Saturday, July 29, 2023

Oh, Didn't They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music by David Menconi - Book Review


While I was busy going to a local state college, getting married, and beginning a career as a teacher during much of the period in which the cultural revolution of the 1960's into which Rounder Records was created, I wasn't unaware of the musical revolution going on at the time. I played a guitar, badly, and sang folk songs, listened to many of the bands that emerged in this time, without either dropping out or really tuning in. Nevertheless, David Menconi's history of Rounder Records and the Rounder Founders (Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy and Bill Nowlin)  brings back a wonderful, dangerous, and scary time dominated by the "drop out and tune in" musical and cultural vibe of the time. The book is simply a joy to read! The fact that it's written by a career newspaper writer who trod the musical beat, rather than an academician, brings an immediacy and liveliness to the book that many university press works often lack, lifting its creditability and enjoyment quotient. 

Attendees at bluegrass festivals, concerts, and conferences are well aware of at least two of the Rounder Founders, as they are known. Ken Irwin and Marion Leighton Levy can often be spotted sitting in seats, plying the hallways, joining in meetings, or talking quietly with members of both well known and not easily recognized bands. The third member of the triad, Bill Nowlin, is less often recognized, but equally responsible for the development of one of the most important labels from its earliest nascent beginning selling albums to fans at southern festivals to its sale to the Concord Music Group in 2010.

Two relatively short set-pieces provide deep insight into the context of Rounder's development and the adventuresome qualities of Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton. During a summer between college semesters, two of the Rounder founders took a risky, dangerous cross-country trip, hitch-hiking to the West Coast. This is followed up by a quite useful chapter on the development of the recording industry from the late nineteenth century wax cylinders to the growth of compact discs, with an emphasis on the development of what are now known as niche recordings. The two pieces emphasize the counter-culture roots, the risk-taking spirit, and the technological savvy that characterized the life of Rounder Records.

Obviously written with the strong backing of the Rounder Founders, the narrative describes in detail the growth and development of the three founders in the midst of the counter-culture years of the late 1960’s into the’70’s with both admiration and a strong sense of the era. Three smart, educated hippies who lived the communal ethic of the time while creating a very much capitalist record company. The combination leads to humorous as well as nostalgic responses.  Meanwhile, through years of growth, changing relationships, and unimaginable, at the time, success, Rounder Records continued to grow and thrive, hitting its first employees while increasing the size of its catalog beyond what the founders had originally imagined.

The Rounder Founders

Ken Irwin, Marion Leighton Levy & Bill Nowlin

There’s not enough space in a review to catalog the older traditional artists as well as the new and innovative ones Rounder then proceeded to record. Suffice it to say that much of the charm of this exciting and enjoyable book lies in the commitment and drive to expand while always seeking to keep their eyes on their original mission. The chapter on what became known by its album number, 0044, the first album by J.D. Crowe Crow and the New South, that altered bluegrass in serious ways as well as placing Rounder in an increasingly powerful position in the recording industry is typical of the risks the company took as well as its luck in being at the right place at the right time. 

Through the years, Rounder matured as a business and a leader in finding new artists across a broad range of genres and sub-genres while the Rounder Founders kept their original leftish perspective and collective approach to running their business. None of the above seemed to have stopped them from making ground breaking recordings, growing as an organization, signing new artists, and out-working many of their competitors. The crucial breakthrough growth point came when a warehouse worker discovered George Thorogood and the Destroyers playing an especially exciting form of rock & roll music, a genre into which Rounder had never ventured before. Other major artists signed included Alison Kraus, providing them with the leeway to continue taking risks with unknown and small niche performers. Most of the book details, with deep understanding and enough humor to keep it approachable, the journey of a small, niche record company into an industry giant. Meanwhile, the Rounder founders remained true to their values while learning to operate in a much broader universe.

Rounder Founders (more or less) Today

Ken Irwin, Marion Leighton Levy, Bill Nowlin

Other artists found or were found by the three Rounder founders as well as staff members. Because they remained true to their founding precepts while open to music that simply didn't appeal to larger, more commercial recording companies, they discovered artists who later left for seemingly greener pastures. Some came back and others continued to sell on Rounder as well as their new label. The company grew beyond anything they had imagined when they came together to record their first album. The story shows the value that people of principle bring to developing a thriving company, while keeping a close eye on the values that led them to found Rounder Records. 

David Menconi

David Menconi has put together an extensive Spotify playlist to accompany this book. For those interested in listening along to some of the featured artists and tunes, here's a link: Rounder Playlist. He worked as a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer for 28 years. His most recent book before this, titled Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music.., published in 2020 was also reviewed in this blog. He has also written for Rolling Stone, Billboard, Spin, and the New York Times. 

I received a copy of Oh, Didn't They Ramble from the University of North Carolina Press in return for a review. 

