"It's always a delight to see our Sphincter product move," says Jeff "Little Jewford" Shelby. But with a name like Sphincter Records, co-partners Kinky Friedman and Shelby must have a hard time convincing people that their Houston-based independent record label is for real. It can't help that they take every opportunity to joke about the name; their motto is "Sphincter Records Leaving Our Competitors Behind."
While Sphincter has been around since only 2000, its roots go back to the early '70s and the band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. Mixing humor with a social conscience, the band was the first all-kosher group to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Friedman has gone on to write 15 novels and is now a columnist for Texas Monthly.
Fast-forward to 1999, when Friedman and Shelby, the "last surviving member" of the Texas Jewboys, reunited for a European tour. They started the label soon after, putting out a recording of the tour called "Classic Snatches from Europe," which included such tunes as "Asshole from El Paso" and "Willie Nelson's Latent Homosexual Silver Concho Belt."
Sphincter Records has since released albums by other artists, including Billy Joe Shaver and Washington Ratso. The company's "Emission Statement" emphasizes that the label specializes in "one of a kind recordings" and accepts submissions that are "awe-inspiring a bit wistful, yet upbeat and filled with panache."
Most of the label's artists play in Houston at least once a year. When Friedman and Shelby take the stage, he says, people "can literally feel the electricity -- maybe that's because there's no ground on the microphone."
Shelby, who plays the accordion, the piano, the clavietta and the kazoo, also has produced his own variety album, boasting the world's only singing, dancing, kazoo-playing cowboy puppet. The album's title, Live from Uranus, echoes the label's theme. To Shelby's credit, it was actually recorded in Uranus, Texas.
"I'm incredibly proud of the CDs we've released so far, and I plan on eventually taking our place as a label that is recognized around the world for recordings that are eclectic and unique," says Shelby. And there are advantages to running Sphincter Records: "I've always dreamed of being a mogul and I can wear a cape to work if I want to."
Friedman and Shelby met at a Hill Country summer camp at the tender age of seven, but Houston has always been Shelby's stomping ground. After the demise of the Texas Jewboys, he played in smoky piano bars around town. Of course, it's difficult to know whether he's giving our fair city a compliment when he says, "I feel the Bayou City represents the true essence of the Sphincter sound."
Next on Shelby's agenda: Making sure Sphincter Records is the first label to release the world's definitive album of kazoo music. When asked why the label produces this kind of novelty music, Shelby responds, "I've been asked that often, [usually] from a screaming, angry mob: 'WHY DO YOU PRODUCE THE MUSIC YOU DO?!' And I always answer: Because no one else will."