Sound Check

In 1971, as they transported boxes of their very first release -- by a crusty North Carolina banjo picker named George Pegram -- to the basement of their ramshackle house in Somerville, Massachusetts, it's not likely that the three founders of Rounder Records were imagining the future: an independent record empire that, a quarter of a century later, would swallow a whole city block and boast walls decorated with Grammys. All they wanted to do was get a little recognition for the kind of music that nobody else was bothering to release.

Before world beat was even a seed, Rounder was issuing kora music from Gambia, the sweet guitar sounds of Nigeria's Prince Nico Mbarga, knockdown calypsos by Growling Tiger from Trinidad. Before bluegrass found a mainstream audience, Rounder was shipping Vassar Clements and J.D. Crowe releases to whatever stores would stock them. They reissued scratchy 78s of Hawaiian guitar hotshot Sol Hoopii and string band outlaw Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. Obscure Cajun bands, unknown folkies, convict work songs, country blues -- it all became part of the Rounder catalog.

The formula was simple: for old music, search out the hidden archives of unknown recordings of people who should have been acknowledged as greats. For new music, pay the artists a decent royalty, give them artistic control in the studio (both atypical when Rounder began) and be happy with low sales and small profit margins. Nashville guitarist Norman Blake's releases, for instance, were considered blockbusters when they cracked the 25,000 sales mark. When George Thorogood scored a national hit with his Rounder debut, the company was still so small that Warner Bros. offered to buy the entire label just to get Thorogood. Rounder declined. If they sold out, who would issue those Holy Modal Rounders or Sleepy LaBeef efforts?

Today, the scale has changed, but the focus hasn't. What was once a single label has branched into a web of 26. Alison Krauss goes platinum and Brave Combo nets a Grammy. At the same time, out come reissue CDs of Italian string virtuosi and light Indian classical music, while a new children's CD from Tish Hinojosa hits the bins. Rounder will still record offbeat artists the label knows will never make a dime, and reissue ancient material with no more than a sliver of an audience, just to get the music out. That label-beginning George Pegram record? It's now on CD.

Another example unlikely to generate much of a stampede is The Art of the Cymbalom: The Music of Joseph Moskowitz, 1916-1953. A Romanian Jew who migrated to New York in the early 1900s, Moskowitz toured the world as the premier advocate of the cymbalom, a descendant of the piano and a cousin to the American hammered dulcimer. Even though modern instrumentalists have made astounding feats of dexterity almost routine, it's still hard to imagine how Moskowitz managed to select so many individual notes at warp speeds without blowing it, let alone making a single mistake. But he did. An engaging repertoire of Romanian, Hungarian and Turkish gypsy dance tunes means an exotic hour imagining a blur of hands, and some whirling feet. (****)

On another eddy far from the mainstream, Rounder has assembled a landmark pair of concept discs, The American Fogies, Vols. 1 and 2. With one track each from 50 different bands and individuals, the series charts the breadth of the American experience. If that sounds a little ambitious, it is -- and it works. The first disc charts the themes of immigration and struggle: Native American music, a Tejano accordion song, a Jewish Klezmer melody, a Texas-Polish polka. Of the artists, only mandolinist Andy Statman has a high profile (and his contribution is typically brilliant and unfathomable), but all have something important to say, and a capsule bio on each makes the message a little clearer. Vol. 2 sticks with the ethnic currents but branches into a more settled, assimilated country with blues guitars and cowboy fiddles. To call these musicians fogies misleads, though. The all-women Heartbeats or edgy, urban Hix are about as far ahead of the times as Virginia's wily, blues-toting Foddrell Brothers are behind. And the music is all brand-new and fresh. Just because the air isn't polluted doesn't mean the music's archaic. (****, Vol 1; *****, Vol. 2)

Like a number of independents, Rounder discovered reggae before the majors did and threw a few discs into the flow. Unlike most independents, Rounder has stuck with the music even after the reggae fad has waned. The company's Heartbeat subsidiary has compiled a catalog of contemporary and reissued works unrivaled on the mainland. The newest is The Toughest, a collection of Peter Tosh's earliest sessions for the legendary Studio One and Upsetters labels. Though lacking the crisp production of his later efforts, the sides show Tosh was as militant and uncompromising in his youth as he was in later life. Backed by fellow Wailers Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer as well as the Skatalites and Lee Perry's Upsetters, Tosh presses the outer boundaries of ska with protean roots reggae guitar and his unerringly rootsy voice. Included is the rare first edition of "Downpresser," which he turned into a personal anthem, as well as its gospel antecedent, "Sinner Man." (***)

