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An Overachieving Indie Label Celebrates 25 Years Of Signature Roots Releases

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Quick, without looking it up, what record label discovered and introduced to the world roots/Americana stars Josh Ritter, Lori McKenna, Crooked Still and Lake Street Dive? With a track record like this and then some, Signature Sounds of Northampton, MA ought to be on the tip of every music fan’s tongue. But I suspect that many in the tribe need to be formally introduced, and a new 25th anniversary anthology makes the perfect calling card.

Over two CDs, amply annotated with history and artist capsules, the new Golden Age set presents a wide-ranging listening experience spanning classic northeastern singer-songwriters, innovative string bands and idiosyncratic indie-popsters. These 37 artists are unified not by genre but by their crafty riffs on genre, their heady mingling of genre and their pure expressions of genre, depending on the artist involved. The oldest track is an acoustic guitar instrumental from Jim Henry and Brooks Williams back in 1997, and the most recent come from 2020: Taylor Ashton’s sprightly The Romantic and Twisted Pine’s wonderfully weird newgrass jazz project Right Now. The journey documented in between indicates adventuresome ears, discerning taste and commitment to ethical indie music community and commerce.

In a way, Signature Sounds was born from an anthology. Radio program director Jim Olsen worked with one of his hosts to create several compilations of local artists as community fund-raisers. That put him in touch with recording studio owner Mark Thayer operating under the Signature Sounds name. As their interest in promoting the music scene cohered, they partnered in the label, which began as a fairly casual endeavor out of Olsen’s home, picking up pace and focus about three to four years in. Its first big seller was 2000’s debut album from funky folkie Erin McKeown, and thus began an adventure of talent discovery like few others. Olsen acknowledges that the label’s been built around his interests and passions, but that the artists themselves have been critical talent scouts.

“What's really kind of amazing is how artists that we have were already working with turned out to be our best A&R people,” he told WMOT. “They would go out and tour the country and come back and Eilen Jewell would say you have to hear this woman Zoe Muth from Seattle. And the reason we have Eilen Jewell is because Peter Mulvey did a workshop with her and said you got to check out Eilen Jewell. So, it's almost like this continuum in a lot of ways, artists leading us to other artists.” 

From a base two hours west of Boston, Signature Sounds drew from and contributed to the musically rich city nearby and the vibrant, arts-forward town they inhabited. Before long, they were in the promotion side of the business as well, caretaking the Green River Festival in Greenfield, MA, while promoting shows at their headquarters and venue, The Parlor Room. 25 years in, the label’s commitment to talent discovery and development is undimmed. “New artists have been a focus of this label, maybe to a fault,” Olsen said. “For me, it was less interesting to be somebody's third, fourth, fifth label, when they've been around. It's much more interesting to work with young artists who are developing, who you feel like you can help build a career for.”

Here are some of the artists documented on the collection that speak to the pluck and vision of Signature Sounds on its golden anniversary.

Lori McKenna was a mom who grew into songwriting at open mics in Boston, and not only did Signature Sounds give her a platform for her music, those albums became a calling card in Nashville, where label-mate Mary Gauthier championed her work. After cuts and public applause from Faith Hill, McKenna is one of the most revered voices in Americana and a hit-maker on country radio too.

Chris Smither is one of the rare veterans taken into the Signature Sounds fold, and the relationship has been fruitful from 2005 until today. He’s one of Americana’s finest blues-based songwriters with a steely charm on stage and fingers that make an acoustic guitar dance. 

Crooked Still carved a space in modern string band music as distinct and timely and impactful as David Grisman or Bela Fleck. Influenced by the Berklee College of Music’s American roots program, the Still took bluegrass instruments, plus cello, into a refined place without losing the music’s guts. Gloriously pure lead singer Aoife O’Donovan also appears in the Signature Sounds collection with her folk collaboration Sometymes Why. Fiddler Brittany Haas is now the toast of Nashville, a founder of Hawktail and an AMA Award winning instrumentalist. 

Lake Street Dive formed out of relationships made at the New England Conservatory of Music and enjoyed a special bond with supportive Jim Olsen. With a truly oblique take on country, blues and jazz that paired upright bass with trumpet and a top-flight drummer, the quartet’s killer feature was and is the supple, classic voice of Rachel Price (a Hendersonville, TN native). Bass player Bridget Kearney has been a prolific Signature Sounds artist, as a featured songwriter and as part of the hot country swinging The Sweetback Sisters

Joy Kills Sorrow was another key player in the new string band sound pioneered in Boston that I like to call pulse-grass for its four-on-the-floor bass propulsion. The track here, “Was It You?” opened their 2013 final recording Wide Awake with the sonorous Celtic-tinged voice of Emma Beaton. JKS also launched the career of brilliant banjo player Wes Corbett.

The Mammals - an oft overlooked band from the Hudson Valley - sound like a traditional folk group that did residencies in 1980s Athens, GA, and 1990s Chapel Hill NC. They can coo, shuffle or rock, and the track here “Follow Me To Carthage” tells that story well, with echoes of The Byrds and Big Star coloring a virtuoso song-focused heart.

Eilen Jewell is one of the outstanding and stalwart torch carriers for indie alt-country even while some of her peers revved up and remixed their sound. Bluesy and catchy in equal measure, she’s made seven albums for Signature Sound. The track here is from the fan and critic-favorite Sea of Tears from 2009, hinting at the riches to be mined in her deep and moving catalog.

Josh Ritter came out of the box strong with his label debut Golden Age Of Radio in 2002, featured here for its successful single “Me & Jiggs.” His audience and repute has only grown, while Ritter’s built on the bones of his troubadour origins to become an artist who’s always got something fresh and fascinating to say, layered into inventive roots arrangements.

Besides the collection, Signature Sounds is celebrating its 25th anniversary with an ongoing series of Parlor Room Home Sessions, which you can find HERE.