In 1970, with only their passionate enthusiasm for American roots music lighting the way, three Cambridge, Massachusetts college students cast their lot into the perilous music industry. "Before founding Rounder, we were basically music fans," says Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin. "None of us," echoes co-conspirator Bill Nowlin, "had any record industry experience whatsoever."
"I doubt that 'industry experience' is a term we would have comprehended at the time we started Rounder!," interjects the third member of the Rounder triumvirate, Marian Leighton-Levy.
Yet this untested trio went the distance: from humble beginnings over thirty years ago to what is now America's premier independent record label. From its early interest in rural American music (via fiddle, stringband, blues, and bluegrass recordings) to an expansive catalogue of more than 3,000 titles running the gamut from folk to world, soul to socas, jazz to juju, Cajun to Celtic, and beyond, Rounder has emerged as the preeminent source for vital, uncompromised music of all genres.
Such a vast body of music was born of nothing more than the tenacity of three music lovers whose search for the soul of Americana music did not end at the bottom reaches of industry top forty charts. Their quest eventually led them to the traditional music that flourished in the small towns and open spaces of the American south. Frequenting fiddle conventions, contests, and festivals in the late 1960's, the inspiration hit that they could be more than mere spectators.
"If there was one experience which led to the formation of Rounder," says Ken Irwin, "it would likely be the chance ride I had with Ken and Sherry Davidson when I was hitchhiking back from the Galax Fiddlers' Convention. It was getting dark and Ken and Sherry didn't want us hitchhiking, so they invited us to spend the night with them in Charleston. As it turns out, Ken Davidson had rediscovered both legendary fiddler Clark Kessinger and Billy Cox, who had written 'Sparkling Brown Eyes' and recorded for several labels. The following day, Ken and Sherry took us out to visit with Clark and Billy.
"When I got back from my travels," Irwin continues. "I mentioned my trip to my roommate Bill and pointed out that the Davidsons had started a record label, and they didn't have the resources available to us in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area - like people to write notes and design covers - and I suggested that we start a label. Bill thought it a good idea as well. . ."
"We felt there was a void in record bins," says Marian Leighton-Levy. "An absence, a space where we would have liked to see records by groups and musicians and styles of music that fascinated us most."
And so, the motive of Rounder Records was set. And the name? "I still remember one very early morning," Leighton-Levy explains, "Bill knocked on the apartment door where Ken and I were living at the time and said that he thought 'Rounder' would be a good name for this and asked how did we feel about that. We all became pretty happy - this was the right name, for all that 'rounder' represented folklorically (hobos, travelers) and the [folk music iconoclasts] Holy Modal Rounders, and record shapes. . . on and on . . . round and round."
Their premiere release in 1971, a collection of songs featuring 76-year-old banjoist George Pegram, was the first stone in what was to be a mighty wall of an eclectic empire. For - then as now - Rounder Records served many ends. In addition to releasing their own releases, the Rounders sold roots recordings from numerous labels, ran a record distributor, and a operated a popular mail-order company.
Foremost, though, were the musical treasures they were uncovering. Soon their releases were finding popularity amongst fans like themselves, and the label began to become self-sufficient. "Our first Norman Blake record in 1972 was a very popular album," says Bill Nowlin, "and secured us real credibility in country circles. Within the next few years, there were some very key releases that we can look back on as major milestones in our development - the first J. D. Crowe and the New South album, the first George Thorogood and the Destroyers album, and so forth. . . "
It was the fiery blues-rock stylings of Thorogood - which, while pumped up with electricity, were rooted in the sincerity and integrity that marks all Rounder artists - that put Rounder on the map internationally. His first and second Rounder albums sold over 500,000 copies each in the late 1970's, a rare feat for an independent record label of any era. With the success of Thorogood, Rounder was afforded the capital to expand both its artist roster and operations budget. All the while, releasing classic albums by J.D. Crowe and the New South (which featured, at various junctures, future superstars Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs), Ted Hawkins, Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, D.L. Menard, and dozens of others.
