While Rounder Records has released more than bluegrass music over its 50-plus years in the business, the amount of essential bluegrass music found on the label is undeniable. Created a half century and change ago by Bill Nowlin, Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton Levy, the record label has gone from a small imprint to an acclaimed company that is still producing great recordings for the musically-astute masses.
In this book Vinyl Ventures – My Fifty Years at Rounder Records, co-founder Bill Nowlin tells the story of the beginnings of the label, reliving a time when vinyl records were king. Nowlin and Irwin met as college roommates who didn’t like each other at first yet grew to become great friends. It was the early to mid-1960s and a time right before the war-laden revolution of the late 1960s. Fresh off of the short-lived Folk Music Revival era, the pair engaged in pranks that college kids tended to do up until the times of protest and the classic rock era, such as fill up a phone booth with phone books. It was the last of a naïve period, yet what these two had in common was a love of music that was nerdy, the way it should be.
Nowlin and Irvin saw the Rolling Stones and the Beatles live in 1966, began to collect vinyl albums and befriended other collectors like Loy Beaver, even hitchhiking from Massachusetts to NYC to meet Beaver while carrying a bulky reel-to-reel tape player. They also began to trade the spread of concert posters for free tickets and began to meet more people in the music business. With Marian on board, who grew up in a small town in Maine and moved to Massachusetts to study European History and write album reviews, the trio moved forward with creating Rounder Records in 1970.
The book is impressive in its detailing of what it was like to build such a company and the many travails they experienced over the years. The index of albums alone is a fascinating trip into decades of roots music. In 1975, of course, the “Rounder 0044” album by J. D. Crowe and the New South truly put the label on the map, and there is a lot of award-winning reasons why there is a whole chapter titled “Alison Krauss – 1986 and the Decades to Come.” Overall, this is the story of a $1,000 dollar record company that eventually released over 3,000 albums and garnered 56 Grammy Awards, an impressive feat no matter how you slice it.