Maintaining a country and bluegrass heritage and developing its future digital fan base.
Periodically Americana UK looks beyond artists to the organisations that help them get their music to the listening public. CMH Records was founded in 1975 by German ex-pat Martin Haerle and guitarist and author of ‘Duelling Banjos’ Arthur Smith, to fill the gap in the country and bluegrass market due to an older generation of artists being dropped by the majors. While this strategy proved successful with a niche audience, the label needed to continually develop if it was to remain viable. Today it is home to several subsidiary labels covering a range of genres, and in the ’90s it instigated the ‘Pickin’ On Series’ with rock and country tribute albums played in the bluegrass style. These albums covering everyone from the Beatles and the Grateful Dead to Metallica were not only a commercial success but helped bring bluegrass to a new generation of fans. CMH Records are again developing their offering with the start of the digital release of their now historic country and bluegrass catalogue. The first two releases are legendary guitarist Merle Travis’s last album, ‘Rough, Rowdy and Blue’ and fellow guitar legend Joe Maphis’s ‘Flat-Picking Spectacular’ and Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with CMH’s Director of A&R James Curtiss and Manager of Digital Assets and Mechanical Licensing Jeremy Stephenson to discuss how you move a legacy catalogue into the digital market place, and what it is like to be curators of a piece of country and bluegrass history.
We are here to talk about the digital release of Merle Travis’s ‘Rough, Rowdy and Blue’, but first let’s have a quick chat about CMH Records which is approaching its 50th anniversary. How did a label founded to provide an outlet for first-generation country and bluegrass artists after the majors lost interest keep going for so long?
James Curtiss (JC): Martin Haerle started the label coming in as a German immigrant, and he had time working in Nashville before moving to LA and starting the label with Arthur Smith, and yeah, his whole reason d’être was to find a home for all these artists who had kind of been forgotten by the mainstream, and who had no real home at that point in the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. And he did a pretty good job of keeping that kind of legacy historical bluegrass music play-out until he passed away very suddenly in the early ‘90s. David, his son, taking over kind of retooled things as he tried to work out what his place in all this was, and there was still a lot of legacy stuff happening at the time, but even then some of the people from that generation were passing on or retired, so David came up with the ‘Pickin’ On’ series.
That stuff is still running concurrently, and then the label itself expanded into all these other territories beyond bluegrass, and there have been eras when things have slid back about and then are coming forward a bit, and Jeremy and I had done what we could with the catalogue and ‘Pickin’ On’ stuff, but we hadn’t really touched it for about four years. This is our first time coming back around in four years and we are putting out ten records digitally that have never been released digitally for the first time, we are going to be doing that this year, we’ve got a slate of releases we are putting out on vinyl for Record Day, and some of them have never been out on vinyl before and some have never been out before. While we will keep doing the ‘Pickin’ On’ stuff because that has garnered this whole next generations of people, we meet people in bluegrass bands who are younger than us and they say they are there because they heard ‘Pickin’ On Metallica’ or ‘Pickin’ On Modest Mouse’ and that is how they got into the history and the full-on bluegrass, americana and everything they do now as performers.
I came to the label in the mid-2000s and Jeremy not so long afterwards, and everything we do with the label is not all about the bluegrass part because the CMH label group has all these other functions and bluegrass is just one part of what we do. Technically I’m the brand manager and Director of A&R, but when it comes to the bluegrass stuff it is very much a partnership between Jeremy and I. Jeremy has had as much if not more, influence particularly this time around bringing things out of the catalogue and on what we are doing and why we are doing it, even though title wise Jeremy is Manager of Digital Assets and Mechanical Licensing. So the titles of what we do day to day are not bluegrass centric, a lot of what is happening today is coming solely from Jeremy and me.
‘Rough, Rowdy and Blue’ is the first legacy digital release by CMH, and why do you think it is worthy of a modern update 40 years after it was recorded, and why choose the other nine titles for digital release?
