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Rounder's Fellow Rebels

Rounder Records Thirty-five years ago they went looking for the soul of American music. Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin found that and more as they built Rounder Records.


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 observers of the emerging "folkie" scene.

In 1970, with their partner, 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 folk music.

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 the idea.

What has made a friendship also a successful business partnership?

Bill Nowlin: 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 our hobby.

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.

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 isn't.

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 work.

Read the complete text of the interview by clicking here.


Profile written by Laura Ferguson

Laura Ferguson is the editor of Tufts Magazine - the official magazine of Tufts University. The complete version of this story appeared in the Spring 2005 issue.

Photos by Webb Chappell

This story originally ran on July 18, 2005