Since its beginning in 1970, Rounder Records has been one of the country's preeminent labels for regional and roots music. It is home for the hugely successful multi-Platinum act Alison Krauss and Union Station and helped launch James Hunter, The Grascals, Nicolai Dunger and Madeleine Peyroux (whose debut just went Platinum), among many others; established artists such as Bruce Cockburn, Grant Lee Phillips and Irma Thomas have also been longtime roster mates.
Photo: Rick Oliver
As Rounder's VP of A&R and staff producer, Scott Billington has produced and developed legends of blues, zydeco/Cajun, R&B, bluegrass, folk and rock, as well as projects that drew from ambient and hip hop. His body of work is especially focused on New Orleans and the Louisiana Delta region, and as a result, he has a unique understanding of that artistic community and its culture in the aftermath of Katrina.
Billington got his start at Boston-based Rounder in 1976 as a part-time sales person while playing around the New England area in a swing band. Before long, he became the label's art director and quickly moved into A&R and staff producer duties. Since his first production with blues artist Johnny Shines in 1978, Billington has amassed a huge list of credits, including Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Solomon Burke, Charlie Rich, Elvis Costello, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Ruth Brown, Beau Jocque, Johnny Adams, Corey Harris and many others. He's also produced two Grammy-winning albums and garnered seven nominations. In 2002, he received the National Blues Foundation's “Keeping the Blues Alive” award for Producer of the Year.
It's now a year after Katrina. What can you tell us about the state of this city.
If you only visit neighborhoods along the river, such as Uptown or the French Quarter, everything looks pretty good. However, vast areas of the city remain abandoned, and there's still not enough infrastructure in place — schools, trash collection, stuff like that. What's left of the city still feels like New Orleans, but there's a lot of uncertainty in the air. I know quite a few determined people who returned, but who are now considering relocating elsewhere.
Many of the ruined neighborhoods are poor and mostly African-American. If you think of most of the things that people admire and enjoy about New Orleans — brass bands, Mardi Gras, creole food, jazz funerals, even jazz itself — it came from these neighborhoods. It remains to be seen whether many of these people will ever come back. If they don't, the city will have lost its cultural spring. Sometimes it seemed as if the music just bubbled up from the sidewalks in places like the Lower Ninth Ward or the Tremé.
I think New Orleans music will be okay for the time being because there are great New Orleans musicians out there, even if they're living in Houston or Austin. But I worry about the fabric of the community and the extended families that nurtured them, and whether that can survive anywhere but New Orleans. Several recording studios were spared — Piety Street, the Truck Farm and Word of Mouth — but the guys at Ultrasonic, which was destroyed, haven't felt there's enough business for them to find a new location and reopen in the city.
The musicians I've talked with all have incredible stories of what they endured.
After Katrina, every recording session began with people telling stories of what they'd been through. Before a session in October, drummer Raymond Weber, who's now playing with Trey Anastasio, showed me photos of his wrecked home and cars in New Orleans East. He moved his family to Houston. Saxophonist and singer Charles Elam III lost his home on the unfortunately named Flood Street in the Lower Ninth, and now lives with relatives Uptown. Right after Katrina, pianist David Torkanowsky got past roadblocks by concocting convincing identification — posting a “Disaster Relief Team Leader” sign on his dashboard and installing a yellow light on top of his pickup truck. He was able to rescue instruments for many musicians.
Irma Thomas was on the road in Austin during Katrina, so she never was able to retrieve even a few of her possessions. She also lost her nightclub, The Lion's Den, and several rental properties. Yet she seems to have been able to move on. She and her husband bought a new home near Baton Rouge, and her career has definitely benefited from the attention she's gotten. You get to see how resilient many people can be.
I've worked on three New Orleans projects since Katrina: Irma Thomas' After the Rain, tracks for the kids pop group Girl Authority and rehearsals for the debut Rounder album from 15-year-old violinist, singer and entertainer Amanda Shaw. We've been recording at Dockside in Maurice, Louisiana, outside Lafayette, with engineers Steve Reynolds and David Farrell from Ultrasonic.
