Liner Notes for New West at 20
I was pleased to be asked to write some notes for this year’s New West 20th anniversary box set, a three-CD and three-LP review of one of America’s most intriguing and consistently excellent music companies. Thanks to John, Mike, Brady and team for the chance to share thoughts on a landmark release.
I refuse to give up on the idea of the record label.
You can talk about creative destruction and market disruption all you like, but the way I see it, a well-practiced dance of art and commerce became a violent mosh pit around the year 2000. Record companies were hurt worst of all in the great digital dislocation. Some of the labels that nurtured my own music fandom either went away or were absorbed into multi-layered corporations. Some newfangled artist development companies popped up that treated releases like part of the marketing department. And yet the idea – the ethos – of the independently run record label must live on. New West Records, going strong at 20 years old, gives me faith that it will.
New West has traits in common with some history-making labels, from Sun to Sugar Hill. It has had leaders with strong, even idiosyncratic tastes. It puts the art first, releasing titles that would make the marketing divisions of other, more trepidatious imprints squirm and complain. And it’s been run with an eyes-up nimbleness that comports with Louis Pasteur’s observation that good fortune comes more often to those who are prepared. Some of New West’s anchoring successes in the marketplace - such as the soundtrack to Crazy Heart that few labels wanted or the boppy, infectious “Catch My Disease” by Ben Lee, which I’m told is one of the most successful singles so far – were happy accidents made possible by a general excellence.
What’s an Australian pop rocker and a grizzled fictitious songwriter like Otis “Bad” Blake (as played by a singing Jeff Bridges) doing on the same label as Richard Thompson, Drive-By Truckers, Dwight Yoakam and James Cotton? Well that’s what ought to happen when music lovers launch a well-financed label with no stylistic guardrails. And that’s what George Fontaine Sr. and Cameron Strang set in motion two decades ago. It began with a short-term plan by Strang to release a record by Minnesota artist Kelley Deal, which dovetailed with a nascent Texas-based effort by Fontaine called Doolittle Records. The co-founders had different but complimentary tastes and they shared a desire to do better than the major label system at identifying and supporting visionary artists.
Another quality shared by many of the great indie labels is a sense of place. New West has the challenge and advantage of having a sense of at least four places. Yet what musically and culturally potent places they are. At New West, the essence of Los Angeles, Nashville, Athens and Austin are shaken in to a roots/Americana cocktail with side garnishes of urban folk, artsy internationalism and college rock.
The New West catalog is a syllabus for a class in the mystical philosophical subject: What Is Americana? You can’t effectively participate in that conversation without a working knowledge of New West’s stars: Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, Alejandro Escovedo, Kris Kristofferson, The Flatlanders and Billy Joe Shaver among them. New West did roots music a righteous service by giving Delbert McClinton the first responsibly handled, lucrative record deal of his career. The company nurtured a critical stretch of releases by an always prolific Steve Earle. And when historians chronicle the great John Hiatt, New West will come off looking like Charles Scribner viz-a-viz Fitzgerald and Hemingway. There’s a vast amount of material for the upper level roots music student as well, with choice titles by The Devil Makes Three, Tish Hinojosa, Sue Foley, Vic Chesnutt, The Bottle Rockets, Old 97’s, Toni Price, Chuck Prophet and the brilliant, under-appreciated Tim Easton.
At the same time, the promise of a great record label is best realized by how it works on the listener/collector, beyond the top line titles and best-sellers. The wise and experienced music lover enjoys a relationship with a label that derives from a kind of mutual insider knowledge – those artists that scratch our hard-to-reach itches and who leave a particular fingerprint on us.
New West touches my receptor cells most specifically with Georgia artist Randall Bramblett. He’s one of those problem children of American music in that he’s such a coveted band musician (not to mention a songwriter who’s been recorded by Bonnie Raitt and others) that he’s oft overlooked for his solo work. This former member of Sea Level and Traffic is a brilliant singer with a silver-edged, soul-man rasp. He’s an expert on keyboards and saxophone who can inject jazz ideas into classic roots forms. And he’s fearless with textures and samples and unusual timbres that compliment his funky-beyond-belief grooves. Who would give an eclectic like this the keys to the family car, especially when he’s not always able to tour to support his own music? New West, that’s who. And as a fan, I’m forever grateful, because while Bramblett could have kick-started his way to a series of indie releases, the scope of his work would never thus have approached the care and professionalism of his seven New West titles.
It is fair, when investigating the essence of a record label to ask what have you released for me lately? And I’m happy to say that in the last few years, New West has outdone itself. It has introduced the complex country of Robert Ellis to the world and cultivated his career over three acclaimed albums. The label developed Lilly Hiatt through two albums before achieving a critical breakthrough with Trinity Lane in 2017. Alabama’s The Secret Sisters needed a career life raft, and New West provided it with the astonishing, Grammy nominated You Don’t Own Me Anymore. Nikki Lane’s star flared with Highway Queen. The Texas Gentlemen emerged as the Headhunters of the Dallas Ft. Worth area with the head snapping TX Jelly. Caroline Rose presented a wry and delectable pop sensibility with her debut. If I adore a new album these days, it’s as likely as not to have the New West logo on the spine.
With classic New West impudence, this anniversary set departs from the standard formula of a committee curated, critic-approved anthology, opting instead for three very different volumes. Vol. 1 presents a window into the unique musical mind of co-founder George Fontaine, Sr. The second taps the hive mind of New West fans who’ve voted for their favorites. And Vol. 3 surveys the artists themselves, those with ties that are emotional, artistic and, shall we say, livelihood related. The collection is far from comprehensive, because that would be impossible with this label’s range and scope. But it is a good way of memorializing in a sexy package a kind of whimsical playlist concept laid over some real-deal music history.
The music business is growing again after a decade of doom. The future looks better thanks to robust expansion of paid streaming and vinyl. And New West, with its bright and busy Nashville headquarters, is well positioned for both trends. It stands here, poised for the next 20 years, because it hasn’t tried to pretend it was a video company or an app or a merchandise dealer or any other shiny object. It’s a record label dammit. Long may it spin.