The Rounder Records Story
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  • Old Home Place - J. D. Crowe and the New South
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    MP3 (02:48) [6.42 MB]
  • Take Me Back to Happy Valley - Bailey Brothers
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    MP3 (02:41) [6.15 MB]
  • Armadillo Breakdown - Country Cooking
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    MP3 (02:15) [5.13 MB]
  • High on a Mountain - Ola Belle Reed
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    MP3 (02:37) [5.98 MB]
  • Killing the Blues - Roly Salley, Pat Alger, Artie Traum
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    MP3 (03:53) [8.9 MB]
  • Johnson's Old Grey Mule - George Pegram
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    MP3 (02:16) [5.18 MB]
  • Cherry River Rag - Ed Haley
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    MP3 (02:53) [6.62 MB]
  • Sweet Lucy - Michael Hurley
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    MP3 (04:04) [9.32 MB]
  • Parlez-Nous A Boire - The Balfa Freres
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    MP3 (03:44) [8.56 MB]
  • Mrs. Scott Skinner - Joe Cormier
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    MP3 (03:40) [8.38 MB]
  • Tom and Jerry - Mark O'Connor
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    MP3 (02:16) [5.17 MB]
  • Down Home Summertime Blues - Norman Blake
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    MP3 (03:41) [8.43 MB]
  • Memory of Your Smile - Boone Creek
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    MP3 (02:34) [5.88 MB]
  • Things in Life - Don Stover
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    MP3 (03:06) [7.1 MB]
  • Kitty Puss - Bud Thomas
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    MP3 (02:23) [5.46 MB]
  • Who Broke the Lock - Highwoods Stringband
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    MP3 (02:54) [6.63 MB]
  • Don't Put Her Down You Helped Put Her There - Hazel and Alice
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    MP3 (03:47) [8.65 MB]
  • Jula Jekere - Alhaji Bai Konte
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    MP3 (05:05) [11.62 MB]
  • The Only Way - Tony Trischka
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    MP3 (04:18) [9.85 MB]
  • Fluxology - Jerry Douglas
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    MP3 (03:08) [7.18 MB]
  • La porte dans arriere - D. L. Menard and the Louisiana Aces
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    MP3 (03:26) [7.87 MB]
  • I Ain’t Broke But I’m Badly Bent - David Grisman
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    MP3 (02:00) [4.56 MB]
  • Sparkling Brown Eyes - Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys
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    MP3 (03:07) [7.12 MB]
  • Who Do You Love - George Thorogood and the Destroyers
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    MP3 (04:20) [9.92 MB]
  • Frosty - Clarence Gatemouth Brown
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    MP3 (03:46) [8.62 MB]
  • Watch Your Step - Ted Hawkins
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    MP3 (02:15) [5.13 MB]
  • New Kind of Neighborhood - Jonathan Richman
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    MP3 (02:44) [6.27 MB]
  • I Never Go Around Mirrors - Keith Whitley
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    MP3 (03:18) [7.54 MB]
  • Cold on the Shoulder - Tony Rice
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    MP3 (02:35) [5.91 MB]
  • Mama’s Hand - Hazel Dickens
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    MP3 (04:31) [10.33 MB]
  • A Freylekhe Nakht In Gan Eydn - Klezmer Conservatory Band
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    MP3 (01:50) [4.2 MB]
  • Babylon’s Big Dog Culture
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    MP3 (03:58) [9.1 MB]
  • Ya Ya - Buckwheat Zydeco
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    MP3 (03:35) [8.22 MB]
  • Tipitina - Professor Longhair
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    MP3 (04:23) [10.04 MB]
  • Zydeco gris-gris - Beausoleil
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    MP3 (03:39) [8.36 MB]
  • Cowboy Jubilee - Riders in the Sky
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    MP3 (01:44) [3.97 MB]
  • Let the Whole World Talk - The Johnson Mountain Boys
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    MP3 (02:42) [6.19 MB]
  • Happy Wanderer - Brave Combo
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    MP3 (02:31) [5.76 MB]
  • Classified - James Booker
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    MP3 (03:16) [7.48 MB]
  • Got To Have You Be My Man - Rory Block
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    MP3 (02:23) [5.46 MB]
  • Electricity - Sleepy LaBeef
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    MP3 (02:21) [5.36 MB]
  • Everybody Wants A Piece of Me - Johnny Copeland
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    MP3 (02:57) [6.76 MB]
  • Whitewater - Bela Fleck
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    MP3 (03:10) [7.26 MB]
  • Once In A Very Blue Moon - Nanci Griffith
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    MP3 (02:36) [5.94 MB]
  • My Blue Ridge Cabin Home - Bluegrass Album Band
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    MP3 (03:10) [7.26 MB]
  • Howjadoo - John McCutcheon
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    MP3 (02:43) [6.21 MB]
  • Viva Seguin - Flaco Jimenez
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    MP3 (02:19) [5.29 MB]
  • Me and the Boys - NRBQ
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    MP3 (03:25) [7.83 MB]
  • Birches - Bill Morrissey
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    MP3 (03:21) [7.66 MB]
  • Baby Now That I’ve Found You - Alison Krauss
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    MP3 (03:49) [8.76 MB]
  • One Endless Night - Jimmie Dale Gilmore
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    MP3 (03:47) [8.68 MB]
  • Sing It - Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Tracy Nelson
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    MP3 (04:19) [9.89 MB]
  • Do Whatcha Wanna, Pt. 3 - ReBirth Brass Band
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    MP3 (04:31) [10.34 MB]
  • A Virus Called the Blues - Charles Brown
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    MP3 (06:50) [15.65 MB]
  • Only One Shoe Carrie Newcomer
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    MP3 (03:15) [7.44 MB]
  • There Is Always One More Time - Johnny Adams
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    MP3 (03:43) [8.49 MB]
  • Something in the Rain - Tish Hinojosa
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    MP3 (05:03) [11.56 MB]
  • Bed by the Window - James King
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    MP3 (04:58) [11.36 MB]
  • Give Him Cornbread - Beau Jocque
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    MP3 (04:55) [11.27 MB]
  • Valse de Kaplan - D. L Menard, Eddie LeJeune, and Ken Smith
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    MP3 (03:19) [7.58 MB]
  • High Lonesome - Longview
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    MP3 (04:04) [9.32 MB]
  • In the Palm of Your Hand - Alison Krauss and the Cox Family
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    MP3 (03:26) [7.85 MB]
  • False Friend Blues - Ruth Brown with Clarence Gatemouth Brown
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    MP3 (04:27) [10.18 MB]
  • Carnival Time - Bo Dollis & The Wild Magnolias
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    MP3 (02:42) [6.2 MB]
  • Standing Here at the Cross Roads - Roomful of Blues
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    MP3 (04:17) [9.82 MB]
  • It’s Harder Now - Wilson Pickett
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    MP3 (03:42) [8.49 MB]
  • Don’t Wait Too Long - Madeleine Peyroux
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    MP3 (03:10) [7.26 MB]
  • Down to the Wire - Son Volt
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    MP3 (04:20) [9.91 MB]
  • More than A Name on A Wall - Dailey & Vincent
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    MP3 (02:58) [6.79 MB]
  • Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms - The Three Pickers: Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs
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    MP3 (03:08) [7.19 MB]
  • Man With The Blues - Willie Nelson
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    MP3 (02:19) [5.29 MB]
  • Rebel Rouser - Jimmy Sturr
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    MP3 (01:55) [4.38 MB]
  • Versatile Heart - Linda Thompson
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    MP3 (03:25) [7.82 MB]
  • In the Middle Of It All - Irma Thomas
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    MP3 (04:47) [10.96 MB]
  • Please Read the Letter - Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
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    MP3 (05:53) [13.48 MB]
  • Through the Window Of A Train - Blue Highway
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    MP3 (03:09) [7.23 MB]
  • Resist - Rush
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    MP3 (04:28) [10.22 MB]
  • Small Swift Birds - Cowboy Junkies
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    MP3 (03:41) [8.42 MB]
  • Basement Apt. - Sarah Harmer
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    MP3 (04:09) [9.52 MB]
  • I Have a Need for Solitude - Mary Chapin Carpenter
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    MP3 (03:44) [8.55 MB]
  • Lonesome Wind Blues - Rhonda Vincent
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    MP3 (03:04) [7.04 MB]
  • Me and John and Paul - The Grascals
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    MP3 (03:14) [7.41 MB]
  • The Crow - Steve Martin
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    MP3 (03:23) [7.76 MB]
  • The Only Sound That Matters - Robert Plant
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    MP3 (03:45) [8.58 MB]
  • Trashcan - Delta Spirit
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    MP3 (03:37) [8.29 MB]
  • Fibber Island - They Might Be Giants
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    MP3 (02:12) [5.03 MB]
  • Back To Me - Kathleen Edwards
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    MP3 (03:29) [7.99 MB]
DAddario EXP strings
Biography
The Rounder Records Story
Rounder 11661-3295-2

