When Rounder Records artist Charles Whitstein described Rounder as “37 wonderful years of music,” he spoke for all fans of the music that one of the largest independent labels has given to the world. As the label celebrates its 37th anniversary, co-founder Bill Nowlin took time to reflect on Rounder’s great history and rosy future.
“When we began,” Nowlin said, “we were pretty carefree as we built the company from the ground up. We each worked at other jobs from time to time in the very earliest days, and we all pooled whatever we could bring in. There was a lot of hard word involved, but it was also an adventure.”
The “adventure” began in college. Bill Nowlin, a political science major, roomed with Ken Irwin, a psychology major, at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Sharing a love for music as well as a room, the two began to discuss a record label after Irwin met Ken and Sherry Davidson after a fiddler’s convention. The Davidsons had started their own label to record old-time fiddlers, and when Irwin returned to his dorm room he discussed a similar proposition with Nowlin. A friend of Irwin’s, Marian Leighton, shared their vision for a label for roots music.
The concept needed a name, although Nowlin admits, “None of the three of us – Ken, Marian, and myself – remember exactly how the name came up. As people often do, we were talking through dozens of possible names and none of them felt right until we somehow came up with ‘Rounder.’ We liked the fact that it could be taken on more than one level and had several different meanings: a late 19th century/early 20th century term for a drifter or a hobo was a ‘rounder.’ And, records were round, so it sounded as though we were saying ours were even rounder. There’s an old game in England, which is arguably the predecessor of baseball, called ‘rounders.’ And, the term can apply to anyone who regularly makes the rounds, like an itinerant preacher or salesperson. It rolled off the tongue pretty well, too.”
Rounder Records was “born” on October 20, 1970, the date of the invoice for their first two albums, George Pegram and Cluck Old Hen by the Spark Gap Wonder Boys (the Pegram album is officially listed as Rounder 0001). “The first records we sold were five copies of each,” Nowlin said, “sold on consignment to Discount Records, a retail store in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
The initial releases also began Rounder's reputation as a bluegrass label, a reputation that continues to this day. Indeed, with artists such as J.D. Crowe and the New South, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, two-time reigning International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Entertainer of the Year award winners the Grascals, and reigning queen of bluegrass Alison Krauss all on the label, the connection to bluegrass is undeniable. Rounder is also a staunch supporter of the annual IBMA convention, sponsoring booths and showcases.
However, They Might Be Giants, a college rock favorite band, is also signed to Rounder, as is the currently most recognizable name in polka, Jimmy Sturr. “We’ve really enjoyed working with perennial winner Jimmy Sturr,” Nowlin said of the 16-time Grammy winner. “We’ve also been pleased to present some classic artists or groups – in the Cajun and zydeco fields, in New Orleans music generally, George Thorogood and the Destroyers in roots rock and blues music, and our ongoing Studio One series of vintage reggae and Jamaican music.”
Rounder has come a long way since those ten albums were delivered to the little record store in Harvard Square. The label now has a publishing company, Rounder Books. “From the beginning, we always thought about doing books as well as records,” Nowlin says, “but never got around to doing it until 2004. It’s been much more difficult to have success selling books than with our more proven area of expertise in marketing recorded music. We hope to be more active with books touching on music. That’s taken longer to develop, a little frustrating,” he admitted, “but that’s the way it’s been.”
Modern technology and music-buying habits have dramatically altered the record industry. As with all labels, Rounder has had to adjust. “With the changes in the business,” Nowlin stated, “ranging from the consolidation of record retailing in bigger and bigger chain stores to the advent of online piracy and file-swapping, there have been any number of challenges, and we’ve seen a large number of indie labels and record stores go out of business. To be able to remain independent in a world where everything seems to get gobbled up by multinational corporations is an accomplishment in its own right.
“In many ways,” Nowlin admitted, “it gets harder every year just to keep up. It’s challenging, and there’s an excitement in that, because we’ve obviously been able to meet most of the challenges and continue to do well. But, it’s not the easy, freewheeling business we started in. It’s like the rules keep changing, and it’s a constant scramble to keep up or keep ahead.”
Two things have been consistent throughout Rounder’s history. First is a sense of loyalty from the artists. Alison Krauss, once she became an established superstar, was wooed by a number of major labels. She turned them all down to remain on Rounder, where she has complete artistic control over her music. Charles Whitstein of the Whitstein Brothers, who received a 1990 Grammy nomination for their Rounder album Old Time Duets, said they never considered another label. “Rounder made a dream come true for two Louisiana boys,” Whitstein said, “who thought their style of music would no longer be heard.”
The second constant in Rounder is the ownership. “The same three music lovers who started Rounder remain the same three who own it today,” Nowlin said with justifiable pride, “and we’ve literally grown up at the same time as many of the artists we’ve been pleased to work with. There aren’t many entertainment enterprises that still have the same founders still active nearly 40 years later, and I’m sure that adds to a sense of continuity. We’re not an ever-changing cast of executives, and I also think it’s true that we’re also still doing this for the same reasons we began – a love of music. We’ve managed to just live out our lives doing something we passionately believe in and haven’t become more distant, ‘corporate’ types in the process.”
Rounder’s continued success relies on seeking out quality new music, as no label can rest on past accomplishments. “We’re still able to keep doing what we’ve always done,” Nowlin said, “seek out good music that inspires us and help make it available to people around the world. We’ve produced over 3,000 albums of music, many of which might never have been recorded otherwise.”
The ears of the owners apparently are keenly tuned to quality, given the awards that Rounder artists have on their mantles. Alison Krauss is the most awarded female in Grammy history, with 20 Grammys as of 2007 and two IBMA “Entertainer of the Year” trophies. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver currently have a seven-year streak as IBMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year,” while Rhonda Vincent had a seven-year streak as “Female Vocalist of the Year” end this year. The list of victories for Rounder artists is, Nowlin notes, “a tribute to the many talented people with whom we’ve been able to work.”
That long list of talent has increased by one very famous name: Robert Plant. The former Led Zeppelin front man and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee teamed up with Alison Krauss for Raising Sand, a superb project produced by T-Bone Burnett that ushers in Rounder’s 38th year. “The advance reviews have been everything we could have hoped for,” Nowlin raves. “Everyone seems to ‘get it,’ and that’s truly gratifying to us, and I am sure as well to T-Bone and to Robert and Alison.” Fans of both artists will undoubtedly be surprised, yet delighted, by the project, which has been in Plant’s mind since he worked with Krauss at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of Leadbelly in 2004.
“We’ve always loved being able to do three different things,” Nowlin said when discussing the Krauss/Plant project, “record and feature true traditional music, present passionate and heartfelt music in a given genre – like bluegrass – and to experiment sometime with mixing different kinds of music together. This record is incredibly successful in the latter two cases, while born out of deep respect for the traditions it draws upon.”
That deep respect continues to shine in the music that Rounder Records presents to the world.