recording or backing many of the C-ville musicians and is a key player in C-ville’s jazz scene.
John D’earth— Of all the people I talked with, every single one pointed to D’earth as one of the most influential people on the C-ville scene. He is most noted for his connection to Miles Davis, but in C-ville is known as the main man behind the jazz nights at Miller’s. Of late, he has been playing with vocalist Dawn Thompson in the Thompson-D’earth Band, which utilizes many of the excellent musicians C-ville has to offer, including Sam Wilson (Sons of Bill), Brian Caputo (who has played with, among many others, Booby Read), Pete Spaar (Lasko & Pun, et al), Jamal Millner, Daniel Clarke, Wells Hanley and J.C. Kuhl.
Ted Pitney— Before going solo, Pitney was a key player in King Wilkie, a band of some reknown on the East Coast. After leaving Wilkie, Pitney teamed up with Sarah White on her outstanding Sweetheart EP and then went solo for his own The Genessee EP (listen here), a collection of superb tunes. I liked it enough that I wrote this review and even today wonder why more people did not hear it. Of course, there is still time. It is not going out of print anytime soon. He has since pout his own band together which he calls Teddy & The Roosevelts.
Carleigh Nesbit— Though she has only one album (to my knowledge), it was put together by C-ville people, all important players on the C-ville scene. Jeff Romano produced and pulled out all the stops on her Flower to the Bee album, bringing in Stuart Gunter, Bob Bowen, Andy Thacker, Ann Marie Calhoun, Charlie Bell, Devon Sproule and Carl Anderson to help out. For those outside of C-ville, let me say that this is one hell of a lineup, especially for a first go-round. The result is a smooth and relaxing glide through Carleigh’s music which is, to my ears, exceptional. Again, my words.
Carl Anderson— One defining factor on Carleigh’s Flower album were the three tracks on which Anderson provides vocals. Carleigh and Carl’s voices blend extremely well and when they harmonize, it is melted butter. Carl has worked on a number of things since but put most of his efforts into his own Wolftown album. While he did support the album with a small tour, I’m not sure how much more he has done. I really should have contacted him before writing this. He’s worth keeping up on.
Jim Waive & the Young Divorcees— It didn’t take me more than one song to get into Waive & band. Why I Hunt. This guy is in his own world when it comes to putting ideas into lyrics. It’s about this guy whose wife is cheating on him and who… but why should I give it away? You can hear it here. The Divorcees are one hell of a band too. Charlie Bell is one of the area’s premier pedal steel/resonator guitar players, Jen Fleisher is a hurricane on bass and Anna Matajasic fiddles while Waive burns. I think of all the C-ville area musicians, I would like to see this band the most. Besides all the others, that is.
Keith Morris & The Crooked Numbers— There is a brilliance to Keith which might evade some people, possibly, but he won’t let me test it out. His Love Wounds & Mars album has been ready to go for a few months now and he is downright neurotic about releasing it at just the right time, so much so that he’s making me neurotic as well. Still, it will happen eventually and when it does, I will be a happy man. I hate sitting on… Wait. I just checked out Keith’s website. You can sample and pick up the album at cdbaby. Damn! He never tells me anything!
Trees On Fire— Talk about activism! That is a word, right? Looks funny for some reason. Regardless, these guys put their music where their mouths are. They have been active against mountaintop mining (I think there should be some arrests made) and saving trees in the swamps down south. They play music too, but to talk with them you would think that secondary. It isn’t. These guys are way cool. Click on their name above and check out their site. Get links to find out what you should know. Then listen to their music.
Mister Baby— I don’t know what Megan Huddleston (Huddlenecker, Huddleberg, Huddlestein, Huddle Up) has been drinking, but she is way out there and carries the other babies out there with her. The band’s act must be as much entertainment as it is music, considering some of the songs Huddleston has come up with: Bees!!. Lawn Chairs. Both of them explicit. One Eye Open. That’s wild stuff. Tongue-in-cheek, a lot of it. That’s why I dig her. She’s crazy, but in a good way.
And I haven’t even scratched the surface. I need to get off my ass and plug what I have into the piece on Charlottesville I have started on my own website, Rock & Reprise. So much to do, so little time…..
The Early Days of Rounder Records…..
Just happened upon a little pamphlet I saved over the years which was at one time put out by Warner/Reprise. It was called Circular and WB would ship them out with record shipments here and there as giveaways. The reason I hung on to this one has to do with Peter Stampfel of The Holy Modal Rounders. His piece was titled Karmic Gold From Rounder Records and was a rundown of what Rounder was at the time, an organization that today’s Tea Party would mark as terrorist, even if they were only dealing in vinyl. If you know anything about Rounder today, you won’t even recognize that they are the same company. Here are some quotes from the article. They are fascinating from an historical point of view. Warner/Reprise? Peter? This ain’t making any of us no money so please don’t sue.
