David Menconi’s Oh, Didn’t They Ramble is a fascinating, thoroughly researched history of legendary Rounder Records.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“An admiring tribute [and] well-researched celebration of Rounder’s influence and accomplishments.”
Americana music has always been a big tent, a loose stylistic category ranging from bluegrass to blues and beyond – jazz, gospel, soul, rock and even world music. So it’s fitting that the most significant record company in the evolution of Americana, Rounder Records, is the biggest tent of all. Rounder has put out thousands of albums since 1970 in all of the styles above and more. The label is unmatched in its width and breadth, averaging the release of more than one album a week during a half-century when few of its competitors were putting out more than one a month.
Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music chronicles Rounder’s far-flung history, from the label’s humble post-folk boom origin story up to the Grammy-winning platinum colossus it became. Here’s the “Rounder Ramble” mix to listen to while reading.
The Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley” (1958)
Rounder came into being in the wake of the great American Folk Revival, in which traditional folk music swept the nation’s college campuses for a few years at the dawn of the 1960s before The Beatles took over the pop charts. The folk boom began with this song, a clean-cut young California singing group’s version of an Appalachian murder ballad from the North Carolina mountains that dated back nearly a century. Topping the charts, “Tom Dooley” sold millions and ushered in folk’s brief vogue as the sound of the mainstream.
The Greenbriar Boys, “We Need A Lot More Jesus” (1962)
Rounder co-founders Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin met at Boston’s Tufts University, where they were thrown together as roommates and found common ground in their shared enthusiasm for folk music. One record Irwin brought to college was the New York City revivalist group The Greenbriar Boys’ self-titled album, almost as a joke. “The Greenbriar Boys” seemed just too corny to abide, except…they actually came around to liking the music, especially “We Need A Lot More Jesus” (a song that concluded, “and a lot less rock ’n’ roll”). They’d even play it on kazoos.
George Pegram, “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” (1970)
After graduating from college, Irwin and Nowlin started going to folk festivals, beginning with the 1967 Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention down in Union Grove, North Carolina. And that’s where they first encountered George Pegram, a legendary old-time banjo player and all-around character. When Nowlin and Irwin started up a record company with Irwin’s then-girlfriend Marian Leighton, “George Pegram” was Rounder 0001, their first release. It included Pegram’s version of the 1923 Fiddlin’ John Carson classic “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.”
Norman Blake, “Ginseng Sullivan” (1972)
Early on, most of the music Rounder put out was solidly traditional. But the label had its first significant breakout with well-traveled guitarist Norman Blake’s “Back Home in Sulphur Springs” (Rounder 00012), Rounder’s first to sell into five figures. Songs from “Sulphur Springs” quickly became staples at folk-festival picking circles, especially “Ginseng Sullivan.” Blake went on to make more than a dozen albums for Rounder.
Hazel & Alice, “Don’t Put Her Down You Helped Put Her There” (1973)
The Rounder founders were steeped in the radical politics of the 1960s, so it was no surprise that many of their artists had a decidedly progressive slant. Exhibit A would be the duo of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, pioneering feminists whose eponymous 1973 album (Rounder 0027) would be a signpost for multiple generations of women artists who followed them into folk and bluegrass. Dickens made many Rounder albums as a solo act while also serving as the label’s unofficial A&R consultant to Irwin, her boyfriend for many years.
J.D. Crowe & The New South, “I’m Walkin’” (1975)
The Rounders would have been thrilled to release anything at all by the banjo-playing legend J.D. Crowe. But it was their great fortune to connect with Crowe just as he was assembling one of the all-time great bluegrass super-groups. J.D. Crowe & The New South also featured Ricky Skaggs, guitarist Tony Rice and teenage resonator guitarist Jerry Douglas, all of whom would go on to big things. From 1975, their self-titled LP (Rounder 0044) is among the all-time best-ever bluegrass albums. Among its stylistic curveballs was this bluegrass take on Fats Domino’s New Orleans classic “I’m Walkin’.”
Leonard Emanuel, “Old Georgie Buck” (1976)
One of the oddest items in the Rounder catalog is “Hollerin’” (Rounder 0071), a 1976 compilation of literal field recordings from the vicinity of Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina (site of a long-running hollering contest). These are rural hollers of the sort that people would use to communicate from the next farm over, and it’s a superlative piece of folklore – as well as an effective late-night device for clearing one’s house of unwanted guests. Despite that, it sold surprisingly well.
George Thorogood, “Move It On Over” (1978)
The Rounder founders were reluctant to sign this journeyman bar-band guitarist from Delaware, simply because his amped-up blues-rock was so different from anything they’d ever put out. But Thorogood was persistent enough to win them over, and it worked out better than any of them could have imagined. His 1978 LP “Move It On Over” (Rounder 3024) became Rounder’s first to make the mainstream Billboard charts, and also the label’s first gold record.
