If anyone has ever had the temerity to question the UK in Americana UK then this interview with Patrick Hart, chief cook and bottle washer and owner of Cow Pie Records will put that question to bed once and for all. Cow Pie Records was originally founded in the second half of the ‘70s by UK pedal steel player extraordinaire, B J Cole, who has played with everyone from Elton John and Scott Walker to The Verve and Spiritualised, when he somehow managed to persuade United Artists to provide a budget and a licensing deal. The ethos of the label was to develop UK country talent and this it certainly did with Hank Wangford. B J Cole decided in 1984 that whatever else he may be, he wasn’t a record company executive, and the label folded. That would have been the end of the story if it hadn’t been for Patrick Hart, entrepreneur and country DJ, who persuade B J Cole to let him re-activate the label with Cole as a figurehead. The label has a small but exclusive roster which includes BJ Cole himself, UK country traditionalist Ags Connolly, Hank Wangford who has been known to masquerade as Dr Sam Hutt and whose backing band has included at various times legendary pub and folk rock guitarists Martin Belmont and Andy Roberts, and urban country act Morton Valence.
Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Patrick Hart to discuss Cow Pie, the merits of its artists and the challenges of running an independent record label in 2020.
Who is Patrick Hart and what is Cow Pie Records?
I am the only employee I guess. I’m the founder, starting the label again from its ‘80s roots with original founder B J Cole as producer and providing the technical advice and input together with the musical consulting. We are very grassroots at this point but we are lucky enough to have a fantastic roster of UK country artists. We have released Hank Wangford’s 7-inch vinyl ‘Perfect Day’ with digital downloads, BJ Cole’s own ‘Daydream Smile’ is due in November on CD, vinyl and download and obviously, we have Ags Connolly’s ‘Wrong Again’ on release. Morton Valence will be releasing by the end of the year. We also have plans in place for things in 2021. It has been an interesting time, I wouldn’t recommend everyone starts a music label when record stores are closed and artists can’t tour. In a weird way it did allow us to get things organised and get our feet out from beneath us. We are now just beginning to talk about socially distanced gigs for BJ’s record launch. It allowed me a little bit of time to pick-up what I didn’t know, it didn’t matter to BJ because he has been through it all. When the records come out, that is the pay-off. We were just getting together with Ags Connolly before he did this mini-tour in the Netherlands, just sitting down with him and opening up the records, and that is when it pays off and it is all worth it.
Ags Connolly is a pretty special artist, isn’t he?
He is. From the first time I heard and saw him live I fell under his spell, and I was a big fan. I saw him a bunch of times and when I was considering doing this, and talking to BJ, he was the first person who came to mind when thinking what to release. I’d been talking to him for a while to get the vinyl out for him. It is great to hear from the people who heard it online and then heard a really top quality product on vinyl. That’s our start, now we need more gigs to sell more product and start getting the word out.
Have you got the deep pockets to keep the show on the road?
You obviously know about independent music labels. We are probably going to release four albums, maximum five, per year. I wouldn’t say deep pockets, but we are very careful what we do with top artwork and 180-gram vinyl. We go the extra mile with our mastering as well. I think people will see that when they get our product. I know I keep talking vinyl, but we do and will release things on CD and always digital download. Vinyl kind of goes back to the roots of Cow Pie and is part of the DNA we wanted to keep in place.
Vinyl is an interesting medium. For some reason it has come back, it is expensive and wears out quickly but people seem to value it. What are your views?
If you look at the statistics you are right. In the last article I read, it had sold more each year for thirteen years. It is an audiophile technology, true, but it sounds better. Some people may say it doesn’t, but I for one can hear the difference, even though my ears aren’t the best, and that is why we wanted to do it. That warm sound that you certainly don’t get with a CD., you have to ask how these huge conglomerates convinced us for over twenty years that the CD was the way to go. People are now seeing that this is not the case. It is a bit specialised I admit. I have a fairly large vinyl collection and I mainly focus on 7 inch 45s to so much so that at one point I got the market cornered in Wynn Stewart (one of the founders of the Bakersfield sound and a big influence on Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Nick Lowe) 45s. There is something about the past of music that is in vinyl and we want to keep it going. When you look at the statistics now, the financials around stock with the stores not being open, mail-order has been pretty good. Physical album sales last month were down 20% on the previous month but vinyl was still way up on last year. We still believe in it but who knows what the next big thing is going to be, is it a Star Trek thing like a little cube or a thumb drive. I haven’t talked to anybody in the mastering business who are saying that vinyl is going to go away. We are seeing people getting out their old players, new manufacturers are coming forward with great turntables.