As Rounder grew as a company, it demonstrated a rare ability to do what few labels - major or independent - can do: nurture and develop artists' careers over the course of a series of albums. After a few self-released titles, folk singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith signed onto Rounder's folk division, Philo Records in 1984. Her first Philo release, Once in a Very Blue Moon, was Griffith's first fully-formed artistic statement, an album that blended a vast musical palette (bluegrass, country, folk, blues, rockabilly, and pop all colliding) with her witty, compassionate observations. Via diligent touring, constant airplay on both commercial country and public radio, a video on Country Music Television, and a strong reputation in the press, Griffith emerged as one of the breakout folk artists of the eighties - a category that also included such artists as Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega.
The success of Once in a Very Blue Moon and its successor Last of the True Believers (". . .her peak as a songwriter. . ." says the All Music Guide) led to Griffith becoming an established artist with a strong following the world over. While she eventually signed with MCA, her Rounder/Philo records continue to sell well to this day, and stand as benchmarks upon which her entire career was built.
Griffith's departure coincided with the appearance of a fourteen year-old fiddler from Champaign, Illinois. Alison Krauss released her first album in 1987 (Rounder's Too Late To Cry), and began to cultivate an enviable reputation on the bluegrass/Americana scene. By the time of her exquisite 1992 release Every Time You Say Goodbye, Krauss began flirting with the ever more exclusive mainstream country audience. She broke through at last with the release of Now That I've Found You: A Collection, a compilation of material both old and new that demonstrated Krauss's astonishing maturation from young fiddle phenomenon to a brilliant, multifaceted singer, musician, and bandleader. Her version of Keith Whitley's "When You Say Nothing At All" launched her onto the country charts, and Now That I Found You became Rounder's first platinum (and eventually double-platinum) album, with sales well over the one million mark.
Krauss's relationship with Rounder continues to flourish, resulting in album after album of evocative music unbound by constraints of genre or formula. While such stars as Krauss, the Cowboy Junkies, emerging Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer, Joe Ely, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore call Rounder home these days, Rounder also stays true to its original vision of illuminating the roots of contemporary music and releasing records that no other label would dare. The Alan Lomax collection, a series of over 100 CDs documenting innumerable traditional musics from Appalachia to Yugoslavia, is one such project. The ambitious Anthology of World Music series, joint releases with the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, and Rounder's unending commitment to unsung folk, bluegrass, country, old-time, blues, and indefinable artists the world over maintain that spirit first born in a Cambridge, Massachusetts apartment three decades ago.
Rounder Records' search for both meaningful music and an appreciative audience for it has spanned many media formats over its thirty year existence. LPs, eight-tracks, cassettes, and CDs have all been pieces of the Rounder puzzle. With the rapid expansion of electronic media and the internet, Rounder has found a new outlet for its artists: www.rounderradio.com, an online radio station that plays five channels of commercial-free roots music 24-hours a day. It is an endeavor that speaks both to Rounder's continuing spirit of adventure and its substantial growth as a company.
"Rounder has certainly grown as a business enterprise," observes founder Bill Nowlin, "from 3 friends all sharing a living and working space to around 120 or so people working together as a real business. The growth has largely been organic, though, and the sense of purpose - the mission - which was the reason for founding Rounder, still remains at its core and is shared by most of the key people at today's Rounder."
"Yes - over the years we have become more professional about the business," agrees Ken Irwin, "while retaining our love of the music which got us started. The music and the artists who produce it are still our major focus and our reason for existing."
Despite the massive growth that Rounder has achieved, the three original founders still maintain an active role in Rounder's operations. Whether going over figures in the office; mastering, mixing, or producing albums; or taking to the road to seek out new talent, Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton-Levy, and Bill Nowlin remain at the center of it all. "The reason we remain involved," says Nowlin, "is that Rounder has held true to its overriding ideal - to present good and even important music and to try to spread the word about the music to the broadest audience we can. That remains energizing. We feel we are doing work of real value, truly contributing something of real significance to the broader culture."
It is a vision shared, respected, and appreciated by music lovers around the globe, and doubtlessly a vital influence on the vast independent music community that has sprung up since Rounder's founding over thirty years ago. "The lasting inspiration from Rounder," summarizes Marian Leighton-Levy, "lies in its commitment to good music and doing the best job we can for the artists we represent."
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