Equally impressive as Heartbeat's musical archive is Rounder's New Orleans masters series. In addition to reinvigorating the careers of such premier crooners and shouters as Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas and Charles Brown with their best studio work in decades, Rounder has reissued vintage 1950s and '60s sides from the vaults of the Crescent City's many regional record labels. The latest, Collector's Choice, begins with ten rare Professor Longhair tracks recorded for the Ric, Ron and Rip labels. Somewhat uneven, the songs fill a hole in the Longhair saga between his wild early years and later rediscovery, drifting from slurry solo ballads to crazy Carnival stomps to straight-up blues backed by a crashing horn section. The remainder of the collection has fine selections by R&B staples Thomas, Eddie Bo and Tommy Ridgley and a few odd marvels, including Joe Jones' pointy "You Talk Too Much" and Martha Carter's counterpointy "I Don't Talk Too Much." (***)

Singer/songwriters, especially women, have always had a place in the Rounder stable. Patty Larkin, Christine Lavin, Iris DeMent, Nanci Griffith, Cheryl Wheeler, Rory Block: the list of those who started on Rounder's Philo subsidiary competes with that of any record company. The latest to break out is Canadian Lynn Miles, whose Slightly Haunted is already making a radio splash. Though comparisons with others can be cheap, not mentioning Shawn Colvin in the same breath as Miles would be remiss. Her voice has the same aerial quality, and her acousto-electric arrangements carry the same soft but insistent rhythms. Miles' record is somewhat less cluttered than Colvin's work, but like Colvin, her lyrics smell of cold winters and icy crescent moons, places where love and love lost hold sway. The similarities are almost eerie. (PPPP)

Famed flat-picker Tony Rice, who has spent most of his career with Rounder, doesn't write many of his own songs, but he knows a good tune when he hears one. Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot compiles from Rice's many earlier efforts his interpretations of the Canadian singer/songwriter. With only one previously unreleased track, the disc may be too much of an overlap for some Rice fans, but to have all his Lightfoot songs in one place seems to me worth the investment. Lightfoot never had the likes of Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, J.D. Crowe or Norman Blake backing him up; more than that, Rice has a special affinity for Lightfoot's music, and his talents as both player and singer help him transcend the originals, or at least gives their brains a butch new body. In Rice's hands, "Early Morning Rain," "Bitter Green" and "Home from the Forest" become almost life changing. (****)

Rice is just one of the Rounder finds who have moved into the limelight, yielding hefty sales that help subsidize the traditional recordings that ultimately set the label apart. The latest example of such a recording is Esta Pasion by Austin conjunto band Los Pinkys. Rare for a group with such a deep feel for conjunto, the Pinkys sport an Anglo frontman from Saginaw, Michigan. Bradley Jaye Williams was raised on Polish polka music, and his passion for Tex-Mex music brought him to Austin, where he teamed with a group of autenticos headed by accordionist Isidro Samilpa. An outstanding technician with the special, plaintive voice needed to translate conjunto's themes of abject misery and undying love, Samilpa revives the ghost of Austin past in every note, when conjunto ruled the streets and jazz and blues were just an afterthought. (****)

While Rounder's attention to forgotten forms may lack commercial rewards, the satisfaction of preserving and promoting such music seems to be reward enough. This may be especially true of old-time string-band music, born in Appalachia but dying of neglect for several decades. A vibrant music that uses bluegrass instrumentation but has a completely different, freewheeling mindset, old-time embodies the back-porch notion that real music belongs to the people and can't be bought, sold or taken away. Old-Time Music on the Air, Volume Two continues Rounder's commitment to old-time music and its purveyors, young and old. The urbanized bands that have adopted old-time, even electrified it with startling results, are in short supply here, but the mix of solo folk from the mountains and hipper bands with names such as the Boiled Buzzards and the Rhythm Rats maintains a lively pace. If you like to just plain feel good, start here. (*****)

Also on the old-time front, multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell's first solo job, If I Go Ten Thousand Miles, finally showcases one of the music's most gifted and intense proponents. Powell, who has toiled for a passel of revivalist bands, mostly fiddles his way through a tight set of traditional tunes and songs, backed by wife Christine Balfa (of the exalted Cajun music family), bluegrasser Tim O'Brien and other pickers of quality. His style links the hyper-traditional mountaineers with the urban old-time punks, and has all the vigor of both. (****)

Moving farther West, Rounder again proved prescient by hitching its horse to the cowboy wagon before it became a train. For a quick overdose, a just-out four-disc Singing in the Saddle series covers the A to Z of cowboy music from the early years to the modern revival. (PPPP) More to the heart of the matter, however, is Rosie Flores' A Honky Tonk Reprise. A reissue of the San Antonio cowgirl's forgotten 1987 Warner Bros. debut, the disc adds six bonus tracks recorded for a follow-up but never released, and they have a lot more twang and gut than her more recent rockabilly flavored songs. Flores plays new old-fashioned country music at its best. (****) -- Bob Burtman

***** Timeless
**** Timely
*** Worth some time
** Time worn
* Time's passed


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