Produced by The Rounder Collective
Remastered by Jonathan Wyner at M-Works, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Photographs from the Rounder Archive

UPC number 0-11661-3295-2-2

The 1970s

1. Old Home Place / J. D. Crowe and the New South 2:47
2. Take Me Back to Happy Valley / The Bailey Brothers 2:40
3. Armadillo Breakdown / Country Cooking 2:13
4. High on a Mountain / Ola Belle Reed 2:35
5. Killing the Blues / Woodstock Mountains 3:53
6. Johnson’s Old Gray Mule / George Pegram 2:15
7. Cherry River Rag / Ed Haley 2:52
8. Sweet Lucy / Michael Hurley 4:03
9. Parlez-Nous A Boire / The Balfa Freres 3:42
10. Mrs. Scott Skinner/The Smith’s A Gallant Fireman/The Earl of Seafield's Real / Joseph Cormier 3:39
11. Tom and Jerry / Mark O’Connor 2:14
12. Down Home Summertime Blues / Norman Blake 3:40
13. Memory of Your Smile / Boone Creek 2:32
14. Things in Life / Don Stover 3:05
15. Kitty Puss / Buddy Thomas 2:22
16. Who Broke the Lock? / Highwoods Stringband 2:51
17. Don’t Put Her Down You Helped Put Her There / Hazel and Alice 3:45
18. Jula Jekere / Alhaji Bai Konte 5:02
19. The Only Way / Tony Trischka 4:17
20. Fluxology / Jerry Douglas 3:07
21. La porte dans arriere / D. L. Menard and the Louisiana Aces 3:24
22. I Ain’t Broke But I’m Badly Bent / David Grisman 1:58
23. Sparkling Brown Eyes / Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys 3:05
24. Who Do You Love / George Thorogood and the Destroyers 4:19

The 1980s

1. Frosty / Clarence Gatemouth Brown 3:46
2. Watch Your Step / Ted Hawkins 2:13
3. New Kind of Neighborhood / Jonathan Richman 2:43
4. I Never Go Around Mirrors / Keith Whitley. 3:17
5. Cold on the Shoulder / Tony Rice. 2:34
6. Mama’s Hand / Hazel Dickens 4:30
7. A Freylekhe Nakht In Gan Eydn / Klezmer Conservatory Band 1:49
8. Babylon’s Big Dog / Culture 3:58
9. Ya Ya / Buckwheat Zydeco 3:35
10. Tipitina / Professor Longhair 4:22
11. Zydeco gris-gris / Beausoleil 3:39
12. Cowboy Jubilee / Riders in the Sky 1:42
13. Let the Whole World Talk / The Johnson Mountain Boys 2:42
14. Happy Wanderer / Brave Combo 2:30
15. Classified / James Booker 3:16
16. Got To Have You Be My Man / Rory Block 2:22
17. Electricity / Sleepy LaBeef 2:20
18. Everybody Wants A Piece of Me / Johnny Copeland 2:55
19. Whitewater / Bela Fleck 3:10
20. Once In A Very Blue Moon / Nanci Griffith 2:34
21. My Blue Ridge Cabin Home / Bluegrass Album Band 3:09
22. Howjadoo / John McCutcheon 2:41
23. Viva Seguin / Flaco Jimemez 2:18
24. Me and the Boys /NRBQ 3:25


The 1990s

1. Birches / Bill Morrissey 3:20
2. Baby Now That I’ve Found You / Alison Krauss 3:49
3. One Endless Night / Jimmie Dale Gilmore 3:46
4. Sing It / Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Tracy Nelson 4:18
5. Do Whatcha Wanna, Pt. 3 / ReBirth Brass Band 4:29
6. A Virus Called the Blues / Charles Brown 6:50
7. Only One Shoe / Carrie Newcomer 3:15
8. There Is Always One More Time / Johnny Adams 3:41
9. Something in the Rain / Tish Hinojosa 5:02
10. Bed by the Window / James King 4:57
11. Give Him Cornbread / Beau Jocque 4:55
12. Valse de Kaplan / D. L Menard, Eddie LeJeune, and Ken Smith 3:19
13. High Lonesome / Longview 4:04
14. In the Palm of Your Hand / Alison Krauss and the Cox Family 3:25
15. False Friend Blues / Ruth Brown with Clarence Gatemouth Brown 4:26
16. Carnival Time / Bo Dollis & The Wild Magnolias 2:42
17. Standing Here at the Cross Roads / Roomful of Blues 4:17
18. It’s Harder Now / Wilson Pickett 3:43

The 2000s


1. Don’t Wait Too Long / Madeleine Peyroux 3:10
2. Down to the Wire / Son Volt 4:19
3. More than A Name on A Wall / Dailey & Vincent 2:57
4. Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms / The Three Pickers: Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs 3:07
5. Man With The Blues / Willie Nelson 2:19
6. Rebel Rouser/ Jimmy Sturr 1:54
7. Versatile Heart / Linda Thompson 3:24
8. In the Middle Of It All / Irma Thomas 4:45
9. Please Read the Letter / Robert Plant and Alison Krauss 5:53
10. Through the Window Of A Train / Blue Highway 3:08
11. Resist / Rush 4:26
12. Small Swift Birds / Cowboy Junkies 3:39
13. Basement Apt. / Sarah Harmer 4:07
14. I Have a Need for Solitude / Mary Chapin Carpenter 3:42
15. Lonesome Wind Blues / Rhonda Vincent 3:02
16. Me and John and Paul / The Grascals. 3:13
17. The Crow / Steve Martin 3:23
18. The Only Sound That Matters / Robert Plant 3:44
19. Trashcan / Delta Spirit 3:37
20. Fibber Island / They Might Be Giants 2:10
21. Back To Me / Kathleen Edwards 3:31



The Rounder Records Story: An Introduction

By Geoffrey Himes


In the summer of 1962, some long-forgotten functionary at Tufts University paired two incoming freshmen as roommates with unforeseen consequences. The two teenagers, Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin, didn’t know each other, but the quickly bonded over a shared enthusiasm for folk music. Ken had brought his Pete Seeger and Miriam Makeba albums and Bill his Kingston Trio records. They had one of the dorm’s few record players, and sometimes when they felt ornery, they'd play the high-pitched, twangy bluegrass of the Greenbriar Boys' debut album to annoy people.

But as they did it again and again, a surprising thing happened: they began to really like the record. And when the quad was full of people they didn’t like, they’d play the high-pitched, twangy bluegrass of the Greenbriar Boys’ debut album.It dawned on them that the high harmonies and tough syncopation were not so different from the doo-**** and early rock’n’roll 45s they had loved in high school. The songs were obviously drawn from the same well of hand-me-down Southern music that the folk-revival singers were dipping into, but these versions were completely different: The rhythms were more muscular; the picking was more accomplished, and the singing was more confrontational. Before long the two students found themselves on the side of a highway, knapsacks on their backs, thumbs stretched outward, heading south in search of their first fiddle contest.

It was a conversion experience that affected not just the two college students and not just Marian Leighton, who was won over to the cause in 1967. It affected the shape of American roots music from 1970 onward, for those three friends founded Rounder Records that year and have run it ever since. Though the label soon branched out from bluegrass to embrace artists as diverse as George Thorogood, Gatemouth Brown, Irma Thomas, Keith Whitley, and Robert Plant, Irwin, Nowlin, and Leighton never abandoned that original vision. They were always interested in folk music, because they loved those songs about work and strikes, marriage and divorce, humor and violence, that arose from people performing for their friends and family. But they wanted to hear those songs delivered with more of a vigorous beat and an edgy attitude.

These three co-founders weren’t much interested in the private, polite introspection of strum-along singer-songwriters; they wanted to hear the public soul-baring that takes place in dancehalls and union halls, in barrooms and cemeteries. It didn’t matter if the musicians were working-class or middle-class, black or white, young or old, famous or obscure; it didn’t matter if they played bluegrass or blues, Cajun or Klezmer, rock or soul. What mattered was that the music remember the past and yet be as urgent as a heart attack. One can hear both those qualities on the 88 tracks spread out over the four CDs in this box set, The Rounder Records Story, whether the recording is as old as 1970’s “Johnson’s Old Gray Mare” by George Pegram or as new as 2010’s “Man with the Blues” by Willie Nelson.