Riders in the Sky, “Three on the Trail” (1980)
When it comes to Nashville, Rounder has always been an island of misfit toys – a label for acts that just don’t fit into Music Row’s formulaic country mainstream. Like Riders in the Sky, who were told by one major-label executive, “You’re the best band in town, and you have absolutely no commercial potential.” Rounder to the rescue. After a living-room audition for Ken Irwin and Hazel Dickens, the Riders joined the roster and released 1980’s “Three on the Trail” (Rounder 0102). It would be a prosperous relationship for both band and label.
Clarence Gatemouth Brown, “Frosty” (1981) (103)
By the late 1970s, Louisiana had emerged as a major new front as Rounder expanded into zydeco, jazz, blues and soul – much of it produced by Scott Billington, the label’s marathon man as employee of longest standing at more than 40 years. One of Rounder’s best albums from that initial wave was the great Clarence Gatemouth Brown, an eclectic bluesman whose music was a gumbo of all of the above and more. From 1981, “Alright Again” (Rounder 2028) was the first of five albums Gatemouth would release on Rounder, and it won Rounder its first of an eventual 56 Grammy Awards.
Marcia Griffiths, “Melody Life” (1983)
Louisiana was not Rounder’s only new frontier in the early 1980s. The label was also expanding into reggae and other world-music styles with its new imprint, Heartbeat Records. One of Heartbeat’s signature works was a series of compilations drawn from Studio One Records, Jamaica’s equivalent to Motown, beginning with 1983’s first “Best of Studio One” volume (Heartbeat 07). Featuring Marcia Griffiths and other legends, the series eventually ran to more than 60 volumes, including multiple reggae Christmas albums.
Nanci Griffith, “Love at the Five & Dime” (1986) (112)
By the mid-1980s, Rounder had grown large enough to start buying other labels, and its first big purchase was to rescue the folk label Philo Records after it fell on hard times and bankruptcy. Acquiring Philo brought Texas singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith into the Rounder system, where she would make a series of albums both before and after taking the jump to major labels. None was better than Griffith’s 1986 debut, “Once in a Very Blue Moon” (Philo 1096). A decade later, Rounder would also acquire Flying Fish Records under similar circumstances, after the death of founder Bruce Kaplan.
Alison Krauss, “When You Say Nothing At All” (1995) (118)
Ken Irwin first heard the act who would become Rounder’s biggest star on an unsolicited cassette-tape demo, launching an amazing odyssey that would take her to massive stardom. After Rounder signed Krauss at age 14, her trajectory was steadily upward, reaching a crescendo a decade later with her double-platinum compilation “Now That I’ve Found You” (Rounder 0325). This cover of the late Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All” reached No. 3 on the country charts.
Spanic Boys, “Keep on Walkin’” (1990)
Late one Wednesday night in May of 1990, Rounder promotions director Brad Paul got a phone call from “Saturday Night Live” bandleader G.E. Smith with a proposition: Sinead O’Connor had just quit that week’s show, and they needed a replacement. Would the Milwaukee duo Spanic Boys, whose self-titled album (Rounder 9022) Smith had been listening to, be interested? Of course Paul said yes, which turned nerve-wracking when Ian Spanic couldn’t be found. But he surfaced in time for them to play the gig of a lifetime.
Dan Tyminski, “Man of Constant Sorrow” (2000) (143)
The soundtrack album to the Coen Brothers’ loopy “Odyssey”-themed epic “O Brother, here Art Thou?” was released on Lost Highway/Mercury, and yet it was a Rounder record in all but name. Most of the lineup came from the Rounder roster, including singer/guitarist Dan Tyminski from Alison Krauss’ backup band Union Station. Tyminski sang the song that was a hit in the film, the old folk-circuit standard “Man of Constant Sorrow,” with George Clooney lip-synching onscreen. “Sorrow” was also the project’s Grammy-winning calling card at radio.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Please Read the Letter” (2007)
Krauss was also part of the “O Brother” soundtrack, which took her into even more rarified pop-star heights than before. She was omnipresent through the early 2000s at tribute shows, as if no such event could be complete unless she was there. And it was at a 2004 tribute concert to the late great folk icon Lead Belly in Cleveland that she met Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant. Sparks flew, leading to an improbably successful album that cleaned up at the Grammys. It won six, including the Album Of The Year grand prize, standing as Rounder’s mainstream high-water mark.
Billy Strings, “Into the Mire” (2019)
In the decade since the Rounder founders sold the label to Concord Music Group, it has struggled a bit to find its place in the mainstream, with greater commercial expectations and pressures. Still, Rounder has had some successes, especially with Michigan native William “Billy Strings” Apostol, a preternaturally talented guitarist who draws arena-sized crowds. But that success was fleeting. In a sign of just how transient the record industry can be, Strings departed Rounder in early 2023 after two albums to take the jump to a major label, Reprise Records.