Marian Leighton Levy grew up in a small town in coastal Maine. One summer in the 1960s, while working an internship in Portland, she spotted a young man carrying a book about the blues.
“Are you talkable?” she asked.
That young man was Ken Irwin. Their mutual interest in American roots music led to a brief romance. More importantly, it led to their life’s work: Together with Irwin’s friend Bill Nowlin, they formed the trio behind Rounder Records, the exceptional roots-music record label that launched from a Somerville apartment in 1970, 50 years ago this month.
They have been talking about music and its social impact ever since.
From the first two Rounder releases — one album by an unknown North Carolina banjoist, the other the debut of a young string band from Boston — the label has grown into a vast living archive of American and international music. Rounder and its subsidiaries have produced nearly 4,000 recordings to date, more than 50 of which have earned Grammy Awards, covering folk, country, bluegrass, blues, reggae, gospel, Cajun, Tex-Mex, and virtually every other kind of “handmade” music.
“We were hippies,” says Nowlin, sitting on the front porch of the Porter Square home he owns just a few blocks from the original Rounder house. In the beginning, he says, “we had no idea what the meaning of ‘invoice’ was. But we learned.”
For the 50th anniversary, the label had big plans to celebrate — a series of vinyl reissues, a podcast, a star-studded concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Many of those plans have been postponed because of the pandemic. Rounder and its parent company, the Concord Music Group, which acquired the label in 2010, hope to have the podcast out by the end of the year; Nowlin’s memoir, “Vinyl Ventures: My 50 Years at Rounder Records,” is scheduled for publication on Jan. 1.
As Leighton Levy explains, the name “Rounder” had multiple meanings for the founders. Almost every recording format is round. If being “square” means you’re dull or out of touch, then you might aspire to be “rounder.”
A rounder can also be a lowlife, a hitchhiker, or a bum. All three founders spent a lot of time in those early years crossing the country, in Nowlin’s Volkswagen bus or by sticking out their thumbs, attending folk festivals and old-time fiddlers’ conventions. Sharing the communal apartment that served as Rounder’s first office, they’d leave their bedroom doors open at the end of the day, carrying on the day’s conversations as they drifted off to sleep.
They were all grad students. Nowlin and Irwin first met as undergrads at Tufts, where Nowlin eventually earned his PhD in political science. Irwin was a doctoral student in child development at Cornell; Leighton Levy studied modern European history at Northeastern.
Establishing the label was as much a political gesture for the trio as it was cultural. It was the end of the 1960s, when every personal decision felt political.
“To me, it was obvious at the time,” says Leighton Levy. “Anything that was not part of the mainstream music industry, which was essentially corporate capitalism, was political.” Like many of their peers, she says, “We really believed we were creating the counterculture of the new world.”
The Rounder idea was to provide representation for overlooked cultural groups, says Irwin, be they Cajuns, Appalachians, Irish revolutionaries, or Vietnam veterans against the war: “It all was the people’s music.”
“We saw it as a continuation of what people were doing with music in the 1930s.”
The tiny company’s hand-to-mouth existence began to change when a few releases became surprise commercial successes. The label introduced bluegrass artist Norman Blake — a revered sideman for Johnny Cash who played on Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” — as a solo artist. In 1975 Rounder put out the debut from J.D. Crowe and the New South, a groundbreaking bluegrass album featuring guitarist Tony Rice, dobro master Jerry Douglas, and a young Ricky Skaggs on fiddle and mandolin.
But it was a couple of records cut by a former roadie for Hound Dog Taylor that would lift Rounder onto a whole new stage. At the time, George Thorogood and the Destroyers seemed an unusual fit for Rounder, a rowdy bar band that was as much about rock ‘n’ roll as Thorogood’s beloved Chicago blues. In its first year of release the band’s debut album approached sales of 100,000, almost unheard-of for a small independent label. The band, from Delaware, relocated to Boston; by 1981 they were opening for the Rolling Stones.