“Rounder Records, formed in 1970, got their name from my old group, The Holy Modal Rounders,” Stampfel begins. “Its principals first heard us— before they were a record company— in 1963 when we first played in Boston. Anyway, our group was the first place the Rounder Record people first heard pre-bluegrass country music— country music from before the late ’30s. It changed their lives. I can understand. It changed my life when I first heard it too. It was seven years later that I first heard— or read, actually— of Rounder Records. Graffiti on a john wall in Ipswich, Mass. ‘Put the Rounders on Rounder.’ Huh?
“The next day, Ken Irwin, one of the Rounder Records Rounders, approached me and asked about the possibility of the Holy Modal Rounders doing a record for Rounder Records (the Rounder Record ‘commune,’ as they refer to themselves, also referring to themslves as ‘Rounders’). I slomewhat snottily explained that our manager (who turned out to be a crook) was hustling some big deal for us and we were after the big bucks. ‘OK,’ said Ken. ‘Just thought I’d ask.’
“Two years later, The Rounders (us) were playing at The Zircon, a Cambridge music bar , and me and my woman, Antonia, needed a place to crash. The band could not afford hotels. We wandered around the bar singing ‘Can we sleep in your barn tonight, Mister,’ purposely off-key, and who should offer us kind succor but Ken Irwin of 1970 fame.”
We Visit the Rounder Homestead
“’I'm afraid there isn’t much room,’ Ken said. He was right. There were records covering all the walls and boxes of records all over the floors except in the kitchen and john. There were records on all the chairs and records outside the door and going down the stairs. To get from one room to another, you had to pass through a narrow path that went through the piles of boxed and unboxed records.
“On the wall beside mostly radical posters was a poster for an album by Nolan Strong & The Diablos, a fifties Detroit group that we (Antonia and I) revere. I flashed that these people had to be all right. I’ve seldom had a truer flash. They laid two Nolan Strong/Diablos records on us, for which we are eternally grateful. They even had a recording of the Red Chinese national anthem, ‘The East Is Red’, which I had been dying to hear for years so we could work out a hillbilly version of it. We talked about doing a record. The rest of the Rounders (the group) wanted to go to Oregon. I didn’t. We set the recording date for just before they were to split for the (West) Coast.
We Make a Deal
“Rounder Records have a weird way of doing business. They pay for the studio costs, printing and pressing, then pay a 25-cents-per-record royalty until the cost is recovered. Then the royalty goes to 50-cents a record. Recently, however, they’ve been splitting studio costs 50/50 with the artist/artists because too many people were using recording time to practice/jerk off.
“They’ve been called the only honest record company in the business. They consider themselves anarchists.
“The Holy Modal Rounders Rounder Records record, Alleged In Their Own Time, came out a few months ago and is probably the best record the group has done since the first two. It features fifteen cuts and they let me write 30 pages of liner notes, including a hot porn epic Antonia and I wrote in 1969.
We Do It Again
“We just finished another one with my new group, The Unholy Modal Rounders, Michael Hurley (whose two records on Warner/Raccoon are classics) and Jeff Fredrick & The Clamtones, with whom some of the old Rounders have been playing in Oregon. The record was made in the current Rounder mode: trusty engineer/producer John Nagy (the best one of either I ever saw), cheap studio time (much easier to get than four years ago) and no diddling around. This record took two days flat for 18 cuts with overdubs. And it is easily the best record yet.
“It felt so good, in fact, that three-fourths of the Unholys are going to Portland, Oregon for a trial remarriage/merger with some of the old Rounders and the Clamtones. Another golden karmic goose from Rounder Records.
Part Two: Objective
Rounder Records was invented by three people who used to be Young Republicans for Goldwater but are now anarchists. Two of them, Bill Knowland and Marian Leighton, are currently on the editorial commune of Black Rose, an anarchist magazine. Along with Ken Irwin, they have been trying— successfully— to run a record company on anarchist principles for, lo, these past five years. A fourth Rounder, Bill Kornrich, has been working with them for over a year and has been friends with all of them since pre-Rounder days.
We Meet the Folks
“Ken was a day or two from getting his doctorate in child development and family relationships a year ago when he had a tired-of-education-type flip-out. He never completed the tests for his degree and hasn’t been back to school since.
“Bill is working toward a doctorate in political theory and preparing a biography of Alexander Berkman, an early 20th-Century American anarchist. Bill also teaches sometimes at Lowell University.
“Marian is also going for a doctorate, in Modern French History and Women’s History. She is currently doing research on women’s history and anarchism and has taught women’s history at Tufts and Cambridge-Goddard. She has been studying magic for the past year (natural, not applied) but, despite her interest in all of the above, ‘likes music better.’