When Irwin was hitch-hiking home from the Old Fiddler's Convention in Galax, Virginia, in August, 1969, his first ride was with James Lindsey, the leader of the Mountain Ramblers on Alan Lomax's legendary set, Songs of the South, and a frequent winner at Galax The second ride was with Ken Davidson and his wife Sherri, who offered to put up Irwin overnight at their home in Charleston, West Virginia. The young amateur folklorist, who had rediscovered and recorded Clark Kessinger and Billy Cox, offered to introduce Irwin to the old-time fiddlers who had made so many legendary records in the 1920s..Irwin eagerly delayed his return home for a day, astonished to learn that people with more enthusiasm than money, more taste than contacts, could start a record company and work with artists like Kessinger. When Irwin got back to Somerville, Massachusetts, he excitedly told Nowlin: “This guy started a record company, and he doesn’t know anything about album covers or liner notes. We know designers and writers. Why don’t we start a record company?” Nowlin's eyes lit up, and he said, “Yeah, why not?”

The following February, Irwin and Leighton, a couple since 1967, were hitch-hiking to Mardi Gras in New Orleans when they made a detour through Florida where the Davidsons were now living. Ken Davidson pulled out a friend's recording of banjoist George Pegram, who was such a star at the Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Union Grove, North Carolina, that he was called the Baron of Union Grove. The three bought the rights to the tape for $125. When the couple returned with Nowlin to Union Grove for the Easter weekend festival, the band category was won by the Spark Gap Wonder Boys, a group of Boston-area students who had translated their enthusiasm for old-time country music into an energetic live act. The wannabe record-company owners were sure some bigger label would snap up the band, but when none did, they offered to record the Spark Gappers.

So the fledgling record label had its first two acts, but now it needed a name. The three friends, threw out 30 or 40 names at each other--“Doorknob Records? Radiator Records?”—and just as quickly dismissed them. They weren’t getting anywhere until someone said, “How about Rounder Records?” No one could dismiss that so quickly, because it worked so many ways. One of the trio’s favorite acts was the Holy Modal Rounders, who took a wacky, bohemian approach to roots music. Rounders was the British game that gave birth to American baseball, a perfect example of evolution within a tradition. More than a few folk songs referred to rootless, footloose outcasts as rounders. And records, of course, were round. So Rounder it was. Many years later, when the Grateful Dead started a label called Round Records, copyright lawyers urged Rounder to sue. “Why should we sue,” Nowlin responded, “if they want to assume the inferior position? They’re Round; we’re Rounder. Now, if they’d called themselves Roundest,” he added with a chuckle, “we might have had a problem."

The first two albums from Rounder Records, George Pegram and the Spark Gap Wonder Boys’ Cluck Old Hen, were released on October 22, 1970. One act was a banjo-playing sawmill worker from the North Carolina mountains; the other was a band of baby-boomer college kids who loved old-time mountain music no less than Pegram. So from the very beginning the company was combining the old and the new. When music writer Pete Welding later described the fledgling label as a home for “roots music and its contemporary offshoots," that sounded right to the Rounder founders.

Irwin, Leighton, and Nowlin had a real record company now. They could take their cardboard boxes of 12-inch vinyl albums to the festivals down South and set up a stand to sell their wares. It wasn’t long before musicians and folklorists came up to the table, not to buy LPs but to pitch possible recordings. After a year of looking for projects to record, the trio was being asked to choose between more options than the company could handle. How would they choose among them?

The folk-music labels that they most admired were the creations of single-minded individuals: Moe Asch's Folkways Records, Dave Freeman's County Records, and Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie Records. By contrast, Rounder was being run by a Cerberus-like three-headed owner. This was a handicap, in that it made each decision potentially more arduous, though most decisions were made with surprising ease, and in the long run it proved an asset. Though their tastes overlapped to a great extent, they were passionate about different things, and one person’s passion would push a project forward while three mild approvals wouldn’t. This inevitably broadened the label into a broadly eclectic roots-music roster. Originally they all shared all the jobs , but it turned out they each had different strengths. Nowlin got interested in business negotiations and took over that side of things. Irwin really loved the recording studio and concentrated on A&R and production. Leighton loved writing and conversation so she dealt with the press and radio. But every release still needed three yeses to go forward.

Just as important, the three were able to provide emotional as well as logistical support to one another when things got tough, as they often do in the music business. There was never a burden one person had to share alone. Even when Irwin and Leighton made the difficult transition from lovers to friends, their love for the music allowed them to continue to live in the same apartment and to work for the same company. And because they always made decisions as a collective, they were quite comfortable allowing other people into the process. So when Harvard grad student Mark Wilson turned them on to some Cape Breton and Appalachian musicians, the Rounder founders were willing to trust him. When musician Artie Traum offered to record the Woodstock music scene under the name Mud Acres, the founders gave him the go-ahead. When musician Dewey Balfa suggested Cajun musicians the label should record and folklorist Mark Pevar suggested African musicians, that was fine too. Irwin, Leighton, and Nowlin were politically progressive products of the ‘60s, and they saw Rounder Records as a form of community organizing, of bringing all these people involved in roots music under a common roof where they could reach more people.

The Rounder founders didn’t pay themselves anything for the first four years as they continued to pursue their academic ambitions. But once they released landmark albums by the likes of guitarist Norman Blake and bluegrasser J.D. Crowe, they came to realize that this was no longer a hobby but a career. Then they befriended a trio of blues-rock musicians from Delaware and everything changed for good. George Thorogood & the Destroyers drew their repertoire from Robert Johnson and Elmore James, from Carl Perkins and Hank Williams, but they played the songs hard and fast. In the liner notes for the trio's third album, Irwin, Leighton, and Nowlin recalled their initial doubts: “What to do with it? Clearly the early Rolling Stones didn’t belong on Rounder Records, largely a traditionally-based folk, bluegrass and blues label. And George Thorogood is probably closer in style and approach to the early Stones than he is to most of our catalogue."

That didn’t stop the Rounder founders from allowing the band to sleep on their floor when the Destroyers came to Massachusetts. Nor did it stop Irwin, Leighton, and Nowlin from loving the band’s live shows. Nor did it stop them from admiring musicians who would arrange touring around their baseball team's schedule. Finally the Rounder triumvirate decided to stop being so precious about it. Wasn’t this roots music played with skill and conviction? Hadn’t they fallen in love with the Greenbriar Boys because it was edgier and more muscular than the folk-revival singers? Wasn’t this the same thing at a different degree of edginess and muscularity?

Rounder released George Thorogood and the Destroyers in 1977. Things started slowly at first, but then all hell broke loose. Radio and the press clamored for records and interviews. Record stores were ordering dozens of copies at a time instead of two or three. The Rounder staff expanded to meet the onslaught and even then everyone worked at a frenzied pace. After three albums Thorogood had outgrown the situation; the turning point came when the trio opened for the Rolling Stones at the New Orleans Superdome and the local distributor ordered only 25 copies of the group’s three albums. A joint venture was formed with EMI America Records to take the band to the next level..

When the smoke cleared, Rounder was a changed company. It would no longer limit itself to acoustic music; it would be more open to drums, horns, and amplifiers. That opened the door to Texas blues bands, New Orleans R&B groups, Louisiana zydeco bands, Jamaican reggae groups, borderland conjuntos, Rhode Island jump-blues horn bands, and Canadian rock'n'roll stars. This allowed the label to present the full range of roots music and to connect with the typical roots-music fan, who was rarely a one-genre fanatic but more typically liked blues and bluegrass, Cajun/zydeco and Tex-Mex. It worked because Irwin, Leighton (who eventually became Marian Levy), and Nowlin were those fans themselves. They loved all kinds of roots music; they just wanted to hear it with a physical push and a nothing-held-back commitment. The hundreds of thousands of listeners who bought one or more Rounder albums felt the same way.

Rounder had survived the test of fire that any hit presents to a small record company and would be better prepared the next time one came along. And the next time came along with strong-selling records from Gatemouth Brown, Nanci Griffith, Beau Jocque, Madeleine Peyroux, Dailey & Vincent, and especially Alison Krauss. Rounder didn’t have to turn Krauss over to anybody, because it had better learned how to transmit roots music to a wider audience. Their promotion, publicity, and marketing had all improved to the point that Alison didn’t need to “graduate” to a major label. It had proven it knew how to get TV appearances and Grammys for its artists. It survived because the three founders and their collaborators not only had good taste but also – from the start - the pragmatism to make sure they had enough money on hand to write checks for next week’s payroll and next week’s studio session. During its 40 years of existence, the Rounder founders have seen dozens of roots-music labels start up and die out, for a number of reasons – including some good luck. Irwin, Levy, and Nowlin had both vision and that pragmatism—perhaps exemplified as well in 1997 when, in a generational move of sorts they turned over most business matters to John Virant, who had come on board as an unpaid intern and yet had worked his way up to company president/CEO. That’s why they could create so many memorable records, enjoy so many successes, and win so many awards for four full decades. When they did decide to finally sell Rounder to Concord Records in 2010, it was on their own terms and with the assurance that they would continue to shepherd the company in the near future. There has never been another record company quite like it.

