Rounder Records’ 40th Anniversary Wrap-Up
In the post-Napster lawsuit era, when people look at the recording industry with wary eyes, a record label seems like the last thing they’d want to celebrate. But Rounder Records is a special case. The decision-makers at the revered Cambridge, Massachusetts-based independent elected to commemorate their 40th at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.
The cosmopolitan stage setup—an arc of red brick columns and globe streetlights—underscored one of Rounder’s particular achievements: bringing rural American roots music to city audiences. And to quite effectively drive home the breadth of music Rounder has released, there was a rotating display of oversized album covers from the label’s catalog (from Woody’s Greatest Hits, to Rush’s In Rio, Charles Brown’s All My Life and Delta Spirit’s Ode to Sunshine) and, most importantly, a six-act lineup that vividly spanned eras, regions and styles.
Minnie Driver was the first to perform and the host for the evening. She’s a perfectly fine, dusky singer, reminiscent of Norah Jones, but—despite her effervescence and the use of a teleprompter—she seemed a bit lost as host of a roots music event (and progressively loopier as the night went on). Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, easily the bill’s least known act, brought Louisiana dance party energy to the proceedings. They played r&b and blues colored by washboard, accordion and Nathan Williams’ jolly, clipped vocal delivery, and one true-blue Zydeco number.
Béla Fleck’s set reflected Rounder’s appreciation of instrumental virtuosity. Seated alone with his banjos on stage—except when, first Abigail Washburn, then Jerry Douglas joined him—he breezed through Scruggs-style innovations, experimental licks, bluesy call-and-response, African-style syncopation and newgrassy dueting. Irma Thomas—who just celebrated 50 years in the business herself—guided her tight, veteran r&b horn band with easy authority and a brilliant smile, punctuating her set with a song that was an early proving ground for her: the rollicking 12-bar blues shuffle “You Can Have My Husband.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter, a more recent addition to the Rounder roster, played some of her newer material with light, tasteful accompaniment, then strapped on an electric to deliver the folk-rock storytelling bite of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.” Alison Krauss and Union Station—bright album-selling, GRAMMY-winning feathers in Rounder’s cap—were the closers. Krauss, who’s been with Rounder throughout her recording career, showed grace and savvy, acknowledging her band members, the label and the writers of each song in their set, which—incidentally—included the very first song that she recorded for Rounder, “Too Late To Cry.”
The other stars of the evening were Rounder co-founders Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton-Levy. Driver recounted their origins as three college friends who knew nothing about the music industry, Fleck joked that he’d be happy to reveal dirt on them after the show, and Krauss marveled that they’d actually taken the time to listen to her unsolicited demo tape all those years ago.
The flow was hobbled by interruptions and delays; the production crew handling stage setup and audience participation seemed more intent on capturing good camera shots for an upcoming PBS special than enhancing the live experience for those of us there. But, conceptually, the night accomplished exactly what it was meant to—stylishly highlighting Rounder’s creative, cultural and commercial success story.