Jeremy Stephenson (JS): I really like ‘Rough, Rowdy and Blue’ and it is a little bit more edgy than some of his other ones, and it is his last recordings before he passed away, so I felt it was time to get it out there.
JC: Yeah, Jeremy’s point is exactly that, it is a really unique entry in his catalogue it is such a stripped down edgy thing. It is the kind of thing he was doing forty years ago that people were trying to capture later on. Someone on our staff who heard it mentioned they thought it was like what Rick Ruben was trying to do when he brought Johnny Cash around, but Merle’s record is even more stripped down. It is just him talking the blues, it is lean, it is edgy, and it is a cool first place to start because it is not such an obvious place to start because it isn’t such a blown-out production. There weren’t that many arguments, and I think we have ninety to a hundred records that haven’t been digitised, don’t we Jeremy?
JS: Something like that, I don’t remember the exact number but we have plenty left over for the next years.
JC: We are trying to put these out once a month, and that was one of the bigger arguments, how do we actually put all this stuff out? We couldn’t just digitalize it all and then just dump it on the services, we wanted to give each of these titles as much of the treatment we could but when you look at the release schedule we have with everything going on with the label it is like, do we put one out a month, do you put three out a quarter and do you put the three out you are highlighting. So the deliberation wasn’t so much what to release because a lot of that stuff is fairly obvious, if you look at the next ten months releases we have Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, Lester Flatt, Don Reno, all that stuff is really obvious because when you look at it we just have to have it out, it is much more what do we do in this day of digital releases that makes things important, that gives them some form of presence so you are not just dumping them onto some streaming service and just letting them fly. That stuff could work if you had enough of them, a content boat load of them like a long tail theory, but we didn’t want to do that we wanted to take time and put some effort into it, figure out a release schedule and get the PR people involved, and that was more of a deliberation than what the first ten to twelve titles were going to be.
How much outside help did you get for the reissue programme?
JS: We have someone we do a lot of work with who will knock these out. We did a batch a few years ago and he did them, and it is a lengthy and a little bit pricey operation because you have to take the old reel-to-reel tapes and you have a special oven, I don’t even know why he has all his equipment, you have to use the chemicals from that era, so it is a specialised process so we have to outsource that to an expert.
JC: We have a genius, who is not in-house, but he is our go-to mastering engineer for all our engineering. He does everything, from all our bluegrass stuff to our string quartets and to our lullabies, everything that CMH puts out, and he is a very in-demand engineer in LA. So he had to come into the vault and grab all the tapes and start working through them, and he is working through it, he has only got the Merle Travis which is just out and March’s Joe Maphis wrapped, but he is trying to do them in as many batches as possible. We do have an in-house design team who went back and found the old artwork and retrofitted some of that and kind of cleaned it up a bit and made sure it was presentable for digital distribution. So yeah, everything we do pretty much tends to be in-house, we have a real dedicated staff we have built up over the years, the engineer has been working with us for over two decades, and the in-house art department is very busy with everything we do.
The vault is really well taken care of so there are not a lot of problems, it is nothing new but Jeremy and some of the other staff created this concept for vinyl release about five years ago called Country Music Heritage. It was sort of an introduction to the label, but it also gave us the chance to put some of the rarer more unusual things that hadn’t been heard and had never been digitalized that were on a compilation we put out for Recordstore Day. In doing that I think we ended up digitalizing twelve records or something like that, and those were the first records we took out of the vault. Again, after 2018 things went a little haywire, some priorities had to shift and some people got pulled into other departments, some people left the label, and then with COVID, certain things became less of a priority. So with the digital stuff, we had kind of a pre-concept to start with so our engineer wasn’t working with whole cloth.
How do you get on those Playlists that everyone hates but everyone needs?
JS: That is the tough one, do you have any ideas?
JC: We have a pretty good relationship with our distributor which is key, and the foundation of CMH, starting with Martin and continuing with David, is do it yourself, and what that means is we try to maintain as many direct relationships we can. We were not very passive in the brick-and-mortar retail days, and we are not very passive people when it comes to working with distributors. So, we are very hands-on when we are working with our distributors, and we are very up-front with our plans giving them a sense of when rather than simply OK, this drops on Friday, we are more like this is what we kind of like and this is what we are thinking. For what it’s worth, this time around we will see how it goes with the distributor and the bluegrass stuff because the last time we did this we weren’t so interested in playlisting.
