Amidst the cavalcade of corporate clones that typify the record business, Rounder Records has carved a distinctive niche as a unique, diverse and successful independent outfit. Rounder’s rich catalog includes New Orleans R&B and brass band jazz, Cajun music and zydeco, bluegrass and old time country, reggae, blues, African music, contemporary and historic folk, modern rock, miscellaneous Third World material and much, much more. By releasing such roots and roots-related music—which is usually too esoteric for middle-of-the-road major labels—Rounder gives such genres a viable commercial outlet, and encourages their growth. In the case of some styles, such as “new-grass,” Rounder’s role has been that of a pioneering ground breaker. Once such music gains respect, or trendy stature, the major labels are then apt to jump on board, and sign up Rounder alumni like Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck and Mark O’Connor. The same has occurred in Louisiana, with Rounder artists such as Buckwheat Zydeco, Zachary Richard and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
As Rounder enters its third decade, the company’s bigwigs took some time out to reflect and reminisce. “I think we at Rounder are sometimes seen as being on a mission,” said Bill Nowlin, one of the label’s three owners. “Two missions, actually. One is to stretch the boundaries of traditional music, and the other is to preserve traditional music in its purest possible forms. Our actions and decisions are often imputed, therefore, to be full of strategy, motive and forethought. The truth isn’t nearly so heavy. Both of those concepts are important to us, but we simply judge each of our records on its own merits.”
Nowlin and co-owners Marian Leighton-Levy and Ken Irwin can now judge the merits of nearly 900 albums. It’s a quantum leap for a company that originated as “a hobby that got out of control,” as Nowlin puts it; a company that once called itself “an anti-profit collective,” in the best spirit of the times; a company whose entire staff could be found at early-’70s bluegrass festivals, selling albums out of their VW micro-bus.
“Even back then,” Ken Irwin commented, “we had a dual approach, and our very first two albums reflect it. The first was by a traditional Appalachian banjo player named George Pegram. The second was by a band called the Spark Gap Wonder Boys, young musicians from the Boston area. They drew on traditional Appalachian string band music, but with a very modern interpretation. ”
“Basically,” Irwin continued, “we try to put out the best music we can find, by people we enjoy dealing with. It may not make an immediate impact, but it’s apt to remain valid far into the future. We want to make good music available, and let other people share the joy that we derive from it.”
“The only way that traditional music can really live,” says Marian Leighton-Levy, “is through change. It must stay vital and creative. In Cajun music, for instance, we’ve released albums by innovators like Beausoleil, Michael Doucet and Zachary Richard. They’re on the cutting edge. The same with Buckwheat and Nathan Williams in zydeco. But cutting edge is a relative term—remember that the accordion represented a radical change for Cajun music when it first appeared one hundred years ago. Now it’s a standard Cajun instrument. We’ve also reissued historic Cajun field recordings, and signed young traditionalists like the Mamou Playboys. The same applies to bluegrass. We’ve reissued great stuff by Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers; we’ve recorded young bands like the Johnson Mountain Boys, who work in an old-time vein, and we’ve also expanded the limits with progressive artists like Allison Krauss.”
“On the blues side,” Leighton went on, “I’m very excited about our new Bullseye label, with new sets by Champion Jack Dupree, Charles Brown and John Mooney—two traditionalists. We have a lot of new Louisiana material coming out on Rounder, also—albums by Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, various bands on a live zydeco album recorded at El Sido’s in Lafayette, the Rebirth Brass Band, and the very first Cajun guitar album, by David Doucet. Those will all be part of our big Mardi Gras promotion.”
