Monday, October 16, 2023

David Menconi's "Oh, Didn't They Ramble"

The 2019 North Carolina Piedmont Laureate, David Menconi was a staff writer at the Raleigh News & Observer for 28 years. He has also written for Rolling Stone, Billboard, Spin, and the New York Times.

Menconi applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Oh, Didn't They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music, and reported the following:
From page 99:
“I looked at those records and said, ‘Oh yeah, I know reggae,’” Wilson recounted in 2021. “‘Hey, you should put out Studio One, too.’”

In the can-do Rounder circle, making such a suggestion was tantamount to volunteering to do it, and liable to lead to the founders deputizing you to make it so. That’s pretty much how it played out, too.
This scene captured on page 99 of Oh, Didn’t They Ramble happened in 1982, which was a key transitional time for Rounder Records. Blues-rock guitarist George Thorogood’s surprising late-1970s commercial breakthrough had fattened the label’s coffers, which actually led to some tension when the label’s employees unionized. But the upside of all that money coming in was that it gave Rounder the means to expand beyond the old-time folk and bluegrass that had been its initial trademark – to various flavors of world music, including reggae. That perfectly fit the Rounder founders’ overriding ethos, putting out “stuff we like,” which was how Thorogood wound up recording there in the first place. So Rounder started up a subsidiary imprint specializing in reggae, Heartbeat Records.

The other thing it evokes is the hands-on nature of Rounder Records, an attitude that started at the top. The speaker quoted, Chris Wilson, had been an informal part of Rounder’s circle for years, often drafted into helping out. He soon found himself hired to run Heartbeat under the title Vice President of A&R – or as he put it, “Doer Of Everything,” mostly because almost no one else on Rounder’s staff knew enough about reggae to promote it effectively.

During the 25 years Wilson would run Heartbeat, he oversaw more than 300 albums, starting with the reissue series he suggested. Studio One was essentially Jamaica’s equivalent to Motown Records, putting out major works by everybody from Bob Marley on down. Heartbeat’s Studio One series would run to more than 60 volumes, including multiple reggae Christmas albums.

A few years after Heartbeat started up, Rounder signed a teenage fiddler from Illinois named Alison Krauss, who was winning Grammy Awards and selling multi-platinum by the mid-1990s. And Rounder invested the money in putting out obscure-yet-worthy fare like more Heartbeat Records releases.
Visit the author’s blog.

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--Marshal Zeringue