Monday, July 10, 2023

The Gibson Brothers at Silver Bay

 On Saturday, we drove to Silver Bay YMCA Camp on Lake George, NY.  This gem of early twentieth century architecture serves as a summer getaway for a number of long-time summer visitors as well lectures, shows, conferences, and much more. On Saturday, we drove down for a Gibson Brothers concert in this wonderful old concert hall, built in 1909. Built entirely of wood, the auditorium proved itself to be a perfect place to hear the band with a special sound we seldom find in many other venues. 

Silver Bay Auditorium

The Gibson Brothers were in fine voice and good humor as they welcomed the Silver Bay crowd and a few people from outside that community. Darren Nicholson on mandolin makes a terrific addition to the band, when he stands in on mandolin, bringing first rate mandolin work along with, when needed, an additional harmony voice. 

The Gibson Brothers

Eric & Leigh Gibson

With their brotherly duets, high quality instrumentality, and unique humor, Eric & Leigh Gibson have now graced bluegrass stages, recordings, and song writing for well over thirty years. Maintaining their performance and always adding something new and/or surprising. 

Leigh Gibson & Mike Barber

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

Mike Barber

Often underestimated, the role of bass players in bands represents both a major percussive sound and provides timing for the band. Mike has been with the band since their early days as a regional New England band through two IBMA Entertainer of the Year awards and more. Softspoken and quiet, Mike represents a crucial voice within the band. 

Eric O'Hara
Eric O'Hara has been a regular member of the band for several years on Dobro and/or electric steel. Eric was also their first teacher as a teacher at Dick's Country Store and Music Oasis in nearby Churubosco, NY.

Darrin Nicholson

Darren Nicholson, a fine musician from western North Carolina, has been a frequent stand-in with the Gibson Brothers for several years. He brings subtle, often virtuoso mandolin play to augment the bands already fine sound, as well as some subtle good humor.  On the rare occasions when they require a third vocal contribution, he adds a unique voice and well-blended voice. 

Eric & Kelly Gibson

Kelly Gibson

Kelly Gibson performed one of his own songs with competence and good stage presence. He's a welcome addition when he joins the band for a song. 

All told, it was a delightful evening of Gibson Brothers music. Ask for your local or national festival to book this first rate band.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Legend by Taylor Hagood - Book Review

Almost as soon as I picked up Taylor Hagood's biography of David Akeman (Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Legend) I knew I could put aside my instinct to find fault in order to luxuriate in a well-documented, carefully constructed, combination of biography and true crime story that would introduce me to a musician I had only heard about, who along with his wife Estelle, was murdered in a gruesome plot to steal the money that was supposed to hidden away in his modest farmhouse.

The first several chapters use the few early available published resources and public records to locate David Akeman without ever overstepping what he can actually document. Then Hagood artfully and accurately portrays the environment in Eastern Kentucky, the rise of country and bluegrass music on the radio, and the increasing visibility of Stringbean as he worked with ever more prominent bands, appearing with them on the radio and travelling with them on the southern country music trail. He writes about the influences of Uncle Dave Macon and Grandpa Jones on Akeman's approach to the banjo. By creating an environment and maintaining scholarly demands for citing details, Hagood, a writer of imagination and agility, builds a fully believable environment without ever making leaps of credibility.

As the late fifties and sixties arrived, the influence of folk and rock music showed in Akeman's approach while he was always true to old-time traditions in his music and life, Hagood draws interesting and important distinctions between the emerging folk music craze, changes in country music, and the emergence of rock & roll. He focuses on the seemingly great difference between folk music's rising star, Pete Seegar and Stringbean, pointing out that their approaches to traditional music were quite different, while marveling that, apparently they never met. (pp. 86 - 91)

David Akeman

Stringbean's career, as Hagood clearly points out, spans the period between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth, with his musical background on the banjo reaching back almost to the days of blackface, while lasting long enough for him to have travelled with Bill Monroe, and to be featured on both the Grand Ol' Opry and HeeHaw on television. Hagood is able to draw on television film archives through the sixties, when Stringbean emerged as a national figure as well as later, even more modern material, yet remains respectful of the traditional world of country music. 

As Stringbean matures into middle age, he becomes recognized as a transitional figure from old-time string band music reaching back into the late nineteenth century, while still keeping the respect and love of a new generation of musicians in country music, reflecting a more modern face through television. Just as Akeman had received extensive national attention because of the larger platform he enjoyed, his life was ended at the age of fifty-eight, largely because he had a reputation for storing large amounts of money in his home, because of his distrust of banks, growing out of his experiences during the Depression. The final chapters focus on the search for Akeman's killers and their trial, showing how difficult ferreting out the truth can be. 

Taylor Hagood

Taylor Hagood is a professor of English at Florida Atlantic University with a wide variety of interests in literature, music, and history. He has a busy career as an internationally known, in demand speaker, humorist, and musical performer. 

Stringbean: The Life and Music of a Country Music Legend by Taylor Hagood supplied to me by the University of Illinois Press and available from Amazon as well as other major vendors. I read a review copy sent to me by the publisher. I highly recommend this well-researched and highly readable (the two don't always go together) book.