Rounder Records at 40

Rounder Records has brought out a lot of great music that might otherwise never have seen the light of day. Among my favorite recordings on Rounder, and my favorite recordings period, are Solomon Burke’s “Soul Alive!,” Johnny Adams’s “Johnny Adams Sings Doc Pomus.” Tony Rice’s “Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot,” Cheryl Wheeler’s “Sylvia Hotel,” and Marcia Ball/Irma Thomas/Tracy Nelson’s “Sing It!”

Rounder was founded as a labor of love in 1970 by three friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In his terrific Wall Street Journal column on Rounder’s fortieth anniversary celebration, Barry Mazor describes the three as “roots-music aficionados who started up the company with no industry experience whatsoever. The ’60s folk-music revival was waning, and the whole range of music that Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy and Bill Nowlin loved was becoming frustratingly hard to find.” They found a way to unite their passion with their vocation.

I would guess that the typical Rounder recording sells between 5,000 and 10,000 copies. In 1995 someone at Rounder had the brilliant idea of releasing a compilation of highlights from recordings of the fabulous Alison Krauss on the label together with a few previously unreleased gems. The compilation went double platinum and turned Krauss into a superstar.

Krauss has been with Rounder since she was signed as a bluegrass fiddle champion at the age of 14. She has come into her own as a great vocalist backed by the incomparable Union Station with dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas. Mazor called Krauss to get her testimonial:

“Rounder is about tending to the whole career of a musician. I was a kid when I started there; I thought I was going to be a choir director. They seem to enjoy the process of someone’s whole musical adventure, good and bad. For me, that’s meant not just the ability to record, but being left alone, musically, to play with the band and become who I was going to become. Everybody in the music business wants a successful record, and so do the people at Rounder, but they have that love for music, and for traditional music, for what it is. I love that, and I love being on the same label as a hog-calling album. That’s my speed!”

In the video below, Alison picks up her violin to join in with the band performing Jerry Douglas’s instrumental composition “We Hide & Seek.” It’s a number that brings down the house performed live, as John Hinderaker and I saw it along with our wives at St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul a few years back. It gives new meaning to the idea of “heavy metal.”


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