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A Book For The Record: The Past And Future Of Rounder

In early 1970, three young folk music fans in Massachusetts decided to launch a record company, but things got off to a rocky start. Their first recording session, with bluegrass artists Red Allen and Frank Wakefield, produced nothing of value because Allen was suffering from gout. Then they taped a live show by the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, but the tragic death of a band member’s son weighed the performance down, and the recording was deemed unworthy of release.

Undeterred, Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton kept moving forward. They secured rights to an existing recording by old-time banjo player George Pegram and released it in October of 1970. Then they facilitated a session at Harvard University by a curious, bygone band called the Spark Gap Wonder Boys and put that out as Rounder 0002. The scrappy beginning notwithstanding, in 1972 they released 19 albums, with 21 to follow the next year. And with that Rounder Records was truly born.

For countless fans, Rounder Records has been a staple of their roots music diet for a half a century. My own bluegrass journey started with a Rounder Records sampler CD in the 80s, and my shelves are full of the familiar Rounder CD spines. The list of vital artists who’ve spent part of their careers on Rounder is mind-boggling: Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck, John Hartford, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tony Rice, Blue Highway, and so many more from various string band and songwriting traditions. Even in recent years, Rounder helped many important names break out, including Della Mae, Michael Cleveland, and the SteelDrivers. They worked with regional and niche roots legends like Leon Redbone, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Bobby Rush, and Marcia Ball as well.

Author David Menconi

“Rounder was the place that everybody wanted to be. It really was top of the line,” says David Menconi, author of the new history Oh, Didn’t They Ramble - Rounder Records And The Transformation Of American Roots Music. Therein he writes, “Rounder left a profoundly important mark on the landscape of American music, because its founders had a larger vision also encompassing politics, culture, and lifestyle as well as music. Very much a product of its post-1960s era, Rounder had an anything-goes ethos that accommodated a wide range of styles from old legends and new upstarts.”

Menconi’s book, arriving at roughly the 50th anniversary of Rounder’s first year as a going concern, offers an occasion to reflect on the brand at a time when its future is in new hands. Since 2013, Rounder has been owned by Concord Music Group, a privately held label and publishing conglomerate that’s acquired numerous historic labels and is reported to generate about $600 million annually. About a year ago, major label veteran Mark Williams was named president of Rounder following the departure of John Strohm.

“Rounder has a very important legacy,” Williams told WMOT. “And throughout time for various reasons, the roster has expanded into other genres of music outside of that initial roots folk base that started it. But now, I think we're in a very rich moment in music, where there's a wealth of talent in what we would think of as more traditional roots. And I think that it's important for Rounder to continue that legacy and celebrate this music. Because that's where the talent is at now.” He cites the current roster - Sierra Ferrell, Bella White, Logan Ledger, Katie Pruitt, John R. Miller and others - as evidence of Rounder’s relevance and commitment to Americana in 2023. (Billy Strings, one of the hottest tickets in roots music, found his way to the mainstream in the past five years on Rounder, but has moved on to Reprise for his next projects.)

That said, Menconi observes that Rounder’s tempo and output today is a shadow of its heyday, when it routinely released about 100 titles per year, including the kinds of niche records and historic reissues that deep collectors crave. Today Rounder’s bosses speak of being more “intentional” about their releases - about ten per year - and their signings going forward. But there’s no doubt Rounder remains a marque of excellence in today’s roots music scene.

Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton at the sales table for Rounder Records at the Bluegrass Unlimited Bluegrass Festival, Indian Springs, Maryland, June 1973.
Carl Fleischhauer
Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton at the sales table for Rounder Records at the Bluegrass Unlimited Bluegrass Festival, Indian Springs, Maryland, June 1973.

Menconi, a Raleigh-based writer whose prior book was a wonderful history of North Carolina music we reviewed here, says his favorite part of the Rounder story is its “hardscrabble early years.” Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin met as assigned roommates at Tufts University. Irwin started a relationship with Marian Leighton, now Leighton-Levy. And the three forged ahead without any significant business experience or expertise and joined an independent market sector that was just being built through the early efforts of labels like Arhoolie, Yazoo and County Records.

“It was very much a product of the aftermath of the great folk revival,” Menconi said in an interview. “The three founders were in college in the 60s and vagabonding around the country, hitchhiking and hopping trains, going to folk festivals. And they just got immersed in this music. At a certain point they decided, you know, these old timers they see at festivals, and also new acts, should be recorded. And nobody else was doing it. So they started doing it themselves.”

After that halting start, they ramped up rather fast, launched a distribution arm that bolstered the business in many ways, and got on a pace of putting out, on average, an album a week for decades. The founders forged through their lack of business knowledge and built an idiosyncratic, familial company that was woven into the national roots music community. “You could start a record label and get by selling (records) at festivals and mail order and do 100 copies in stores,” Menconi says. “And that model works when you put out a ton of music, which they did for many years.” He counts between three and four thousand releases overall during the founders’ tenure.