Geoffrey Himes writes about music for the Washington Post, the Baltimore City Paper, Jazz Times, the Fretboard Journal and many more. His book, In-laws and Outlaws: How Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs and Steve Earle Fashioned a New King of Country Music, will be published by the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2011. He would like to point out that some of his favorite Rounder artists—Steve Riley, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Si Kahn, Solomon Burke, Steve Jordan, Juliana Hatfield, Joe Ely, the Holmes Brothers, Joe Grushecky, Sun Ra, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer and the Tarbox Ramblers—have been squeezed out of this crowded box set.





The Rounder Records Story: The 1970s

By Geoffrey Himes

There are hundreds of thousands of records, each with its own catalogue number, but just a handful are known by those digits. Only a few albums become so freighted with meaning for a particular musical community that even the numbers on their spines are committed to memory. Mention the phrase “Rounder 0044” to any true bluegrass fan, however, and they’ll know exactly what you mean. The official title was J.D. Crowe & the New South but to distinguish the recording from the band fans began to refer to the album as Rounder 0044. It wasn’t the first newgrass record, but it was the first to seize the imagination of the bluegrass world at large, thanks to the established credibility of Crowe and to the irresistible virtuosity of his new sidemen: mandolinist/fiddler Ricky Skaggs, guitarist Tony Rice, and Dobroist Jerry Douglas. The latter three names didn’t mean much in 1975, when the album was released, but over the next 35 years they would become indelible presences in the string-band world—and at Rounder Records.

Irwin and Leighton had approached Crowe at the Gettysburg Festival about making a banjo instrumental album. This gambit had worked for Rounder in the past, because such an album showcased a different side of an artist, emphasized the non-vocal elements that the label found so important and didn’t interfere with an artist's more mainstream band projects. Early in Rounder's history, for instance, the trio hoped to record their beloved Lilly Brothers, the band that played the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston seven nights a week, but a family tragedy led to Everett Lilly moving home to West Virginia. Instead the Rounders produced an early album of the band’s banjo player Don Stover, for the 1972 album, Things in Life.. “When we started out,” Irwin explains, “my only goal was that when someone made their list of top ten banjo records or top ten fiddle records, we’d have a record that would be on that list. Don’s record was the first that met that standard.” But Crowe had something more ambitious than a banjo album in mind; he saw this upstart little label as his chance to hatch the new sound in his head.
Crowe had worked with bluegrass giants Jimmy Martin and Red Allen, but he felt restricted by the genre’s repertoire and arrangements. He wanted to include tunes from folk-music writers like Gordon Lightfoot, Nashville writers like Rodney Crowell, and rock'n'roll writers like Fats Domino. He wanted to liberate his soloists from few and simple chord changes and allow them to find new progressions and new voicings. All three of those writers were on Rounder 0044, and the soloists did find those new pathways. But Crowe introduced these innovations so cunningly that the connection to bluegrass’s past was never broken. On the lead-off track, ”Old Home Place,” penned by the bluegrass writers Dean Webb and Mitch Jayne, one could hear the sentiments of the past happily co-existing with the picking of the future. The album was a huge bluegrass hit and helped make Rounder a major player in that world for decades to come.

The company had prepared itself for this breakthrough by documenting the innovative edge of bluegrass. Irwin and Marian Leighton lived in Ithaca, New York, between 1967 and ‘71, where their string-band passion and community-organizing impulses led to a non-profit concert group called the Ithaca Area Friends of Bluegrass and Old-Time Music. Through that organization the couple befriended the sextet Country Cooking, which included such future newgrass stars as guitarist Russ Barenberg, fiddler Kenny Kosek, and the two banjoists Tony Trischka and Pete Wernick. The Rounder folks arranged to record the band “in a quiet room in the student union building at Cornell University,” and the uptempo “Armadillo Breakdown” demonstrates the locomotive momentum and improvisatory freedom that would later surface in groups such as Wernick’s Hot Rize, Trischka’s Skyline, and Kosek’s Breakfast Special, which also included Trischka and mandolinist Andy Statman, a later Country Cooking member When Trischka made his own banjo-instrumental album for Rounder, Bluegrass Light, he was backed by Kosek and Statman. On “The Only Way,” one can hear that they were already playing jazz solos on string-band instruments in 1973.

Down the road in upstate New York, Woodstock's Artie Traum read an article in Sing Out about a new record company called Rounder and approached the founders, saying, “There’s a whole music community up here, and I’d like to do an album on them.” “Artie pulled that group together for this project and called it Mud Acres / Music Among Friends," Bill Nowlin remembers. “It wasn’t really a band, just a bunch of people who played on each other's tracks.” Those people included Artie, his brother Happy, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon, the Greenbriar Boys’ John Herald, Maria Muldaur, Pat Alger, Eric Andersen, Jim Rooney, Bill Keith, Rory Block, and Larry Campbell. They did three albums for Rounder, but their most enduring song was “Killing the Blues, written and sung by Roly Salley. Thanks to the surprising intervals of its melody and the paradoxically world-weary optimism of its lyrics, it was recorded again and again, by John Prine, Chris Smither, Shawn Colvin, and most notably by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss for Rounder. These northern string bands lent a liberating innocence to the music they had learned from the Southern originators, much as the Beatles had lent a similar innocence to the American R&B they drew upon. Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys, for example, had been inspired to take up the music when the Lilly Brothers moved to Boston from West Virginia. Val may have been Italian-American, but he nails “Sparkling Brown Eyes,” written by Clark Kessinger's Kanawha label mate Billy Cox.
Also recorded in upstate New York was the Highwoods Stringband, which was spirited old-timey, with a counter-cultural look. The song “Who Broke the Lock?” always seems on the verge of flying apart even as it drives ever forward. “They had that wild, unrestrained sound that appealed to us," Nowlin notes. “They reminded me of the Holy Modal Rounders in that way. We never had that problem where we turned up our noses if musicians weren’t ‘true folk.’” Rounder did several projects with the extended Holy Modal Rounders family, most notably Have Moicy! credited to Michael Hurley, the Unholy Modal Rounders, and Jeffrey Frederick & The Clamtones. That disc, represented here by “Sweet Lucy,” was called "the greatest folk album of the rock era" by The Village Voice's Robert Christgau, though it was actually the greatest country-rock album of the hippie-folk genre.

Rounder’s first album to break into five-figure sales was 1972's Back Home in Sulphur Springs, by Norman Blake, a Doc Watson acolyte and major stylist in his own right. Accompanied only by dobroist Tut Taylor on “Down Home Summertime Blues,” the tension between Blake’s laid-back tenor and his dazzling flat-picking illustrates his ability to straddle old-grass and new. Three years later J.D. Crowe & the New South became Rounder’s first album to hit six figures in sales, and the label’s central role in bluegrass’s new wave was cemented. When Skaggs and Douglas formed a new band called Boone Creek, they released the band’s eponymous debut disc on Rounder. “Memory of Your Smile” is one of Skaggs’ earliest lead vocals, and the arrangement with piano, drums and electric bass anticipates his country hits to come. When Douglas wanted to record a dobro-instrumental album, backed by Skaggs, Rice, bassist Todd Phillips, and fiddler Darol Anger, he released Fluxology on Rounder. When mandolinist David Grisman made a newgrass album with Rice, Douglas, Phillips, and two Bill Monroe alumni (fiddler Vassar Clements and banjoist Bill Keith), he called it The David Grisman Rounder Album. Skaggs sang a guest vocal on the old song, “I Ain’t Broke but I’m Badly Bent.”

In 1973 Irwin got a call from his friend Bill Smith in Nashville, who said, “We have this incredible 13-year-old fiddle player staying at our house and you have to hear him.” The kid was Mark O’Connor, and Rounder quickly put him in the studio with Blake and Taylor to make O'Connor’s debut album, National Junior Fiddling Champion. The track here, “Tom and Jerry,” featuring mandolinist Sam Bush, appeared on O’Connor’s second Rounder album, Pickin’ in the Wind, in 1976, which was followed by his third, Markology, in 1978. In 1979, he graduated from high school and joined the David Grisman Quintet. “We had good luck discovering musicians when they were young," Irwin remembers. “We signed Jerry Douglas when he was 17, Béla Fleck when he was 16, Alison Krauss when she was 14, and Mark when he was 13."

