Rounder's Fellow Rebels
Photo by Webb Chappell
Thirty-five years ago they went looking for the soul of American
Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin found that and more as they built
Call it what you will—chance
or destiny—Ken Irwin, A66, and Bill Nowlin, A66, were
matched as freshman
roommates in 1962. At first they shared the usual college
student rituals, like seeing how many phone books they could
pack into a phone booth. But during forays into Boston and
Cambridge they found they shared a deep appreciation of folk
music; while not musicians themselves, they became astute
the emerging “folkie” scene.
In 1970, with their
Marian Leighton, they founded Rounder Records out of a Somerville
apartment. From the start, Rounder was a labor of love. Influenced
by the counterculture philosophy, they set out to record
music not for money, but to preserve a vanishing American
music, songs and tunes colored by heritage and tradition,
free of commercialism and fleeting fads, songs you might
hear on a back porch in a Tennessee hollow. All the while
they were holding down day jobs—Nowlin for a long time
as a tenured professor of political science at the University
of Massachusetts, Lowell. They were, as Irwin once told Billboard
magazine, simply looking to “release a record that
would be a
classic in its field.”
Today, Rounder Records is the
third-leading independent record label in the United States.
Its catalog has grown to include 3,000 titles that span genres
from folk, bluegrass, Celtic, folk, and children’s
music to reggae, calypso, jazz, blues, and indie rock. Rounder
recording artists are as varied as They Might
Be Giants, Madeleine Peyroux, the Cowboy Junkies, the Dry Branch Fire Squad,
and Austin, Texas, singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves (himself a Tufts graduate.)
Rounder has also issued extensive series of
recordings from the Library of Congress and from the archives of the legendary
ethnomusicologist and record producer Alan Lomax, and funded the ongoing North
American Traditions series of recordings by Mark Wilson. At the same time,
critical and commercial successes such as those of the Grammy award–winning
Alison Krauss and Union Station have brought the company solid financial footing.
So it’s fair to say that Rounder has made it big—very big. But
from their no-frills warehouse/headquarters on a side street in Cambridge near
the border with Somerville, it’s clear that they’ve kept a bedrock
commitment to music with sincerity and integrity, music that has staying power,
just like them.
How did you get involved with promoting folk music when
you were at Tufts?
Ken Irwin: We used to go to the Charles Playhouse on Stuart
Street, and one time I saw a little sign that read “campus
representatives wanted.” They offered free tickets
to all of their shows in return for our putting up flyers
on the university bulletin boards. We thought that this was
a great arrangement, where we would cut down on our dating
expenses while getting to see quality theater. After working
with the Charles for a while, we expanded our promotion services
to include another theater company, a coffee house, and Folklore
Productions, the main promoter of folk music concerts in
Boston. Pretty soon we were putting up posters all over the
campus. And through Folklore, we were exposed to a lot more
What was it about that music scene that caught your interest?
Bill Nowlin: We had both liked folk music before we came
to Tufts. My younger sister had gotten a couple of Kingston
Trio records and I had a couple country music records and
some Elvis records—the early ones, blues and country
music for the most part. Ken had what we might now call some
more authentic records or deeper folk, like Pete Seeger and
the Greenbriar Boys.
KI: The Greenbriar Boys disc was a high school graduation
gift. We initially thought it was funny, with those twangy
voices and banjos.
BN: Some of the songs were humorous, too.
KI: “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” or “A
Whole Lot More Jesus and a Lot Less Rock and Roll.” At
Tufts, we had friends who lived above us in Houston Hall.
We had a record player, so we hooked up a wire from our record
player out the window and diagonally up to their room, and
then attached it to the speakers in their radio. And whenever
we felt ornery, we’d play this Greenbriar Boys song
that started, “Hey, you better call the sheriff, Paw, ’cause
Rosie’s gone again…”
BN: We know we alienated a few people. I wouldn’t say
we made any friends by virtue of playing our records.
You never dreamed of being record producers?
KI: Not at all—but there was nobody there to tell us
that it was impossible. It started out as a hobby. I was
hitchhiking back from a fiddlers ,convention in the South
and got picked up by a couple, and I spent the night at their
home in West Virginia. It turned out that the guy had rediscovered
a couple of musicians who had recorded in the late ’20s
and early ’30s. He had recorded them and put out albums
that had just the most basic graphics and no liner notes.
