Last October, an independent company called Exceleration Music announced a new partnership with some familiar faces. More than 50 years after they founded the tenacious roots music label Rounder Records in Somerville, Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy, and Bill Nowlin have regrouped in a venture called Down the Road.
The imprint will launch in late spring with the release of “Earl Jam,” a tribute to the late bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs timed to what would have been his 100th birthday. The album reunites the three “Rounders,” as the cofounders are often called, with banjo master Tony Trischka. The lead single will feature Bela Fleck and the young bluegrass guitar sensation Billy Strings.
That’s the kind of creative packaging Rounder specialized in during its long, prolific heyday, when the cofounders and a tight circle of aides (including John Virant, the “fourth Rounder,” who served as the company’s first CEO and has returned to the fold) released nearly 4,000 albums. That astounding output ranged across the vast expanse of roots, Americana, and ethnic folk music, earning the company more than 40 Grammy Awards along the way.
The Rounder story gets a concise historical reading in a new book, “Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music” (University of North Carolina Press), by the North Carolina music journalist David Menconi. As a longtime music writer for the Raleigh News & Observer, Menconi got to know the Rounders through the International Bluegrass Music Association, which for years presented its annual trade show and awards ceremony in Raleigh.
“We covered it gavel to gavel,” Menconi says.
The week after Menconi was laid off from his newspaper gig, Irwin emailed with an offer to write the liner notes for a record by the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, a Smoky Mountains bluegrass group that was named the IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year in 2018.
That was “a sign from the universe,” Menconi recalls. The author of “Step It Up & Go” (2020), a definitive history of the music of his adopted home state, Menconi turned out to be an ideal choice as the chronicler of Rounder’s half-century contribution to American culture.
“To me, the thing that’s most exciting is that he put in a fair amount of the complex origin story of Rounder,” says Leighton Levy, including the politics of working with rural musicians — “being part of the counterculture, our status from the north, working in a field where a lot of the music was from a different part of the country.”
Each of the three founders has a distinct view of what defines a “Rounder” artist and what the music means to the culture, Leighton Levy says.
“I always consider any kind of subculture as a marginalized part of society, and that has a lot in common with my own radical politics,” she says. “I still feel that very much today.”
Menconi recounts Rounder’s highs, lows, and in-betweens, from early breakthroughs with albums by Norman Blake, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, and J.D. Crowe and the New South to the commercial success of George Thorogood, and forays into reggae, Cajun, and many other styles. Then there was the instant success of fiddler-singer Alison Krauss, who signed at age 14 and went on to hold the record for most Grammy Awards for a female artist (until Beyoncé overtook her).
In 2010, after 40 years, the cofounders steered the sale of their label to the Concord Music Group, agreeing to stay on in advisory roles. But after they stepped aside, the parent company increased its emphasis on signing only acts that could meet sales projections. Menconi notes that whereas the Rounders were releasing roughly 100 albums a year by the late 2000s, in 2022 the label had released a grand total of eight.
“You have to make certain compromises to be part of the capitalist business world,” says Leighton Levy.
As part of the deal that created Down the Road, the Rounders will bring more than a dozen acts over from their consulting days with Rounder’s current incarnation, including the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys.
Menconi’s book features a brief foreword by Robert Plant, the one-time Led Zeppelin bawler who launched an unlikely collaboration with Krauss in 2007. Their debut album together, “Raising Sand,” won five Grammys. The author, who grew up a hard rock fan in Texas, says his “inner 14-year-old” was ecstatic to learn that his book would include a few words of introduction from Plant.
The two superstars’ humility and their willingness to adapt, says Leighton Levy, are the big reasons behind their successful pairing.
“They learned all the right lessons from their success,” she says, “and that very seldom happens.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @sullivanjames.