For all this emphasis on the innovative side of string-band music, the Rounder founders recognized that such developments didn’t mean much if they lost their ties to the music’s past. To remind musicians and listeners alike of this, the label continued to search out neglected old-timers and shine a light on them. One of their first two releases was the album George Pegram by the North Carolina banjo picker and sawmill worker. To hear him snorting and hollering about “Johnson's Old Gray Mule” over dizzyingly fast banjo and fiddle was to realize that the distance between the most traditional Southerners and the most bohemian Northerners was not so great after all. The Rounder founders had a special weakness for the close-interval “brother duets” that ranged from the Blue Sky Boys and Delmore Brothers to the Lilly Brothers and Whitstein Brothers. A strong link in that chain was the Bailey Brothers, former stars of radio shows such as The Grand Ole Opry and Jamboree USA, who recorded “Take Me Back to Happy Valley” for the label.

When folklorist Mark Wilson discovered rare home recordings of Ed Haley, a West Virginia fiddler so influential that John Hartford later wrote an unpublished book about him, Rounder gladly put them out, including the giddy “Cherry River Rag.” When Wilson recorded one of Haley’s top disciples, Buddy Thomas, playing the similarly giddy “Kitty Puss,” Rounder released that too. And when Wilson became enthused about Cape Breton folk music, an idiosyncratic Scottish-Canadian variant on string-band music in Nova Scotia, Rounder released a bunch of those sessions, including Joe Cormier's medley of spirited fiddle tunes, “Mrs. Scott Skinner/The Smith's a Gallant Fireman/The Earl of Seafield’s Real.” Wilson had befriended Nowlin when they were both Boston-area grad students, and they had made several field trips together down South and to Cape Breton. Because Nowlin, Leighton, and Irwin were used to working collectively, it was easy for them to incorporate another perspective.

Ralph Rinzler, one of the Greenbriar Boys who had first inspired Nowlin and Irwin, had gone on to manage Bill Monroe, to book the Newport Folk Festival, and to record the then-unknown Doc Watson. Having booked the Cajun band, Les Balfa Freres, for Newport, Rinzler recorded them in Harry Balfa's living room in Mamou, Louisiana, in 1965. Ten years later, after Irwin had recorded D.L. Menard in his kitchen in Erath, Rinzler trusted the new Rounder label enough to give them the Balfa tapes, including the Cajun standard, “Parlez-Nous a Boire” (“Let’s Talk About Drinking (Not Marriage).” If the Balfas represented the more traditional roots of Cajun music, Menard, dubbed “The Cajun Hank Williams,” represented the later fusion of Cajun and honky tonk, especially on his signature cheating song, “La Porte dans Arriere” (“The Back Door”). Rinzler also founded the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which took over the Mall in Washington every summer, and the Rounder founders were regular attendees.

As good 1970s leftists, they had long been frustrated that they had found so few female artists in the string-band world. At the Folklife Fest and the Delaware Bluegrass Festival, however, they found three women who were among the genre’s most important artists of either gender. Ola Belle Reed had been raised in North Carolina's New River Valley, but like so many of their neighbors, her family had moved to the mid-Atlantic area during the Depression to find work. Those families had brought their fiddles and banjos with them, and Ola Belle, her brother Alex Campbell, and her husband Bud Reed founded the New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Maryland, to entertain the transplants. Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, and the Louvin Brothers performed on that creekside plywood stage, but Ola Belle soon became a major attraction by dint of her songwriting and singing. Her best known composition, “High on a Mountain,” was eventually recorded by Del McCoury, Hot Rize, Marty Stuart, Lucy Kaplansky, and many more, but no one ever sang it with the high-pitched twang and intense personal investment that Ola Belle brought to it. When Levon Helm’s daughter Amy co-founded a new folk band in 2001, she and her pals named it Ollabelle {cq} in honor of Reed.

Hazel Dickens was part of that same mid-century migration from Appalachia to Maryland, though she came from the coal fields of West Virginia and ended up in urban Baltimore. It was there she met Bill Monroe and such bohemian bluegrass lovers as Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard. “Mike was the first person outside our culture to validate our music,” Dickens confirms. “He looked on it as an art form, while to us it was just what we did. We never thought anyone else would be interested.” It was also in Baltimore that Dickens found her songwriting gift and her singing voice. When Gerrard added her high tenor to Dickens’ lead, they created an unprecedented female equivalent of the “brother duets” so beloved by the Rounder founders. And when Dickens wrote songs as pointed as “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There” or “Black Lung," her new college-educated audience heard them as political commentary. Dickens heard them as diary-like commentary on her daily life.

This disc presents just a small fraction of the records released during Rounder’s first decade, but it accurately reflects the emphasis on string-band music. A lot of it was bluegrass, newgrass, or old-time music, but even the music from far outside Appalachia was played on acoustic string instruments. Joe Cormier's Cape Breton reels, the Balfa Brothers’ Cajun two-steps and Michael Hurley’s country-rock all featured the fiddle prominently. Even the tune “Jula Jekere” by Gambia’s Alhaji Bai Konte was string-band music of a sort. Konte played the West African kora, which featured twenty-some strings rising vertically from a large gourd, but in the context of this box set, it’s easy to hear the kora’s echoes in the high-pitched runs of a mandolin or the low-pitched snap of a banjo.

Thus the shock of hearing George Thorogood's “Who Do You Love?” at the end of this disc is not unlike first hearing a Rounder album in 1978 with such in-your-face drums and amps. It wasn’t the label’s first release with electric instruments (the Bob Riedy Blues Band had released Lake Michigan Ain’t No River, Chicago Ain’t No Hilly Town the year before), but it was the first widely-heard example. And soon it became more widely heard than anything Rounder had ever done. “Who Do You Love?” had been written and recorded by Bo Diddley for Chess Records in 1956, but when Thorogood did it, everything sounded quicker and thicker. Part of it was an improvement in recording studios, but part of it was also Thorogood's guitar technique. “I try to play the whole guitar at once," he explained. “That’s the trick: to get a big, full sound without relying on the volume knob. I’m really heavy-handed on the low strings, and if you muffle the strings with the side of your right hand so the notes don’t keep ringing, you get that chunky sound."

Thorogood had transformed Diddley’s guitar sound, in much the same way that Diddley had transformed Muddy Waters’ and that Waters had transformed Charley Patton’s. It was still roots music, but with each adaptation, the beat got chunkier and the vocals more assertive. It was a new way to play an old tradition, not so different from what J.D. Crowe had done with Bill Monroe.


“Old Home Place” / J. D. Crowe and the New South. 2:43
(Dean Webb & Mitch Jayne/Lansdowne-Winston ASCAP)

From the album J. D. Crowe and the New South (Rounder 0044), released in August 1975. Recorded by Steve Hamm at Track Recorders, Silver Spring MD in January 1975. Produced by J. D. Crowe.

J. D. Crowe – banjo and baritone vocal; Tony Rice – guitar and lead vocal; Ricky Skaggs – mandolin and tenor vocal; Bobby Slone – bass; Jerry “Flux” Douglas – Dobro.


“Take Me Back to Happy Valley” / The Bailey Brothers. 2:40
(Charles & Dan Bailey/Happy Valley Music BMI)

From the album Take Me Back to Happy Valley (Rounder 0030), released in June 1975. Recorded by Joe Overholt and Mark Bogart at El-tech Studios, Knoxville TN on July 16-17, 1974.

Danny Bailey – vocal and guitar; Charles Bailey – vocal and mandolin; Larry Mathis – banjo; Clarence “Tater” Tate – fiddle; E. P. “Jake” Tullock – bass.


"Armadillo Breakdown" / Country Cooking. 2:14
(Peter Wernick/Happy Valley Music BMI)

From the album Country Cooking / 14 Bluegrass Instrumentals (Rounder 0006), released in October 1971. Recorded in May 1971 in a quiet room in the student union building at Cornell University, Ithaca NY. Engineered by Ted Osborn.

Russ Barenberg – guitar; Kenny Kosek – fiddle; John Miller – bass; Harry "Tersh" Gilmore – mandolin; Tony “Toad” Trischka – banjo; Peter Wernick – banjo


“High On a Mountain” / Ola Belle Reed. 2:36
(Ola Belle Reed/Midstream Music BMI)

From the album Ola Belle Reed (Rounder 0021), released January 1973. Recorded by Gei Zantzinger, Devault, Pennsylvania, Fall 1972. Produced by Gei and Ruth Zantzinger.

