Rounder Records made its debut in 1970, an independent and locally-owned company based in Somerville, MA. Founded as a country and bluegrass label by Bill Nowlin, Ken Irwin, and Marian Leighton (later Marian Leighton Levy), three friends who met during their college years, Rounder also issued music from blues, Cajun, folk, and jazz artists. The label became known for its quirky and unique selection of recordings: the first two albums it released were from the Cambridge-based Spark Gap Wonder Boys, and a 76-year old banjo player from North Carolina named George Pegram. While some of Rounder’s artists, notably bluegrass and folk singer Norman Blake, had passionate cult followings, few were big commercial successes; but the label’s founders took very seriously their commitment to preserve the best of blues and old-timey music, whether those records were big sellers or not. (In fact, an artist who sold several thousand copies was considered a plus.)
But everything changed in 1977 with Rounder’s first venture into rock music. The label signed a band from Delaware, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, whose debut album received a lot of rock airplay. Thorogood’s next album for Rounder did even better, going gold, and selling more than 500,000 copies. The label’s newfound success enabled the company to move to larger quarters in Cambridge, and further expand its staff.
By the early 1980s, Rounder was one of the top three independent record companies in the United States. Not only was Rounder selling more records, but it was now able to acquire other companies, such as Philo Records, a Vermont-based folk music label with such singer-songwriters as Rosalie Sorrels, Jean Redpath, and Nancy Griffith. Then, in the mid-1980s, Rounder signed Alison Krauss, a bluegrass and country vocalist who would become one of the label’s most popular and biggest-selling artists. Recording solo albums as well as albums with her band Union Station, she was soon being nominated for Grammy awards, and her music was well-received by country radio stations nationwide. And while George Thorogood left Rounder for a bigger label, Alison Krauss stayed on, continuing to release hits: one of her biggest was a 1995 version of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All,” which went to number three on the Billboard country music charts. Krauss also showed her versatility by collaborating with former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant in 2007: that record, “Raising Sand,” won five Grammies.
After four decades of independence, Rounder was purchased by the Concord Music Group in 2010; Concord acquired Rounder’s far-ranging catalog, which in addition to Alison Krauss, included children’s star Raffi, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, banjo legend Béla Fleck, and numerous performers from bluegrass and roots music. Rounder’s original founders were still as hands-on as ever, and the label maintained local offices in Burlington, where it had moved in 2007. But as the industry continued to change, the decision was made in 2013 to relocate the label’s operations to Nashville. Given how many bluegrass and country artists had been part of Rounder, and how many members of their roster came from the south, the move made sense, even if Rounder would no longer have ties to the greater Boston area, where it had spent so many years. But the label’s founders have remained here, and they are still involved with what Rounder is doing. Label co-founder Bill Nowlin believes Rounder has remained true to its goal: “…to present good and even important music, and to try to spread the word about the music to the broadest audience we can.”
(by Donna Halper)