After coming back north, I said to Bill, “This guy
started a record company, but he doesn’t know anybody
who can write liner notes and doesn’t know any graphic
artists. Why don’t we start our own record company?” There
was nobody to discourage us so we decided to go ahead with
What has made a friendship also a successful business partnership?
BN: In the business, there’s always been three
of us. I think that helped, because there was never a direct
one-on-one conflict. And our motives were pure [laughs].
None of us was in it for the money. If we had aimed to have
it provide our living, we probably would have had some business
disagreement that would have broken us up. As Ken says, though,
it was really a hobby at first. We worked other jobs to support
We always thought that Rounder was bigger than the sum of
its parts—meaning us. If there was a disagreement,
we would just remember, well, but there’s Rounder to
think about. That would carry us through. It’s similar
to a couple considering divorce who might stick together
for the kids. And we truly did often conceive of the records
as our kids; they are born at a certain point in time, and
then you have to nurture them along.
So the idealism you shared helped motivate you and hold
things together in the early years?
BN: Very much so. And it never seemed like onerous work—though
it was a lot of work! We’d end up going to the airport
with our van, pick up 3,500 pounds of records and load them
into the back of the van, driving back sometimes at one or
two o’clock in the morning because the traffic wasn’t
as bad. You’d end up sweaty and exhausted, but it was
just something that had to be done. There was always a very
strong sense of idealism, and an awareness that what we were
doing was culturally important. It felt like a mission or
KI: We were documenting parts of our culture that were truly
dying out. Our fourth album was of Clark Kessinger, an old-time
fiddler from West Virginia. We did some recording on one
trip and were planning to return to record more when we got
a call saying that Clark had suffered a stroke. I went and
visited him, and it was so sad; he couldn’t hold his
fingers down. His right hand would bow, but he couldn’t
play the notes. I think that might have increased our sense
of urgency—of mission—we learned firsthand if
we don’t do this and do it now, then the opportunity
could be lost forever. From our first two records, there
were at least two branches to our work. One was the roots
musicians—original musicians who had either recorded
a long time ago or who just made music for fun off their
back porches. The other was the contemporary offshoots, often
younger musicians who had learned from the originals and
who were still carrying on the traditions.
BN: We were all very committed to preserving this aspect
of our culture. I grew up in Lexington [Massachusetts] and
I worked seven summertimes studying and talking to tourists
about the American Revolution. Marian was a history major.
Ken believed just as strongly in the importance of recording
the older bearers of tradition. We saw some of these performers
at shows; there was no question to us that they were very
special. They certainly were outside the mainstream, and
to us that meant that somebody has to take care of them.
We didn’t have aspirations and still don’t have
aspirations to compete with the top music industry groups.
We wouldn’t mind having an album go to number one,
but that’s not our overriding goal. We want to do the
best we can for the musicians with whom we work, but we’re
not really out there competing to sign the “next big
thing.” We’re still trying to do something that’s
different than what the multinationals would be doing.
Ken, you’re a very “in-the-studio” kind
of person. What about this kind of work energizes you?
KI: As we became more involved with the music and the musicians,
we wanted to learn more and to share what we learned with
others. We did a fair amount of research and even received
a Youth Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities
to study the early years of bluegrass. We went around and
visited a lot of musicians and some people who had run record
companies, and learned a lot about how things were done in
the old days. In earlier times, you couldn’t fix a
recording; you couldn’t overdub or punch in corrections.
Everything was recorded mono, all on one track. Musicians
told us of instances where they felt they could do better,
but [because of the technology] they’d just be told, “Next!” and
go on to the next song.
I heard things that could be improved, and started to develop
a little bit more of an aesthetic. How could we make what
the artists had within them sound better? I think it’s
very exciting when you can share what you learn with other
people and hopefully make their lives better, and at the
same time bring more enjoyment to the people who are going
to hear the music.
I was reading the liner notes for your recent James King
album, and they describe how a lot of good bluegrass performers
know how to tell a story.