Ola Belle Reed – banjo, guitar, vocal; Bud Reed – banjo, guitar; David Reed – banjo, guitar; John Miller – fiddle; Alan Reed – banjo, guitar.


“Killing the Blues” / Woodstock Mountains. 3:53
(Rowland Salley/Telechrome Music ASCAP)

From the album Woodstock Mountains (Rounder 3018), released in May 1977. Recorded by John Holbrook and Thomas Mark at Bearsville Sound Studios, Bearsville NY on January 13-15, 1977. Produced by George James with Artie Traum and Happy Traum.

Roly Salley – guitar and lead vocal; Pat Alger – lead guitar; Artie Traum – bass; Happy Traum – banjo; Jim Rooney – guitar; Lee Berg – vocal.


“Johnson’s Old Gray Mule” / George Pegram. 2:16
(public domain)

From the album George Pegram (Rounder 0001), released October 1970. Recorded by Charlie “Farout” Faurot.
George Pegram – banjo and vocal; Clyde Isaacs – mandolin; Fred Cockerham – fiddle; Jack Bryant – guitar.


“Cherry River Rag” / Ed Haley. 2:53
(Ed Haley/Done Gone Publishing BMI)

From the album Parkersburg Landing (Rounder 1010), released May 1976. Recorded by Mark Wilson and Guthrie T. Meade.

Ed Haley – fiddle; Ralph Haley – guitar; Ella Haley – mandolin.


“Sweet Lucy” / Michael Hurley. 4:04
(Michael Hurley/Snocko Music BMI)

From the album Have Moicy (Rounder 3010), released in February 1976. Recorded by John Nagy, with assistance by Thom Foley, on July 15 & 16, 1975 at Dimension Sound Studios, Boston MA. Produced by John Nagy.

Michael Hurley – lead vocal and rhythm guitar; Wax Iwaskiewicz – guitar; Robert “Frog” Nickson – drums; Dave Reisch – bass; Paul Presti – slide guitar; Peter Stampfel – fiddle.


“Parlez-Nous A Boire” / The Balfa Freres. 3:43
(Dewey Balfa/Flat Town Music BMI)

From the album Louisiana Cajun French Music from the Southwest Prairies (Rounder 6001), released in July 1976. Recorded by Ralph Rinzler at Harry Balfa’s house in Mamou, Louisiana on October 24, 1965. Produced by Ralph Rinzler.

Dewey Balfa – fiddle and vocal; Will Balfa – fiddle; Rodney Balfa – fiddle; Harry Balfa – triangle; Hadley Fontenot – accordion.


“Mrs. Scott Skinner/The Smith’s A Gallant Fireman/The Earl of Seafield's Real” / Joseph Cormier. 3:40
(J. S. Skinner) / (trad., variations by J. S. Skinner) / (Donald Grant)

From the album Scottish Violin Music from Cape Breton Island (Rounder 7001), released November 1974. Recorded by Mark Wilson in Allston, Massachusetts on June 4, 1974. Produced by Mark Wilson.

Joe Cormier – violin; Edward Irwin – piano; Edmund Boudreau – guitar.


“Tom and Jerry” / Mark O’Connor. 2:15
(Trad., arr. by Mark O’Connor/C Minor Music BMI)

From the album Pickin’ in the Wind (Rounder 0068), released June 1976. Recorded by Charlie Bragg and the House of Cash, Hendersonville, Tennessee on June 11 and 12, 1975. Mixed by John Nagy at Dimension Sound Studios, Boston. Produced by Mark and Marty O’Connor.

Mark O’Connor – fiddle; Sam Bush – mandolin; Charlie Collins – guitar.


“Down Home Summertime Blues” / Norman Blake. 3:40
(Norman Blake/Nannor Music BMI)

From the album Back Home in Sulphur Springs (Rounder 0012), released June 1972. Recorded at Glaser Sound Studios, Nashville on December 30, 1971. Mixed by Claude J. Hill. Produced by Norman Blake and Tut Taylor for Rocky Road Productions. Executive producer: Mike Melford.

Norman Blake – guitar and vocal; Tut Taylor – Dobro


“Memory of Your Smile” / Boone Creek. 2:33
(Ruby Rakes/Trio Music BMI-Fort Knox Music BMI)

From the album Boone Creek (Rounder 0081), released August 1977. Recorded and mixed by Dana Thomas and Sundance at Starday, Nashville.

Ricky Skaggs – guitar, lead and baritone vocal; Cheryl White – tenor vocal; Jerry Douglas – Dobro; Wes Golding – guitar; Fred Wooten – lead guitar; Earl Grigsby – bass; Karl Himmel – drums and percussion; Joel DeGregorio – piano.


“Things in Life” / Don Stover. 3:06
(Don Stover/Bathurst Music BMI)

From the album Things in Life (Rounder 0014), released in August 1972. Recorded at Aengus Enterprises, Fayville MA in the spring of 1972.

Don Stover – banjo and vocal; David Grisman – mandolin; John Hall – fiddle; Dave Dillon – guitar; Dan Marcus – guitar; Joe Diviney – bass.


“Kitty Puss” / Buddy Thomas. 2:22
(Buddy Thomas/Happy Valley Music BMI)

From the album Kitty Puss (Rounder 0032), released in May 1976. Recorded by Mark Wilson and Guthrie T. Meade in Waldorf, MD, December 23, 1973.

Buddy Thomas – fiddle; Leona Stamm – guitar.


“Who Broke the Lock?” / Highwoods Stringband. 2:52
(public domain)

From the album Fire on the Mountain (Rounder 0023), released in April 1973. Recorded by Doug Dorschug outside of his home in Van Etten NY in September 1972.

Mac Benford – banjo and lead vocal; Bob Potts – fiddle and vocal; Walt Koken – fiddle and vocal; Doug Dorschug – guitar and vocal; Jenny Cleland – bass and vocal.


“Don’t Put Her Down You Helped Put Her There” / Hazel and Alice. 3:46
(Hazel Dickens/Happy Valley Music BMI)

From the album Hazel & Alice (Rounder 0027), released in November 1973. Recorded by R. N. Drevo at Urban Recordings, Bethesda MD on October 14, 1974, January 7, 1973, January 21, 1973. Produced by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard.

Hazel Dickens – lead vocal and bass guitar; Alice Gerrard – harmony vocal and guitar; Mike Seeger – mouthharp; Tracy Schwarz – fiddle.


“Jula Jekere” / Alhaji Bai Konte. 5:02
(public domain)

From the album Alhaji Bai Konte (Rounder 5001), released in June 1973. Recorded by Marc D. Pevar in Brikama, The Gambia. Produced by Mark D. Pevar.

Alhaji Bai Konte – kora.


“The Only Way” / Tony Trischka. 4:18
(Tony Trischka/Happy Valley Music BMI)

From the album Bluegrass Light (Rounder 0048), released July 1974. Recorded by Bill Storm and Doug MacLean at Sleepy Hollow Studios, Ithaca, New York in the Fall of 1973.

Tony Trischka – banjo; Moshe Savitsky – Dobro; Kenny Kosek – fiddle; Jim Tolles – guitar; Andy Statman – mandolin; Roger Mason – bass; Chris Ditson – drums.


“Fluxology” / Jerry Douglas. 3:07
(Jerry Douglas/Happy Valley Music BMI)

From the album Fluxology (Rounder 0093), released January 1977. Recorded at 1750 Arch Studios, Berkeley CA by Bob Shumaker.

Ricky Skaggs – mandolin; Tony Rice – guitar; Todd Phillips – bass; Darol Anger – violin; Jerry Douglas – Dobro.


“La porte dans arriere” / D. L. Menard and the Louisiana Aces. 3:25
(D. L. Menard/Flat Town Music BMI)

From the album The Louisiana Aces (Rounder 6003), released in July 1974. Recorded by Dick Spottswood and Ken Irwin in the Menard family’s kitchen in Erath LA.

D. L. Menard – guitar and vocal; Arconge “Coon” Touchet – steel guitar; John Suire – drums; Joe Lopez – fiddle; Elias “Shunk” Badeaux – accordion.


“I Ain’t Broke But I’m Badly Bent”/ David Grisman. 1:59
(Martha Ellis/Tannen Music BMI)

From the album The David Grisman Rounder Album (Rounder 0069), released July 1976. Recorded by Sundance and Dana Nelson at Starday Studios, Nashville. Mixed at Starday by Sundance and David Grisman. Produced and arranged by David Grisman.

David Grisman – mandolin; Tony Rice – guitar; Vassar Clements – violin; Bill Keith – banjo; Jerry Douglas – Dobro; Todd Phillips – bass; Ricky Skaggs – lead vocal.