It sounds funny, but when you think about it five or six years ago getting on a Spotify playlist didn’t make a lick of difference, but cut to 2023 and that is all it is about playlist, playlist, playlist. So this is a new endeavour for us as far as the bluegrass goes, but with everything else we do at CMH, we are very on top of everything, soliciting and keeping in touch with the distributors, letting them know what our new and featured singles are, and sharing the plan. This is what you have to do, not only share the singles but this is our video content and this is what our socials plan looks like, and hopefully, somebody picks up on something and you get playlisted. Sometimes it is super random, that is the funny thing about editorial and curatorial playlists, you never can tell what is going to hit. We’ve had that happen with the lullabies and string quartets where you give them all your material, here’s the single, blah, blah, blah, and then some random track eleven winds up on some playlist, and now that is your number one song on your album. So plan all you want, but it is mainly all about communication and establishing direct relationships, and that is ultimately the credo for CMH’s business model.
Merle Travis was a renowned guitarist with his own style and his songs have become classics, but you could call ‘Rough, Rowdy and Blue’ a blues album. Do you know what was behind him recording these tracks which were released just after his passing?
JS: Yeah, it is not a bluegrass album at all, it is just him paying homage to the music he grew up on that he never had the opportunity to put on record. it is just something he wanted to do, and that is what makes it a unique record, it is kind of a crossover album.
JC: Which is funny, because that is very much our bread and butter in the last couple of decades. We try to explain to people, well it is children’s music but it is like rock music, it is a string quartet but it is like pop, and it is the same with the bluegrass tributes, it is bluegrass played faithfully, it is not tongue in cheek, but it is bluegrass interpretations of Metallica. So you have to sell people on that idea, and the Merle thing slides right into that, and it is like which special division do you have to explain this to? I think that with the bluegrass people, whether it is a blues record or not, Merle is so beloved they will be very welcoming of it, and there won’t be much questioning of whether this is a bluegrass or a blues album. So yeah, that is an interesting notion that you have to sell what you are doing to multiple genre-based editorial divisions and things like that.
What is the second album going to be?
JS: It is a Joe Maphis album, ‘Flat-Picking Spectacular’, and it is largely instrumental with just him playing his guitar and it is pretty amazing when you listen to it, you can’t imagine this guy’s fingers moving so fast.
JC: That is a big one, especially for David the owner. He is a guitar player himself and he started his career later in life, and he has been releasing solo records for the last few years, and for him as a guitar player, Maphis is just someone he is constantly breaking out to show people all the time. We all have our own ways of being music enthusiasts, some of us are a little bit more insular, but David is one of those guys who will literally grab you and pull you into his office and say watch this, and crank the music so high you say please turn it down one notch because I’m losing my hearing. David absolutely adores Maphis’s playing, so this is as much for David, as it is for us, a crazy influential artist.
JS: I remember a while back sending David a list of all the stuff that hadn’t been released yet, and I asked him if he had any favourites and that was certainly top of his list. There are quite a lot of other musicians on the record, and there are a couple of tracks with Merle Travis playing guitar, there are some with Zen Crook who is a well-known instrumentalist on banjo and fiddle, Arthur Smith is on there and he was one of the co-founders of CMH, and he is best known for the ‘Duelling Banjos’ song.
JC: This one is definitely a full production, it is kind of the classic CMH production from that era. It is very much the antithesis of the stripped-down solo vibe of the Merle Travis thing.
JS: This is a lot more bluegrass. The first song has vocals but the rest is all instrumentals, there are a lot of old standards on it.
Why do you think bluegrass and traditional country keep coming back long after their original heyday?