We Investigate Further
“Rounder Records’ models included such companies as Folkways, Arhoolie, County, and Kanawka. Kanawka gave them much advice when they were still in the planning stages, along with a tape of George Pegram, an Appalachian banjo picker, for their first release. Since then, the Rounders have helped 15 other labels get started with advice, pressing and distribution. Business is booming. Right now, Roundhouse Records, the distribution branch of Rounder, distributes over 160 other labels.
“Following the tradition that Folkways established in the fifties, Rounder records stay in print perpetually. The Rounders feel they are issuing an ongoing document that people should have access to.
“Sales so far vary from 800 or 900 on the bottom to nicely over 10,000 at the top. Older small country labels, such as Starday, have discovered that when records are left in print for five years or more that sales often reach and exceed 50,000— this from records that would seldom break 10,000 if issued on the regular one-shot basis.
“Categorizing is difficult. But Rounder records break down into five groups: reissues of old ’2os and ’30s 78 RPM records and previously unreleased Library of Congress tapes; bluegrass; black culture; social protest; and a sort of catch-all contemporary series which includes people like The Holy Modal Rounders, Maria Muldaur, Happy & Artie Traum, and The Boys of the Lough.
We Sample the Rounder Bounty
“Many of the 75 Rounder records are extremely specialized. They are currently two records into a projected 10-record set dealing with early bluegrass— people who were big in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s but dropped out of sight while many of the people they directly inspired now have a place in the ever-widening sun of country music. Some of this series is reissues, some comes from recordings by people who haven’t been recorded in 10 to 30 years, such as The Morris Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys and Bashful Brother Oswald. There are solo records by legendary and near-legendary musicians who have never done solo records: Frank Wakefiekd, Don Stover, Johnny Whisnant.
“Rounders’ best-selling record is by Norman Blake, a guitar picker some say is even better than Doc Watson. Other bestsellers include the Woodstock-are-grown Mud Acres album featuring Maria Muldaur and the Traum Brothers; the Brother Oswald album; the Highwood String Band album; the Hazel and Alice album. Their worst-selling records appear to be their rural/country blues series, most of which are selling around the 800-900 mark.
We Like What We See
In line with Rounder’s anarchist-zealot principles, all money over basic survival is plowed back into production. They are service-oriented, not profit-oriented. They nourish, they flourish, there ain’t no flies on them and the more they succeed, the nicer they get. Funny, I always thought anarchists threw bombs.”
Boy, did I get carried away, but that is sometimes how things go. I kept looking for things to delete, but it seems a bit late to edit, don’t you think? Peter Stampfel, ladies and gentlemen, showing us how Rounder got its start. I guarantee you they aren’t that way now.
Notes….. Laurie Biagini does it again with a little (okay, a lot of) help from her friends. This lady is keeping sunshine pop and 60s retro going practically all on her own. A little tune called Brooklyn Deb Blues with smooth chorus and stacked harmonies. I almost feel like I’m watching an episode of The Monkees or The Partridge Family every time I hear this. You get a chance, I suggest you check out her other offerings at http://www.lauriebiagini.com/….. Have you heard Morrison & West? Neither had I until a friend who had worked with them in the pest sent a link to their site. What I found was an amazingly varied selection of old-timey and folk, reminiscent of what Tim O’Brien and others have been bringing back into the public consciousness. If you like that kind of music (I do, but I grew up on The Delmore Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and The Blue Sky Boys), you might want to check out their pre-release page (in other words, order a special copy before they are on the streets). Check them out on this page. If you like it, support the guys. And go see them live. I’ve seen their live videos and if they ever come down my way, I plan to….. You know how it is when you hear something at the right moment? It’s 8:30 in the morning here and I’ve just been linked to an older song by Buxter Hoot’n, a band I’ve seen listed many times but just never checked out. It’s titled Blue Night, has a 3:00 AM perfection and a flow not unlike Jim Dawson‘s Saturday Airplane, a song which consumed me back in the early seventies. I am reliving that easy feeling I used to get while listening to Dawson and thinking I have to scope out Buxter’s new six-song EP, Na Na Na. I’m thinking this is going to be another real discovery….. This from The Delta Saints: a whole lotta good groove stuff. Listen here….. Friend Will Seyffert turned me on to Phoebe Bridgers last week. We need to get her into a studio soon. I hear a lot of potential. Listen here….. Did I mention Hannah Miller‘s new record last week? I’m kidding! Of course, I did, but just in case you missed it, you can hear her on her bandcamp page….. Still unapologetically listening to Alcoholic Faith Mission‘s Ask Me This. Swear to God, it’s a monster….. That’s enough for now. Time for a nap.
Frank’s column appears every Wednesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”