Vinyl Ventures: My Fifty Years at Rounder Records
by Bill Nowlin
Equinox Publishing (April 21, 2021)
ISBN-10 : 1800500068
ISBN-13 : 978-1800500068
Review by Richelle Putnam
In Vinyl Ventures: My Fifty Years at Rounder Records by Bill Nowlin, the author pours his history/memoir foundation by recalling how “…record retail was expanding in the 1960s, as the ‘baby boom’ generation entered its teenage years.”
Nowlin’s history/memoir immediately fills his readers in on the musical environment and the record labels within that environment. He reminds his readers who paved the early musical roads, including Elvis, Chuck Berry, the folk revival of the early ’60s with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and the British mid-’60s invasion of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. However, the main story begins in 1970, when Nowlin, Marian Leighton Levy, and Ken Irwin founded Rounder Records. The company’s first two records were 0001 and 0002 …respectively.
Nowlin gives readers a personal Rounder Records tour, from its 1971 incorporation to the COVID-19 years and the company’s 50-year celebration in October 2020, a rare feat in marriage and business.
“We were relentless in our determination to save money any way we could. Around the time we started, underground newspapers were printing lists of phone company credit cards from major institutions. You’d just select one from a corporation involved in waging war on Vietnam, give the operator a card number, and your call was placed as long as the number was still valid. …The new method would be when Ken would call person-to-person, and the operator would ask for Buzz Busby or somebody, and I would say he’s not here, and I’d hear Ken blurt out, ‘The records will be shipped in the morning” as we hung up.” (Nowlin, p.32)
The Rounder Records’ team occupies the 1970s, building the company through radio, recordings, mail orders, and the Library of Congress. However, its construction during perilous protest times is bold and downright risky.
Mountain Moving Day (Rounder 4001) tackles the Women’s Liberation Movement. Come All You Coal Miners (featuring Hazel Dickens, Sarah Gunning, Jim Garland, George Tucker, and Nimrod Workman) brings to light the toils of the everyday coal miner in a dark, heartless workplace. The importance of Mountain Moving Day and its theme resurfaces in 2005 when Rounder re-releases the record under Papa, Don’t Lay that Shit On Me and in the 2006 release Harlan County U.S.A.: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle. Undoubtedly, Rounder Records became the rebel record label aiding the rebels and their causes, and the masses loved it.
But more than a rebel, Rounder Records was a legend jumpstart for artists like Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Alison Krauss, and bands like J. D. Crowe and the New South, and George Thorogood and Destroyers, who was—shall we say—Bad to the Bone. Nowlin shares these stories like an ecstatic father bragging on his many talented children.
It’s no easy task leaving the 1970s with Rounder Records, especially without mentioning Rounder’s 1979 unionization story. Readers will enjoy discovering the ’80s with Thorogood and his Destroyers doing 50 states in 50 dates and welcoming Alison Krauss to the label, and the ’90s, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Rounder Records.
The road from the 1960s until 2020 and the stories along the Rounder Records route will be no arduous trek because Nowlin assuages nothing in what he fearlessly and candidly writes. Perhaps, Alison Krauss explains her record label best in this excerpt of her interview with music historian Barry Mazor: “Rounder is about tending to the whole career of a musician. …they have that love for music and for traditional music for what it is. …” (Nowlin, p. 279)
Nowlin makes it clear that from its meager beginning, Rounder Records had a mission, and from that mission, the founders never faltered. More than profit from the music was the preservation of the music. That’s a legacy few attain because few businesses think and plan beyond profit.
On April 14, 2010, the press release headlines read: CONCORD MUSIC GROUP ACQUIRES CELEBRATED AMERICAN ROOTS LABEL ROUNDER RECORDS. From there, Nowlin takes readers through more changes, including new leadership, the company’s move to Nashville, and the celebration (or non-celebration due to the COVID-19 pandemic) of Rounder’s 50th anniversary.
So often, big conglomerates obliterate the organic, homegrown attraction and ideals of the smaller entities they take over. That’s not so with Rounder, and Nowlin analyzes that much better than this reviewer: “…Rounder Records—the little folk label from Cambridge—seemed to remain very much respected by the powers-that-be at Concord. Whatever else we did, we seem to have built a legacy out of love for the music, one that endured and spoke to something in the hearts of people in the business.” (Nowlin, p. 272)
When you choose Vinyl Ventures: My Fifty Years at Rounder Records by Bill Nowlin, you will learn much about the music industry and the people who make it or break it. You’ll also grow as a person, realizing that music is more than unassuming enjoyment and entertainment. It’s the complexity and analysis of societies, the language of diversity, and the history and heritage of cultures around the globe.
Having entered teen years in 1966, this reviewer remembers ripping the cellophane off the latest purchase, sliding the record from its cover carefully, and making sure fingerprints didn’t smudge the shiny, black vinyl. The record spun on a turntable until scratches and smudges from age became one with the rhythmic beat.
Nowlin’s money-saving story conjured memories from my teen years. After visiting my dad, who lived 100 miles away, I’d make a person-to-person call to his number and ask to speak to our designated code-name to let Dad know I had arrived safely home. When he said, “He’s not here,” we hung up the phone, him knowing I’d made it home safely and us both having accomplished the mission.
The 21st Century Craze of Vinyl Records:
Over 500,000 copies Adele’s newest album are being pressed on vinyl. Taylor Swift is re-releasing her album “Red” on vinyl and other top-selling artists like Ed Sheeran and Coldplay are going vinyl as well. Because vinyl factories can’t meet the demand, there is a massive delay in vinyl releases. In 2020, for the first time since 1986, vinyl record sales topped CD sales, and in the first six months of 2021, vinyl record sales were 108 percent higher than the same period in 2020. Plus, large department stores like Target, Walmart, Amazon, and others are cashing in on vinyl sales. Why? In a CNBC interview, Billy Fields, the resident vinyl expert at Warner Music Group, says, “Vinyl is eternally cool.”
Here are a few “vinyl” gifts (some autographed) from the reviewer’s friends and family. You can’t do this with streaming. And you certainly can’t decorate the walls with plastic CD covers. Well, you can—but it won’t be near as cool.