JS: I think if any music is made with love and authenticity, then the soul of that music will live on for the next generations to discover and think I haven’t heard this before and it is really cool. I discovered this stuff in the last ten or twenty years, so a lot of it is still fairly new to me, stuff my grandparents were listening to. The next generation will be discovering ‘90s stuff, so I think if there is a curiosity and love for music and potentially any music can survive.
JC: To elaborate on Jeremy’s point, what tends to happen is you also have these other authorial voices who are also fans and they tend to champion it, even after it is considered passe or long-forgotten. There’s an example that seems kind of funny when you think about it, The Blues Brothers, the thing that Belushi and Dan Aykroyd did, and at the time they made that movie and they were doing that act, people don’t think about it but some of the acts they were pushing like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King were forgotten, they were considered dead, they were dinosaurs. It was the success of the movie and the act that brought that music to the attention of a new generation of blues fans who resurrected the genre. You can almost say the same thing about bluegrass, there are some demarcations like the Cohen Brothers’ ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and even to some extent CMH’s ‘Pickin’ On’ series, where we put out a record featuring an artist like Metallica and a kid who is a Metallica fan is flicking through the bin and is like, what’s this, and he checks it out because it looks weird or interesting and then really gets into the musicianship, and then that opens it too. It is as much about the people who champion that stuff as well, who are fans of that music and pass that fandom on to others.
Some of that could be generational like Jeremy says, just passing it down from their kids to your kids etc., or some of it is just having the ability to share your love in any form, that makes a world of difference, in addition to what Jeremey has said about something with authenticity and some real history. It is a community thing, the part about art is the ability to share it, and that’s what I want to do, if I read a book I want to give it to somebody, if I hear something I want to give that piece of music to somebody, if I watch a good movie I will literally drag people to the movie theatre to watch a movie I like. I think everybody should be an advocate for things they are fans of because that will create more fans.
The label is a commercial concern with a need to make a profit, but do you have a view of the cultural heritage locked up in the CMH catalogue?
JC: That’s a big one, you have to be conscious of that, and I am always really conscious of how much I don’t know. So I’m always conscious of what I may be saying in an interview because I’m nobody’s expert when it comes to bluegrass music, but I am a fan and I’ve worked long enough at this label to know it means something to people, what is important to the history and legacy of the genre and the music, what has been influential, I’ve always been conscious of that. It is the same thing again in how we manage ourselves with the cross-over stuff for want of a better term. I don’t want to make a joke, I don’t want to make something that seems tongue-in-cheek, I want to make things by people who love bluegrass and make these interesting interpretations. There is a legacy of bluegrass that goes beyond CMH and what people understand, it is as important to American music as blues and jazz. It is a uniquely American art form and I’m very conscious of that, and Jeremy, I’m sure you’ve got some very similar thoughts.
JS: That is what this whole project is about, keeping that whole legacy alive, we don’t want all these great artists and all this great music just to fall by the wayside. This is like a revved-up advert to get these back out for the public to hear.
JC: And to treat it with respect. Like I said earlier, it would be very easy to take a hundred albums, digitize them, and then dump them on a streaming service with no thought or consideration, but if you do that you lose the opportunity to work with a distributor who can get this in front of people’s eyeballs by putting it on playlists. If you don’t do it with the right PR person who gets you talking to the right outlets to get people to see this stuff and hear this stuff, that is a dis-service. It is weird, this is a business but part of the business is ensuring the music is treated well.
Everyone has to deal with digitalization, do you see it as a threat or an opportunity?
JS: It is definitely an opportunity, it is just about learning to adapt. We have definitely had some success, and it is nice to be able to say that, but it is always tough to adapt to a new marketplace.
JC: I also think that because of the history of the music, you have to do multiple things to make sure you are hitting all the people who are maybe interested in hearing the music. We had a meeting yesterday and we were talking about whether we should continue posting a phone number on our website, and I was like, yeah, because there are older people listening to this music, and some of them who are not even that old, who would just like to be able to pick up and call and say I want this or whatever, and at the same time you have a whole litany of people who just want to stream music, sometimes very passively unfortunately, but that’s the way it goes and it is just like an FM radio, you turn it on and it is just background noise. So you just have to make sure you have all your ducks in a row, it is important you are digitising your music for the people who want to hear it that way, as it is about putting out quality vinyl releases because there is a whole culture around that, you have to listen to the marketplace to see who is listening to your music, and who wants to listen to your music, and also who do you want to listen to your music.