The cover of the famous Rounder 0044.

Rounder got deep into bluegrass from the beginning, releasing titles by Don Stover, Snuffy Jenkins and a young Del McCoury. Then a breakout - Norman Blake’s1972 album Home In Sulphur Springs, a guitar and dobro recording that Menconi says “was the rare consensus-choice work that broke through the wall between folk music’s traditionalist and modernist factions.” It sold 35,000 copies in its first year, just the right sized success for the growing company. Soon came another album destined for greatness, the debut of J.D. Crowe and the New South, a historic gathering of talent that included Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas and the mighty banjo player J.D. Crowe. Self-titled, it became known to bluegrass fanatics by its catalog number, Rounder 0044, and there’s scarcely a picker on the circuit who doesn’t count it as an influence.

The big developments, as told in Oh Didn’t They Ramble, included the happy accident of signing electric bluesman George Thorogood to a deal before anybody knew who he was and riding his breakout to the label’s first Gold record and significant financial benefit. A bit later in the 1980s, Ken Irwin would spot and sign a 14-year-old Alison Krauss out of Illinois, and her career became Rounder’s greatest force. She would reach millions and win dozens of Grammy Awards - with her own band and with her famous duo projects with Robert Plant. The company diversified as well, launching various imprints - Heartbeat for reggae, Philo for singer-songwriters and Zoë for album oriented rock. And through it all, the integrity and insight of the Rounder brand abided under its original owners.

That stewardship was bound to change, if only due to time. Between 2010 and 2013, the founders put together the sale of the company to to Concord, a unique music company that spent recent years rolling up many important indie roots, jazz and rock labels. Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton-Levy stayed on in key advisory roles, the latter telling the Boston Globe that the move was “not an exit strategy. Concord acquired Rounder wanting it to continue what it is doing.”

Today’s Rounder leaders say they see Rounder as unquestionably a roots Americana label with an ethos in line with the label’s history. At the same time, said Gary Paczosa, the label’s highly respected head of A&R and the producer behind many of Rounder’s releases, the music business has changed too much to play by yesterday’s rules.

“Back then they could release so many records and sign so many artists, because they had an Alison Krauss who was selling a couple million records. And that really allowed them to sign all of these other passion projects,” he told me in our Zoom interview. “And we just can't do that. We have to be a lot more - careful is not the word. We just have to sign the right things that can be successful and we can help them grow.”

Alison Krauss's second Rounder Album, I've Got That Old Feeling, won the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album. She would become the label's most consequential artist.

Menconi quotes Paczosa in his book however defending what Menconi regards as a surprising and possibly symbolic decision in the recent past. Rounder - under its prior president - turned down Bela Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart album that was ultimately released in 2021 on Renew Records / BMG. Menconi concedes that a double album of complex instrumental music “doesn’t make economic sense” in the current marketplace. “But, come on, it's Béla Fleck for God's sake,” he said. “The old Rounder would have found a way. The new rounder was willing to let him go.”

My Bluegrass Heart won the 2022 Bluegrass Album Grammy Award, adding to Fleck’s lifetime collection of 19 trophies.

“The whole industry is different,” Menconi says. “Rounder used to be this feisty independent. And now they are subject to Wall Street pressures. They have revenue targets they've absolutely got to hit. It's a challenge in a streaming world with this kind of music.”

Mark Williams vigorously defends Rounder’s posture in today’s roots music marketplace, which he says is growing fast and facing more competition from major labels for signing songwriters and rootsy bands. “We understand the culture. We understand the music. And we understand what the artists are about and what they're trying to say,” the label chief said. “We also understand that this music doesn't necessarily happen overnight. It takes some time and patience, and some nurturing.”

Paczosa adds that “Concord has become a big label. But I think that we're still encouraged and allowed to act independently. They want us to continue to develop our identity and find the artists that fit.” He also said that Sugar Hill Records, another great independent roots label from the same era as Rounder that also sold to Concord, may “reemerge” in some form to “have its day.”

In one more interesting twist, the Rounder Founders (who’ve been enshrined in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and received an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award) announced in October they’re getting back in the game with Down The Road Records, a new label that’s already announced upcoming releases with former Rounder stars Blue Highway and banjo pioneer Tony Trischka.

“Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton-Levy, and Bill Nowlin have put the band back together, 53 years after they created what became one of the most successful American independent record labels from their Boston apartment in 1970,” said a press release about the venture. Joining them is John Virant, who took over as Rounder’s first non-founder president in 1997. To make the team even more nostalgic, Down The Road’s partner/distributor in the new venture is Exceleration Music, a company helmed by a veteran CEO of Concord and two former employees of Rounder.

Back at today's Rounder, Mark Williams and Gary Paczosa both said they wish them well.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org