KI: Bluegrass is a very broad-based music now. It keeps stretching.
But I think in terms of artistry in general, I look for an
artist who can communicate what they’re feeling. James
is one of those musicians who really wears his heart on his
sleeve. When he hears a song that he really likes, he’ll
often call me up and he’ll still be in tears. He can
make that connection to the song. Then it’s just a
matter of getting James not to cry when we’re recording
it, or to minimize it. Everybody’s different in how
they hear a particular song or a singer, but for James, he
can really reach out to the audience. You’re really
getting what’s inside him. There isn’t a whole
lot of artifice there.
Has Rounder grown the way you thought it might?
BN: Well, we never would have thought it would grow to be
what it is, with nearly 100 people working here. Maybe we’d
have six or seven people. It wasn’t something that
we thought we would try to build a Rounder empire or something
KI: There really wasn’t a vision.
The word “strategy” never
really came up?
KI: Not at all, and because of the way we began, I don’t
know if there’s a whole lot, at least in the first
10 or 15 years, that people can really borrow from us in
terms of learning how to start out. Except for the [importance
of] belief and loving what you do and working hard. If we
were to speak to another record company about starting out,
we certainly wouldn’t tell them to get out there and
hitchhike in the South and see who picks you up. We wouldn’t
recommend having no plan at all, and just seeing if it all
works out. It really was something we did because we loved
doing it, not because we envisioned starting a business.
BN: We started in 1970, but it wasn’t until 1984 that
we consciously sat down and developed something you could
call a business plan. We made decisions on the fly, letting
momentum carry us along, and for the most part our instincts
helped us make good decisions. Maybe we learned something
at Tufts after all!
In 1984, though, we reached a serious crisis. Looking for
some assistance, we consulted with some retired businesspeople – volunteers
working with SCORE, and the Small Business Administration.
They tried to get us to think in a more organized fashion.
Somehow we managed to get through that stretch. It’s
been a process. We want to survive, we want stability, and
certainly these days things are very different. Looking back,
I’m sure we would not have thought we would ever have
full-time professional people that do things like accounting
and bookkeeping and financial planning. It really is an interesting
case study of how a business organization can evolve, when
challenged both by successes and by crises.
What was going on in ’84?
BN: We had grown too quickly, and without a good enough structure.
The SCORE advisers told us we simply had too many people
working here. George Thorogood and the Destroyers had been
a big and very successful act for us, from 1976 right through
1981. We added staff, but then signed a deal with EMI America
Records so the Destroyers would appear on their label.
It was the right thing to do for the future of the band.
For Rounder, though, the income that had been sustaining
a large staff declined sharply. We hadn’t really
had a strategy to say, OK, well, we’ve got to have
another act like this and so forth. We kept doing what
we had been doing, but without the big act, and it couldn’t
be sustained at that level.
What was a breakthrough for you in terms of rethinking what
you were doing?
BN: Losing tons of money! We were losing $1,000 a day at
one point —and we still thought of it in very personal
terms. We’d wake up in the morning and realize that
the company was going to lose another $1,000 by the end of
the day. There weren’t that many thousands to lose,
so we were forced to rethink everything.
KI: We economized any way we could. We’d go home to
make our phone calls rather than using the business line
at work. We always waited until the end of the day to make
any calls that we had to make from the office, because the
rates were lower after five. We started to look more carefully
at what records we were putting out. We tightened our belts.
The three of us stopped drawing salaries altogether at that
point, for most of a year.
How’d you get out of
BN: We knew that salary was the biggest element. We had 24
people working for us. We explained the situation and then
we asked for volunteers, people who would like to be laid
off. Eight people volunteered. We actually trimmed the staff
by one-third, and painlessly. We were very relieved. We thought
it was going to be traumatic, but it wasn’t. We had
to do the same amount of work, of course, but we found that
those of us who remained could handle it by being more efficient.
One of your most successful artists is Grammy award-winning
Alison Krauss. It was 1987, I think, when you signed her.
What do you remember about that first impression?
KI: I had heard Alison on a demo when I was living right
outside of Ball Square on Willow Ave. I brought the cassette
player out on the deck over the garage, and was just listening.