I think of digital as just one more switch, one more lever, that you have to flip. If it was just solely digital I would be a little bit disheartened because I like making vinyl records. The other day we were listening to the digital remasters we are going to put out on vinyl. The Osborne Brothers ‘From Rocky Top To River Bottom’, that album of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant tunes, and this is just the digital remaster, I can’t wait for the test pressings to come, and then the commercial copies, so digital is only a small part of it, and some of these things that are being digitalized if there is enough interest we could maybe give them a physical presence too, but for now most of the market is listening through streaming so it is very important we get the stuff out. It is not only it hasn’t been digitalized, but it has also been out of print for how many years, some of this stuff has been out of print forever. That’s OK for those collectors who are happy to spend exorbitant sums for out-of-print vinyl, but it is not very good when you are actually trying to share this with people who have never heard it before. I think Jeremy and I are of that generation where we are OK with the digital stuff, but we also like to buy physical media. I don’t look at digital as the end of music.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
JC: For me personally I’m going to mention that Osborne Brothers record. For me, there is nothing like that run of them doing Felice and Boudleaux Bryant songs, it is just a warm and fuzzy feeling. I’m sure that is pretty basic for most of your audience, but that is a big one for me. Any of the songs they are covering on that record just hits me right here in the chest. I haven’t been listening to a lot of new stuff lately, to be honest, although my job demands I listen to a lot of new pop music, and this is going to sound obvious but I’m a great Burt Bacharach fan, so when he died all I’ve been listening to is any Burt Bacharach song you can imagine. I made this post recently on a blog I write on, that it is very interesting to hear a writer who has made hits with one song across multiple generations of artists. You can literally argue about who had the most distinct version of say ‘Walk On By’ and generationally his music continues to grow. If I had to pick one of his songs it would be ‘God Give Me Strength’, a song he did with Elvis Costello in the ‘90s, which I think is super underappreciated. That collaboration with Elvis Costello kind of got forgotten, I feel. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Erik Satie, that’s all classical stuff, and I’ve been listening to him because of a project I’m writing and I’m trying to get back into film, that is what I wanted to do before I got into the music industry. I’ve got this idea which is very focused on classical music.
JS: I’ve been listening to a lot of psychedelic cumbia, it is so much fun. Also, I’ve got a big love for all that ‘60s and ‘70s ska and reggae from Jamaica. I’ll also say the last thing I was listening to before this interview was Mike Ness, he is the singer from Social Distortion, and he put out some solo albums in the ‘90s doing rockabilly, kind of Americana, of a lot of covers of stuff he grew up listening to before he started doing the whole punk rock scene.
JC: He is a character, even when he was doing punk rock he was issuing Johnny Cash covers.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
JC: I would just say keep an eye out because we are going to have something out literally every month for however long, probably the next few years. The Merle record is just like the beginning, we’ve got all these digital releases, we got some vinyl releases coming up, and we are relaunching the ‘Pickin’ On’ series specifically featuring Iron Horse, who have been our go-to band. Ironhorse are a great band and as much as I enjoy people listening to Iron Horse covers like ‘Pickin’ On Modest Mouse’, I would definitely suggest people check out their traditional legacy bluegrass stuff because they are such great performers, they are such good guys. Yeah, there is going to be something every month to the end of time.
JS: I’m doing an album of Pearl Jam covers and that will be out in April.
JC: Yes, Iron Horse will be doing a ‘Pickin’ On Pearl Jam’ for us, coming out in April. It is a good place to get people going, so just keep an eye out.
Merle Travis’s ‘Rough, Rowdy and Blue’ and Joe Maphis’s ‘Flat-Picking Spectacular’ are available now digitally on CMH Records.