Irma's sessions were very emotional. They brought together musicians who sometimes had not seen one another since the hurricane. I think you can hear it in the music. We had chosen most of the songs for her album before the storm, so they weren't overtly about Katrina, but it's uncanny how most of them seem to resonate with that story. Irma got so deeply into some of the songs, especially “If You Knew How Much,” that she cried while she was recording. If you listen to the final take of that song on the album, you can still hear her voice break in the second verse, but she pulls herself back.
You worked with Rounder to put out one of the very first benefit albums to hit the stores for the victims of Katrina.
We released A Celebration of New Orleans Music, in conjunction with Marsalis Music, only five weeks after Katrina, and we've been able to make a good donation to MusiCares.
One of the very first productions you ever took on was James Booker, probably one of the most brilliant pianists to ever come out of the Crescent City. The result was Classified (1982), easily the best album of his career.
Of all the people I've worked with, I'd say he's the one that came closest to genius. He was a child prodigy who could play Chopin at the age of 3 or 4. Later in life, he developed a wicked sense of musical humor, mashing up jazz, R&B, classical, blues — you name it. I've never again heard anyone play that much piano — a bass line and a syncopated chord pattern with his left hand, and dazzling, polyrhythmic stuff with his right hand. He was one of Harry Connick Jr.'s teachers, and Harry comes closest to what Booker could do.
When I first saw James, he was working at the Maple Leaf Bar, which in 1981 had a washateria or Laundromat in the back. He was erratic. Some nights he would blow your mind, and on other nights he would barely play — stagger around or taunt the audience. He had a lot of problems that he tended to try to smother with substance abuse. Mostly, I think he was a very lonely guy.
We put quite a bit of pre-production work into the album. A few weeks before the sessions, he had a nervous breakdown and was briefly hospitalized, but he wanted to go forward with the recording. Still, when the first day of the sessions arrived, things were a mess. He wouldn't talk to anybody, and he'd lost the upper plate of his dentures, although his bass player was able to locate a spare pair, with Booker's trademark gold star on the opposite front tooth. We got him to the piano, but he played songs the musicians hadn't rehearsed, leading them on a futile cat-and-mouse chase.
When he finally spoke, he asked that Cyril Neville and Earl King come to the studio, but when they showed up, he ignored them, too. It was stressful because nothing I said or did to get the sessions on track worked. I was relatively new at this, and I was thinking, “Oh, man! I've spent all these thousands of dollars of Rounder's money, and I'm gonna go back and not even have a record!”
Finally, on the third day, Booker was waiting at the door when I arrived early at Ultrasonic, hoping to sort through the tapes to see if there was anything worth releasing. Booker was ready to play. He asked me to sit by him at the piano while he played all the solo material on the album. He recorded the band tracks when the guys arrived. The one song on the album from the previous days, “Angel Eyes,” is the spookiest version of that song you'll ever hear.
James was a fragile and brilliant man who tragically died at the age of 43. I wouldn't say that he ever made a definitive recording, but I'm glad to have made Classified.
What was your production lesson in there?
I learned that the most erratic and unpredictable artists are also often those capable of the most beautiful and soulful performances. This has been true of many of the people I've recorded, especially Charlie Rich and Solomon Burke. You can't just push the Record button and expect a brilliant performance, nor can you create a brilliant performance by punching and pasting. But when you get it, you have something that can't be denied.
Your production career is very deep in rural Louisiana's music fabric, especially Cajun and zydeco music.
I got involved in zydeco in the early 1980s. I saw Buckwheat at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in probably 1982. He was also doing something somewhat new:combining an R&B show band sensibility with traditional zydeco. This is music played by descendants of French-speaking African-Americans in Louisiana, and it's been their social music for a long time.
One of my favorite records from that world is the one you did on the late Beau Jocque called
Pick Up on This!, especially a song called “Don't Tell Your Mama, Don't Tell Your Papa.” Then “Give Him Cornbread” on
Beau Jocque Boogie
was a huge regional hit when it came out in the early '90s.