“Sparkling Brown Eyes” / Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys. 3:06
(Billy Cox/Poca River Music BMI)

From the album One Morning in May (Rounder 0003), released in October 1971. Recorded by Hartley Severns of Hartley, Alward, and Lyons Audiographics in March-May of 1975. Produced by the Rounder Collective.

Joe Val – mandolin and vocal; Herb Applin – guitar and vocal; Bob French – banjo and vocal; Bob Tidwell – bass.


“Who Do You Love?” / George Thorogood and the Destroyers. 4:20
(E. McDaniel/Arc Music BMI)

From the album Move It On Over (Rounder 3024), released in October 1978. Recorded by John Nagy at Dimension Sound, Boston MA. Produced by George Thorogood, Ken Irwin, and John Nagy.

George Thorogood – guitars and vocal; Jeff Simon – drums; Billy Blough – bass; Uncle Meat Pennington – tambourine and maracas.


The Rounder Records Story: The 1980s

By Geoffrey Himes

“After George Thorogood’s success, every blues artist in the world thought we had the magic touch and approached us about doing an album," recalls Rounder producer Scott Billington. Thorogood's second Rounder album, 1979’s Move It on Over, had cracked the top 40 on Billboard’s pop charts and earned a gold record, as did his fourth album, Bad to the Bone, which Rounder had recorded before working out a deal to turn the tapes over to EMI. Suddenly musicians were approaching the tiny Massachusetts company as much for its industry clout as for its artistic integrity. It was a mind-twisting turn of events.

The integrity still mattered, however, and Rounder picked its blues projects carefully. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown was a logical choice, for he was as eclectic as the label itself. He was born in West Louisiana and raised in East Texas, playing the Cajun and country tunes beloved by his father. It was only when he moved to Houston as a young man that he jumped—literally—into the blues. One night in 1947 at the Bronze Peacock, headliner T-Bone Walker fell ill with an ulcer and was helped off the stage. Brown leapt from his seat and started playing every boogie riff he knew, and by the end of the night, the whooping audience was stuffing money into his shirt and pants. He was quickly signed to Duke-Peacock Records and enjoyed several Gulf Coast hits. But he was too restless to be pigeonholed for long. Soon he was playing jazz and R&B in addition to blues, Cajun and country; he even pulled out his fiddle at least once in every show. By the 1970s, he was based in Nashville, backing soul singers on the TV show The!!!Beat, and eventually joining country star Roy Clark on Hee Haw. "I don't like to be listening to the same old stuff all the time," he explained. "I can't stand up on a bandstand and play the same style of music every night…. I see all these other guitarists, and they're stuck in the same mud hole getting nowhere.”

As producer, Scott Billington wrested Brown out of his current comfort zone and thrust him back in front of a big horn band. Enlisting some of the top horn men in New Orleans, including 1950s R&B studio legend and modern jazz saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler, Billington and co-producer Jim Bateman pushed Brown to tackle some classic Texas blues numbers, including Albert Collins’ “Frosty.” The galvanizing results revitalized Brown's career and even won the album, Alright Again!, the 1982 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Recording. That gold statuette, Rounder’s first, bolstered the label's reputation almost as much as Thorogood's sales numbers. “It’s the biggest prize the record industry has,” Billington points out, “and it gives you a legitimacy in some people’s eyes. They look at you and say, ‘OK, these guys can do the job; they won a Grammy.’” Soon there were even more musicians knocking on Rounder’s door.

One of them was Johnny Copeland, another Texas bluesman who had lapsed into semi-obscurity after a promising start. As Billington had with Brown, producer Dan Doyle resuscitated Copeland’s by putting him in front of a jazzy horn band. Instead of using New Orleans veterans, however, Doyle hired some of the top avant-garde jazzers in New York, including saxophonists Arthur Blythe, George Adams, and Bayard Lancaster. As you can hear on “Everybody Wants a Piece of Me” from that 1981 release, the horn players aren’t content to merely repeat the same riff but toy with the voicings behind Copeland's stinging solos to make things more interesting. It worked; Copeland's career revived, and that made possible the eventual emergence of his Harlem daughter Shemekia as a major blues singer.

Brown's album provided Rounder with an entrée into the New Orleans music community just as that scene was starting to recapture national attention. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, begun in 1970 as a showcase for local talent, was becoming the favorite annual destination for roots-music lovers the world over. Inside the festival’s white tents and on the grass before the outdoor stages, out-of-towners were discovering pianists with a carnival syncopation, horn players that straddled jazz and blues, brass bands that built dizzying chords without guitar or piano, survivors of the city’s golden age of R&B, and Mardi Gras Indians swallowed up in giant costumes of plumes and beads. Rounder documented it all.

The label snapped up a 1972 tape (produced by festival founder Quint Davis) of the city’s most famous pianist, Professor Longhair (aka Henry Roeland Byrd). House Party New Orleans Style, which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, was highlighted by “Tipitina,” a song so famous that the city’s best nightclub was named after it. Billington took Fess’s most gifted, most troubled heir, James Booker, into the studio for a new session. “He was probably the only person I’ve ever worked with that I thought was fairly a genius," the producer declares. “His technique was as good as Artur Rubinstein or any classical pianist; sometimes even piano players are surprised to learn it’s only one piano player on his records. But he was also one of the most tragically flawed musicians New Orleans has ever produced. Three weeks before we were to go into the studio, he had some kind of breakdown and ended up in Baptist Hospital. Booker went into this state of withdrawal and didn’t want to play any of the songs we’d picked out; he didn’t even want to talk to anyone. I was worried that I’d have to go back to Boston and explain why I’d spent $8,000 without coming up with any usable tracks. On the third day of our otherwise fruitless sessions, I went back into the studio to see if I had any salvageable music and Booker was there in the door, ready to go, and we cut all that stuff that's on the Classified album. I was so relieved I had something that I gave him a check. In the middle of playing ‘Tipitina’ he asked, ‘When does the bank close?’ Someone said, ‘Three o’clock’; he slammed the piano shut, was out the door and no one saw him for weeks.”

Jazzfest was also a showcase for music from rural South Louisiana, both the Cajun of the French-American community and the zydeco of the African-American community. Beausoleil, a Cajun band led by Michael Doucet, demonstrated how closely related the two genres were on Michael's composition, “Zydeco Gris-Gris.” Michael, after all, had studied not only with Cajun fiddlers like Dennis McGee but also with Creole fiddlers like Canray Fontenot. Buckwheat Zydeco (aka Stanley Dural) had led an R&B band until he was drafted to be a keyboardist in the band led by Clifton Chenier, the universally acknowledged King of Zydeco. Buckwheat learned to play zydeco’s lead instrument, the accordion, but he never forgot his R&B roots, as one can hear on his adaptation of “Ya Ya," originally a hit for New Orleans’ Lee Dorsey.

The accordion was also the lead instrument in Tex-Mex conjunto music, and Rounder jumped into that community too. Santiago Jimenez had been the godfather of the genre, but his son Flaco modernized that sound through his collaborations with Doug Sahm, Ry Cooder, Dr. John, and Los Lobos. But Flaco never lost touch with his roots in the barrios of West San Antonio, as he proves on his father's composition, “Viva Seguin.” Flaco, his brother Santiago Jr., and Steve Jordan (the “Conjunto Jimi Hendrix”) popularized the Tex-Mex sound and mesmerized a punk-rocker from Denton, Texas, named Carl Finch. Finch picked up the accordion, started playing conjunto polkas and soon branched out to play Polish and Czech polkas, cha chas, and mazurkas as well. His band Brave Combo soon learned that audiences were starving for joyful dance music like the polka standard “Happy Wanderer” and continue to enjoy a long career feeding that hunger.

Rounder hadn’t abandoned the artists from its first decade. Rory Block, a member of Woodstock Mountains, recorded the original blues “Got To Have You Be My Man” for one of her 13 solo albums on Rounder. Tony Rice, who had sung two Gordon Lightfoot songs on 1975's J. D. Crowe & The New South, chose another as the title track of his 1984 solo album, Cold on the Shoulder. “It was a great repertoire that no one else was doing," Irwin comments, “in the same way that no one was doing Dylan songs till Joan Baez and Judy Collins did those songs totally differently and made them work. That’s what Tony did with those Lightfoot songs, which were almost bluegrass anyway." Earlier, in 1980, Rice had gone into the studio to make another solo record with Crowe, Phillips, Doyle Lawson, and Bobby Hicks but soon realized it was morphing into a collective-band project with everyone making equal contributions. “My Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” attributed to Earl Scruggs’ wife Louise Certain, is from the resulting record, The Bluegrass Album. It was supposed to be a one-off project, but the Bluegrass Album approach proved so popular that six albums have appeared so far under that name.