The founders felt obliged to devote much of their attention to their new star.
“We spent a lot of time on the road with George,” says Leighton Levy. “I think he would confess he was pretty high-maintenance at the time.”
Rounder was expanding in other ways, too. Early on, the founders identified an opportunity to serve as New England distributors for other independent labels around the country. The distribution arm of Rounder eventually grew to include more than 400 labels and national reach; at the company’s height in the 1990s, it was doing $20 million in annual business.
All this growth did not come without growing pains. In the late 1970s the Rounder staff wanted to unionize. The owners were opposed, and they dug in, the three principals pitted against their employees.
In hindsight, it was “the most negative side of Rounder,” says Leighton Levy. “We were so busy trying to put out records of communities in other places,” she says, that they failed to take care of the community they’d built at home in Cambridge.
Nevertheless, the late years of the millennium were mostly good to Rounder. The label won its first Grammy with the bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown in 1982. Later that decade Irwin signed a young bluegrass fiddler named Alison Krauss when she was just 14; she grew up to become the most-awarded female artist in Grammy history.
Rounder also spun off several subsidiary labels — Bullseye Blues, the reggae imprint Heartbeat, an alternative pop and rock hub called Zoe. The label also acquired Philo, a Vermont-based home for singer-songwriters, and Flying Fish, an eclectic independent founded in Chicago.
John Virant succeeded Leighton Levy as president in 1997. The “fourth Rounder” brought some new energy into the fold, shepherding albums by Juliana Hatfield and her band, Blake Babies, and convincing the founders that the kids were all watching a show called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The show’s musical score became an unexpected cash cow for Rounder in 2008.
That was also the year of “Raising Sand.” At a tribute to Lead Belly at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Krauss struck up a conversation with Robert Plant, the caterwauling singer formerly of Led Zeppelin. Nowlin watched with interest as they boarded a bus back to the hotel together, “talking away.”
Their unlikely duet sessions led to a big night for Rounder at the 51st Grammy Awards, when Krauss and Plant’s collaborative album scored five Grammys, including Record and Album of the Year. It was a stunning coup for an independent label, Nowlin says.
After the sale to Concord, the Rounders stepped back from day-to-day operations, and the offices moved to Nashville in 2014. “We didn’t want to go,” says Nowlin, who has fashioned a second career for himself as a baseball historian. “I think they were happy.”
After so many years logged in Somerville and Cambridge, Leighton Levy moved to Newburyport in the 1980s, and Irwin followed a decade later. They remain close friends.
In recent years, Leighton Levy has immersed herself in the political activism that drove her initially. Irwin stays focused on the music: Since 2011, he and his wife have helped produce the Belleville Roots Music Series in a Congregational meeting house in Newburyport.
The founders continue to suggest new acts they’d like to see on the label. Nowlin says he took John Strohm, who was named Rounder’s president in 2017, to see the Po' Ramblin' Boys perform; the “tattooed East Tennessee bluegrass outfit,” as they describe themselves, is now one of Nowlin’s favorite acts on the roster.
Strohm, a former Bostonian who was in Blake Babies, worked for a decade or so as an entertainment lawyer after hanging up his rock ‘n’ roll shoes. He was aware of Rounder’s influence from an early age. His father’s college roommate was Jim Rooney, the musician and producer who was a key part of the Cambridge folk revival in the 1960s.
By the time Strohm moved to Boston to attend Berklee, he had a broad knowledge of Rounder’s roster and influence.
“I was a punk kid, but I loved folk music and outsider country,” he says. “They have such an important, rich, interesting history that we want to get right.”
Since moving into the head office, Strohm has signed the rising bluegrass star Billy Strings and the California rock band Dawes, a former client from his lawyer days.
Nowlin still carries a reminder of Rounder’s heyday — a battered leather wallet, a gift from the late Hazel Dickens, who recorded several classic bluegrass albums for the label.
Like the wallet, he says, the company remains in very good hands.
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.