When we released Beau Jocque's “Give Him Cornbread,” these tiny, local radio stations got so much response to the record that they'd play it two times in a row, and you could hear it on every boom box in South Louisiana. When Beau Jocque played the song at the 1993 Zydeco Festival in Plaisance, Louisiana, people threw corn bread at him from the audience. It was a nice local hit, and it was a lot of fun. The groove on those Beau Jocque records was unstoppable.
Even though there is this whole perception of Rounder as a roots-oriented label, you've really tried to explore ways to expand upon those forms. You and your production collaborator, Steve Reynolds, put out Tangle Eye, a project that melded music from the Alan Lomax roots music archives with an eclectic blend of players and synthesized house and ambient grooves.
Steve Reynolds and I started doing remixes on zydeco records probably 15 years ago now. We did a couple of Beau Jocque dance mixes. We started in the very early days of Pro Tools and saw the possibilities of being able to move things around — to use it as a composition tool. I think we made five or six zydeco remixes that targeted the Houston dance market. It was then that we started thinking, “Wouldn't it be great if we could do a whole project like this?” Since Rounder Records was working with the Alan Lomax Archive, we thought we'd approach them and see if they would make available to us Alan Lomax's field recordings. We built the Tangle Eye record around vocal samples from Lomax, sort of re-composing the original recordings, adding new music and beats.
Irma Thomas and Scott Billington
Photo: Barbara Roberds
We used mostly New Orleans players because that's where we did the project — bassist George Porter Jr.; trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis; keyboard players David Torkanowsky, Davell Crawford and Henry Butler; Galactic guitarist Jeff Raines. We also got a few bluegrass players involved, such as Ron Stewart, a wonderful Nashville fiddle player, and Tony Trischka, the great banjo player.
In a way, it seems this is the complete opposite of so many of the records I've been involved with, where the goal is to elicit the very best performance from the artist. But with the Tangle Eye record, we were already starting with these incredible a cappella vocal performances. Alan Lomax recorded many of the songs we remixed in Louisiana and Mississippi prisons. Men were singing as they worked, chopping a tree or hoeing. We rearranged the vocals a little bit and tried to create tighter song structures. Then we had fun with our collaborators re-harmonizing this material.
Of course, Moby had done this kind of thing with a Lomax field recording on his track called “Natural Blues.” We tried to do something a little more organic, where the direction of each remix was suggested by something in the original performances rather than taking the vocal performances and grafting them onto a dance beat.
What is your biggest challenge in getting public exposure for Rounder's artists?
I think the trend toward fragmentation of all media lately makes it more difficult to make an impact anywhere. On one end, you've got a whole lot of places to go, but fewer that make a big impact. For us, it still comes down to having an artist and album with a real story to tell and then working all the angles.
You've got to have a story that's gonna grab somebody at The New York Times or National Public Radio. It may not specifically be about the music, but it has to be something that will break through the constant barrage of releases — there were something like 40,000 last year. That's not even counting everybody that sells off the bandstand. The “story” has to be more than great music, but something that will pique human interest.
I would imagine more roots-oriented music would have a particularly tough time.
You can't always blame the marginalization of a music style on the media or retail. You need compelling artists and music that will inspire people and make them feel something. I look at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards, and you have basically the same cast of musicians getting awards as were there 20 years ago. It's becoming like Dixieland music — a caricature of what once represented passion and freedom and fresh sounds.
That said, the media can be pretty tough on roots music. I've seen various kinds of music go from “discovery” to old news — bluegrass, Cajun music, blues, African music, the R&B revival. It's interesting to see these music styles peak in the media and then be completely ignored.
I think it's important that, from the onset of a project, the producer be able to come up with a story, be able to communicate a simple idea that will hook the marketing and promotion people at the label, as well as the customer. It's like you're coming up with the marketing story to support your belief in the music and the artist.
These past couple years have been among our best. At this point, we're not turning our back on anything we think can generate sales for us because it gives us power to continue doing what we want.
Rick Clark is Mix's Nashville editor.
Want to know more about the Rounder Records producer? Check out an extended photo gallery of Billington and the artists he's produced, as well as a full recording discography. Click here