She didn’t sing or was just barely audible until the
fourth song, and then her voice came through, and I really
liked it. I got in touch and introduced myself and we talked,
and I asked if there were other songs that would feature
her singing more. Within a week, she had gone into the studio
and recorded a bunch more songs.
It seems remarkable that
in an industry characterized by so much tumult, you’ve
built an unusually long relationship.
KI: Yes, we’ve built loyalty and friendship. I think
especially since Alison moved to Nashville, she’s seen
what happens with a lot of other labels and I think she’s
very comfortable here at Rounder. We give her complete creative
control, and we enjoy working together.
BN: She’s obviously a very loyal person herself. When
an interviewer asks her why she sticks with Rounder, she
usually asks back, “Why would I leave Rounder? If I
left, that would mean there was something wrong.” There
KI: Yes. I think it’s also that she knows that a lot
of whatever money we make from her work goes into strengthening
the company and recording a lot of the artists and types
of music that she likes. She believes in the mission, too.
So we’re doing more bluegrass, I think, this year than
we probably have in the last 15 or so. And we can do that
because we’re financially stronger because of our successes
with Alison and a number of other strong and developing artists.
What’s the “next
BN: I don’t know that there is a “next big thing.” If
we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing these last
35 years, that’s a big thing in itself.
In 2004, we started a book division—Rounder Books.
Hopefully, it’ll become self-sustaining. Maybe ten
years down the road, Rounder Books will have some kind of
a hit or something like that. I don’t see it happening
the first three or four years, but you never know. Seriously,
though, we are always looking to find musicians we believe
in, and our whole staff works very hard to publicize and
to market the recordings.
How do you pick the books?
BN: Sort of the way we used to pick music—what we like
[laughter]. We’d like to do more books that combine—that
touch music, that connect there, but it’s been slow
getting started. I suspect once we get going—well,
you never know.
We are also working to go back into our archives and restore
a lot of the unavailable recordings to print. Later in 2005,
we’re going to launch the Rounder Archive. These older
recordings will all be available digitally. People can download
them, and we will also manufacture small runs of CDs. It’s
been a matter of working out a way to make very small quantities
of records available, yet in a cost-efficient fashion.
Now you’re called
the premier independent label. What does that mean to you?
BN: I think it means that we stand out among the other independent
labels in one or more ways. Certainly, there are several
other independent labels that remain active and that do a
variety of things. In certain genres, we’re the leading
label—in bluegrass, for instance, both in the number
of releases and (though admittedly there is some subjectivity
here) in the quality of the releases. We’re probably
also “premier” in terms of the variety of our
releases. We may have the best in some genres, but also in
terms of the eclecticism, I think we’re way up there.
I think of the Grammys and
Hollywood and the whole music scene today—the commercialization that’s
so prominent. And here you are in Cambridge. How have you
stayed clear of it?
KI: We’re both real Hollywood [laughter]. I remember
when we were selling records about as fast as we could make
them, and most of the other indie labels were looking at
us with envy. We were being approached by major labels. During
the ’60s we had followed Elektra Records, a label which
was one of the leading producers of folk music. They recorded
Judy Collins and Tom Paxton and Theodore Bikel, but when
they later had bigger commercial successes with Bread and
the Doors, their folk music output dwindled. We’ve
always been very aware of the Elektra example and made our
decision, right from the start, that we became involved in
the business for cultural and educational reasons. Money
is not the major value. So we pretty much stayed with what
we were doing. We have expanded [in terms of music variety].
We keep growing—if somebody comes up with a different
area that they’re interested in pursuing—polka
music or children’s music, we’re open to that.
And it just keeps going.
We have always enjoyed a lot of different kinds of music,
and we’re also quite happy to let other people at the
company come up with artists they particularly enjoy. It
expands our horizons, and also gives us a broader base. Even
though sometimes people are surprised at some of the releases,
if they look at the offerings in any given year, we’re
still very active with bluegrass and traditional music. We’ve
been fortunate that we’ve been able to stick to our
original mission, and broaden it at the same time. Most people
probably aren’t able to work at something they truly
love, and be able to continue to do so for 35 years—and
counting—and we know that we are fortunate to be able
to do so, and to still feel we are doing good and important