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Vinyl Ventures: My Fifty Years at Rounder Records by Bill Nowlin

Donald Teplyske  |  May 1, 2021

Vinyl Ventures: My Fifty Years at Rounder Records by Bill Nowlin 2020

Imagine starting a record company in 2021with next to no business experience nor a background, beyond listening, in music. Oh, and launch that label with an album from an obscure North Carolinian banjo player. A daunting, even foolish proposition?

I'm not sure it was different in 197O when three just-out-of-college friends, leftovers from the first generation of hippies and counter-culture types, decided to launch Rounder Records, a label that became synonymous with traditional and contemporary roots music over the next half-century.

"Vinyl Ventures: My Fifty Years at Rounder Records" isn't likely to appeal to the masses. While he has an engaging, personable, and readable writing style, Bill Nowlin—one of those three original Rounder founders—tends to occasionally get bogged down in the minutiae of ledger sheets (which, for this reader, undoubtedly provide interesting and frequently head-shaking detail, especially from the earliest years) and corporate restructuring (in the later years) too frequently to appeal to more than the most devoted reader wanting to know the 'back story' of a favoured label, the one that Ron Thomason coined "the rounder, flatter, blacker record company."

Unrepentant folkie and writing over a number of years, Nowlin successfully communicates the wonder he felt as he discovered the folk scene of his college environs (including the cliquishness common to the setting), and his near-evangelical commitment to the music as he delved deeper into and became immersed in its traditions and history. The lessons learned in childhood that impacted his life view and the Rounder way of doing business are given suitable attention. He freely admits when he has no memory of specific events, relying on numerous interviews and documents from colleagues and those they encountered, as well as contemporaneous documentation.

For those of us who 'missed' much of the roots happenings of these formative years—for example, I only started to encounter Rounder releases in the mid-80s—there is a wealth of colourful stories shared, from the Lilly Brothers, George Thorogood (several pages documenting the way the Delaware vocalist and guitarist came to the attention of the label, their investment in his career including the 50 shows in 50 days tour, and their subsequent work to get him to wider attention on a major label), Red Allen, Irma Thomas, Alison Krauss, and others.

For the most part, Nowlin doesn't get into the darker side of the business or more intimate, personal aspects of the associated acts' lives, and the book doesn't suffer for lack of gossip. Intriguing are the tales of Caribbean and African recording adventures, journeys to Louisiana and the Appalachians in search of music to record, and experiences manning the record tables at a variety of dusty folk and bluegrass festers. Also interesting are some of the unique business deals the label made with others, whether one-offs with artists, or licensing arrangements with artists and labels. The off-handed asides—about dogs and ruined mail order slips, dissatisfied letter writers, file folders, unbalanced books, underwear drawers, Alan Lomax, and missed opportunities—some best missed, in hindsight—are often the most interesting bits within "Vinyl Ventures'" 300 pages.

One of the more appealing aspects that come through is that Nowlin recognizes his privilege at not only being part of American music history, but acknowledges that his life circumstance allowed him to so fully participate in it. Nowlin doesn't shy away from the mistakes the Three Rounders made over their forty years at the helm of the company. Insightfully, Nowlin recognizes that each of the Rounders—also Marian Leighton Levy and Ken Irwin, as well as others who came online, such as Flying Fish Records founder Bruce Kaplin, Mark Wilson, Scott Billington, and John Virant, the fourth Rounder—had different talents and interests; the magic of Rounder is that they found balance that allowed each to flourish while the label to expanded (to eventually include Flying Fish, Philo, and other imprints) and strengthened.

For this reader, Nowlin's story loses momentum in describing the early 90s and the consolidation of independent music retailers and distributors. While this sets the foundation for what Rounder would face and endure in future years, and I imagine there is a lot more that could have been shared, some of the details could have been further truncated. Still, despite this, select details are enlightening, such as what occurred with Tower Records, Rounder, Ryko, Eastside Digital during this timeframe. One may find themselves skimming a bit as the independence of the Rounders is given over to corporate purchases, restructuring, and the mini-bios of the emerging label honchos post 2010.

Naturally, I was most drawn to the stories of bluegrass, old-time, and associated music, and Nowlin doesn't disappoint. While I would have enjoyed more stories about Dry Branch Fire Squad, the Johnson Mountain Boys, and especially Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Buzz Busby, Ola Belle Reed and the like, Nowlin provides plenty of anecdotes and colour to fill in some of the gaps in my understanding. One of Nowlin's pet projects, "The Early Days of Bluegrass," was familiar to me from a couple vinyl records in my collection—great stuff those, highly recommended—but somehow I missed the nine volume box set released last year, so I have something to track down now. I especially appreciated Nowlin's rant about the 'dumbing-down' of music as we've moved from appreciating the tangible qualities of the vinyl, cassette, and even compact disc for the convenience of the download and stream: like church to these eyes.

Actually, that feeling of inspiration to investigate music followed me throughout my reading of "Vinyl Ventures." For all of the history shared, it is the stories, pictures, and sounds Nowlin's words evoke that are most significant. Whether inspiring a search for a digital version of Rounder 0031 (Buzz Busby and Leon Morris), encouraging the pull of a Thorogood or John McCutcheon compilation from the shelf, or giving an older Rory Block album another listen, Nowlin's enthusiasm for Rounder Records and what they built never falters, and provides the reader with endless streams of personal investigation and reflection.

As I type these final words, I am listening to one of Rounder's latest releases, a download of Bella White's lo-fi "Just Like Leaving," I believe the first Rounder release from an Alberta artist. And I think to myself, that kinda does it, right? Rounds the circle back home after taking me on a journey—over many years, and not just with "Vinyl Ventures: My Fifty Years at Rounder Records"—to innumerable places, people, and musical styles.

I've enjoyed reading this book over the last couple weeks, and I learned a lot—like I was wise to not follow through on my plan, written on the back of a Waskasoo Bluegrass postcard in 2003, to start a small record label and production company focused on Canadian bluegrass and folk music—and was engrossed almost the entire time while reading. I now Iook forward to Ken and Marian's takes on their Rounder story.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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