Rice had been replaced in Crowe’s band by Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs’ childhood friend from East Kentucky. Whitley had left Ralph Stanley's band because he wanted to sing more mainstream country, which Crowe had already integrated into his newgrass repertoire. Crowe turned over his 1982 recording session to his young protégé, hiring a Nashville rhythm section to provide a honky-tonk thump to songs like Lefty Frizzell's “I Never Go Around Mirrors.” The arrangement provided the blueprint for all of Whitley’s later country hits; he would even recut “I Never Go Around Mirrors” for RCA. Keith was having some problems and missing dates so J.D., who was originally going to have the album come out under Keith's name, changed his mind and had it released as a JD Crowe and the New South album.
When Keith was ready to pursue a country career, Ken Irwin says, “It made sense for him to sign with RCA; we weren’t prepared to deal with that world. Just like with George Thorogood, we couldn’t see ourselves holding Keith back; we wanted to help him have the career he deserved. We made an agreement with RCA where we got a percentage, so it worked out for everybody.” Years later, J.D. and engineer Steve Chandler went back into the studio, overdubbed some parts, and remixed the album adding a few songs which Keith had cut for Rounder as demos to pitch to major labels but which had never been released.
In 1984 Hazel Dickens recorded the greatest of her many great songs: “Mama's Hand.” With remarkable detail, she conjured up the day in 1954 when she boarded the Greyhound bus that would take her from West Virginia to Baltimore: “I said goodbye to that plain little mining town/ With just a few old clothes that had made the rounds./ [But] It was hard to let go of mama's hand.” “I remember her being sad,” Dickens recalled, “and she said, `Surely you’re not going before supper,’ and I said, `I have to catch my bus.’ She would have liked me to stay, but she knew there was nothing there for me. She’d seen all her other children go off to work or get married, so she knew she had to let go.” When Lynn Morris re-recorded the song for Rounder in 1995, it topped the bluegrass charts and was voted the IBMA’s Song of the Year.
Irwin had asked Tony Trischka to back up Dickens on the soundtrack for the Barbara Kopple movie, Harlan County USA, but the banjoist said, “Ooh, I’m going to be out of a town, but I have a 16-year-old student named Béla." “That’s three strikes right there—16, student and ‘Béla,’” Irwin remembers thinking. “But he was really good.” Fleck eventually recorded seven solo albums as well as band projects with Spectrum and New Grass Revival for Rounder before going on to fame and fortune at Warner Bros. and Columbia. His banjo instrumental “Whitewater,” featuring Rice, Bush, Douglas, Stuart Duncan, and Mark Schatz, is from the solo album Drive. Fleck eventually returned to Rounder in 2009 to release a Flecktones Christmas album and the soundtrack to his African-music documentary, Throw Down Your Heart. “We learned early on that losing someone to another label is not the end of the world," Rounder founder Marian Leighton Levy says. “It’s not necessarily the last time you will work with them. We became fairly philosophical about it, unlike some people who go, ‘I’ll never work with that person again.’ You don’t want to burn bridges. If someone comes along and offers a lot more money than we as an underfunded label can, you wish them well and hope they’ll come back someday."

Rounder was well aware that its fan base was as interested in folk singer-songwriters as in bluegrass and Cajun bands, but the label left that corner of the roots-music world in the hands of labels such as Philo and Flying Fish (founded by ex-Rounder producer Bruce Kaplan), both distributed by Rounder. But when those two labels went out of business, Rounder felt an obligation to take them over to protect their catalogues. And once they had these labels on their hands, it made sense to sign new singer-songwriters. One of the most notable was Nanci Griffith, whose “Once in a Very Blue Moon,” co-written by Pat Alger of Woodstock Mountains, provided the template for her long career at MCA, though she did return to Rounder in 2006. One of her early admirers, Lyle Lovett, sings harmony on the track. Another key signing was John McCutcheon, who turned to the original folk singer-songwriter, Woody Guthrie, for the children’s number “Howjadoo.” Rounder eventually reissued Guthrie’s Library of Congress recordings on CD, and developed an ongoing relationship with Woody Guthrie Publications, shepherded by Woody’s daughter Nora.

As the world’s premier string-band label, it was logical—if only in retrospect—for Rounder to move into Klezmer, the Jewish Diaspora folk music that often featured fiddle, banjo, string bass, and accordion. The song “A Freylekhe Nakht in Fan Eydn” came from the counter-programming holiday album, Oy Chanukah! and featured jazz clarinetist Don Byron. It seemed just as logical to embrace the cowboy-music revival. Doug Green was a musicologist who had written liner notes for Rounder and essays for the Country Music Hall of Fame, when he decided to put his love for Hollywood cowboy music into action. He formed a group called Riders in the Sky, which always maintained the difficult balance between poking fun and genuine affection, as one can hear on their original tune, “Cowboy Jubilee.”

Inasmuch as New Orleans is as much a Caribbean city as an American one, it also made sense for Rounder to move into reggae as well. “The reggae didn’t seem out of place from everything else we were doing," Nowlin insists. “It was very traditional, but it also had that edge. It had that African influence like a lot of Southern American music, and a lot of reggae musicians listened to WLAC from Nashville.” “Babylon's Dog” comes from Culture, one of the greatest reggae vocal groups of all time.

As a label named in part after the Holy Modal Rounders, Rounder was always willing to give a fair hearing to the kind of eccentrics other labels dismissed. Ted Hawkins, for example, was a street singer in Venice, California. Unlike most strumming buskers, though, he didn’t sound like Pete Seeger or Mississippi John Hurt or Jimmy Buffett; he sounded like Sam Cooke—a classic, knockout soul singer, all alone with an acoustic guitar. Hawkins had tastes as broad as Gatemouth Brown; he recorded songs by everyone from Webb Pierce to Curtis Mayfield and Paul Simon. And Hawkins’ many originals, including the title track of his Watch Your Step album, filtered all those elements through his rough-and-tumble life on the street. Odder still was Jonathan Richman, the leader of Boston’s legendary rock'n'roll band, the Modern Lovers. Since his early apprenticeship with Lou Reed, Richman had steadily peeled away the noise and hipness from rock music to create not a childlike simplicity but rather a childlike surrealism. On “New Kind of Neighborhood” from the album Modern Lovers 88, he finds the no man's land between foolery and sincerity. NRBQ also subverted the rock paradigm with wild, improvisatory live shows that proceeded without set lists, alternating raucous noise with pretty harmonies, and hillbilly novelty numbers, with irresistibly hooky pop songs like “Me and the Boys,” which Bonnie Raitt later recorded. Al Anderson went on to write hits for Carlene Carter; Joey Spampinato played with Keith Richards and married Skeeter Davis, and Terry Adamsannotated Thelonious Monk albums.

Another rock'n'roll wild card, Sleepy LaBeef, entered the Rounder sphere only because his bus caught fire on the nearby Maine Turnpike. “He ended up living at Alan’s Truck Stop and playing at the truck stop's Fifth Wheel Room for the next three years," Billington explains. “Sleepy, who had been the last person to record for Sun Records, had an enormous catalogue of songs, and those shows were stream-of-consciousness rock'n'roll and rockabilly; he might go off for an hour of Ernest Tubb songs or an hour of Little Richard songs. He would go into this other state when he’d take on a different voice and bend his whole guitar neck to bend notes. ‘Electricity’ represents how Sleepy got into that same state at the studio where George Thorogood cut his first Rounder records.”

Rounder got louder in the ‘80s but it also got weirder. It may have won its first two Grammys, but it also released albums by fiddling bluesmen, singing cowboys, squeezebox Creoles, street buskers, and truck-stop bands No one was going to confuse it with MCA.


“Frosty” / Clarence Gatemouth Brown. 3:46
(Albert Collins/Universal Songs of Polygram, BMI)

From the album Alright Again! (Rounder 2028), released November 1981. Recorded by David Farrell at Studio In the Country, Bogalusa LA, assisted by Eugene Foster, from June 2 – 8, 1981. Produced by Jim Bateman and Scott Billington. A Real Records Production.

Clarence Gatemouth Brown – vocal and guitar; Larry Sieberth – piano; David “Fingers” Fender – Hammond organ and piano; Red Lane – rhythm guitar; Myron Dove – bass; Lloyd Herrman – drums; Bill “Foots” Samuel – alto saxophone; Alvin “Red” Tyler – tenor saxophone; Joe “Champagne” Sunseri – bariton
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