Seasonal celebrations aside, Rounder has made its most significant local impact through its ongoing wealth of local projects. Despite New Orleans’ incredible pool of talent, and the high profile that New Orleans has enjoyed for the past five years, Rounder has been the only record company to show consistent, extensive interest in Louisiana’s regional music. Rounder’s roster includes new recordings by R&B greats like Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, James Booker and Tuts Washington, as well as reissue sets by Eddie Bo, Tommy Ridgley, the Meters, Aaron Neville and others. Rounder jazz artists include Rebirth, Red Tyler, the Olympia Brass Band, Earl Turbinton, Willie Tee, Edward Frank, Ramsey McLean, Tony Dagradi, David Torkanowsky, Germaine Bazzle, Ellis Marsalis and Lady BJ. The label’s Cajun/zydeco catalog is equally extensive, featuring Bruce Daigrepont, Boozoo Chavis, John Delafose, Willis Prudhomme, Dewey Balfa, D.L. Menard, Eddie LeJeune, and more. Impressive on its own merits, Rounder’s line-up is even more striking in that the record industry has largely ignored such regional riches—thus giving Rounder the lion’s share of local action.
Scott Billington has produced many of Rounder’s South Louisiana albums; of late, newcomer Ron Levy has also been quite active behind the console. “It has been difficult for me to understand,” Billington said, “why nobody was working with the high level of talent in New Orleans, why these people weren’t being recorded and getting more exposure. Most other cities with distinctive musical identification—like Chicago, with its blues scene—have been really thoroughly mined. Back in the early ’80s, I convinced Rounder to do some recording here, and it’s definitely taken off.”
Beyond helping raise Louisiana’s musical profile—which was also boosted by the Cajun food fad and the film The Big Easy—Rounder’s local activity has significantly boosted some musical careers. Several of the local artists mentioned above used their Rounder albums as springboards to big label deals. Others are simply working more, touring further afield and making better money. And for some area musicians, a Rounder contract represents welcome recognition, after years spent paying dues. A case in point is saxophonist Red Tyler. In the ’50s, Tyler was one of the city’s leading R&B session players, so when Rounder started cutting R&B albums, it was natural that Tyler would be hired. “I met Scott Billington,” Tyler recounted, “when I played on Gatemouth Brown’s Alright Again—the one that won a Grammy. I invited him to come by one of my gigs where I play jazz, which is mainly what I play—I’ve never considered myself a strong R&B soloist. Scott didn’t know that I was a jazz player, but once he heard me, he said that he’d try to line up an album deal. Those albums that I cut for Rounder—Heritage and Graciously—were like a dream come true, because as long as I’d been playing around here, no one had ever asked me to cut an album here.”
But while Rounder’s Louisiana presence has had many good results, the company has also inspired some negative reactions. In musical terms, some Rounder albums have been criticized as low-budget rush jobs, produced by outsiders who don’t truly “understand” local music. Once recorded, some critics say a significant amount of such albums are released far behind schedule, and then promoted in haphazard, erratic fashion. ”I’m very critical about my own work,” Billington commented. “But I don’t put too much credence in anyone criticizing me for having an outsider’s perspective. I trust my judgment and my evaluation of what constitutes an artist’s strong suit. Some of that criticism may stem from a provincial attitude—since few people here have gotten it together to make these albums themselves—and also from people thinking of music in terms of old records, so that anything new is sacreligious.”
“I don’t try to alter an artist’s artistic concept,” Billington continued, “with the New Orleans material, the idea has been to take music that I’ve always loved and had a lot of feeling for, blues-based music, and find ways to make that music relate to contemporary ears and contemporary audiences.
“It’s a really fine edge to walk—with someone like Irma Thomas or Johnny Adams you could take a pure approach by recreating the sounds and material from their past, which people associate with them. But I see that as almost a no-win situation. You can’t recreate a great moment from thirty years ago. So I try to make appropriate use of contemporary technology, and make new music that relates to the artist as a contemporary person.”
Rounder’s post-release problems are due in large part to the label’s ambitious, if not hectic, release schedule, and also because three people make executive decisions instead of one. The delays and inconsistencies that ensue cause great frustration for musicians and journalists alike, and this is certainly a major problem that the company needs to address. But consider today’ s South Louisiana recording scene without Rounder, and the exposure and career boosts which Rounder’s activity has stimulated. Here’s to another twenty years!