How many albums would you need to sell to feel comfortable with what you are doing?
I don’t think that many people, as far as independents go, are doing runs of more than 500. We are probably doing less than that, for the Hank Wangford 7 inch we did 300 only and we did a little more for Ag Connolly’s and BJ’s records. I think we will sell more CDs and someone is counting down the downloads of course, which is not my forte but we get paid for them. Again, we are not focused on high numbers so much as the best product, something you can hold in your hands while listening with your ears. If you look at the industry, 70% of the music out there is owned by only three companies, we are trying to make the remaining 30% different, so we are not focused on high numbers and turnover but the music we think will move the needle and a lot of that has a retro feel right now. That will change a bit with the Morton Valence record and we are on the look-out for new artists. We are helping the scene, whether that is americana or country doesn’t really matter.
How much is B J Cole actually involved in the label other than being an artist on it?
He is with us all the way. I was over at his house earlier today, just stopping by on the front porch, and I run a lot of ideas past him. When you have the guy who founded the label, a guy who has been through all areas of the music business and has his understanding of various genres of music you just have to got bounce ideas off him. He has been great and he is heavily involved and wants to see the best for Cow Pie.
B J Cole
If you were a musician in the late ‘60s you wouldn’t have thought becoming a pedal-steel player would be a smart career move would you? What is BJ like, he must be someone fairly special to have achieved what he has achieved?
No joke there. To hear him play is unbelievable. I first met BJ at a gig where he was friends with a pedal steel guitar player, who was also a friend of mine, who I used to play music with. I do a radio show called ‘Country Hayride’ on NTS and we had BJ in to just talk about stuff and play a few things and give something on the history of the instrument. It is such an intriguing instrument. I always say if you are a singer and you have the opportunity to carry a pedal steel guitar player’s gear you should. If you have a box and filled it with concrete and you have another box and the pedal-steel is in there, the pedal-steel is heavier. You have three pedals, up and down, playing with your knees up and down, playing side to side to bend notes. The flexibility in that instrument is amazing, keys that only that instrument can get as I understand it, these musicians are all mathematicians as I see it. BJ played with Elton John, I read in an article that Sting called him the best pedal-steel player around, whether in the UK or wherever. His resume is beyond impressive and he hears things musically that most of us don’t.
On his latest album, he has gone back to Hawaii which is absolutely at the roots of pedal-steel playing.
It is and the album is fantastic. It goes back and he talks about Santo and Johnny, which wasn’t so much Hawaiian as pop at the time, with the pedal steel which inspired him to take up the instrument. He is going back to that original sound and the folks he is playing with him really capture it. Hank Wangford is on there and we got a good review in Country Music People. Working with BJ has been a huge gift.
I was very surprised when I learnt that Hank Wangford is 80. How is he?
I met him at probably the last gig before lockdown at the Half Moon pub in Putney, and I was thinking do I go or not as the bars were still open, but it was obvious what was coming, and I decided I don’t know when I will hear live music again so I went. It was such a great show, and we talked about doing this single and we were able to get that done. There were plans for a big thing for his 80th which is in November but I doubt that will happen now. Again, a legend when you talk about UK country.
I am old enough to remember when his first album came out and the publicity was deliberately ambiguous as to who this guy is, where he comes from and what he is.
I remember a BBC thirty-minute thing or something maybe longer, which had him walking around commenting intercut with live performances. Even now I go back to that programme. I love his stuff as a songwriter and his knowledge of the music is incredible. He knows everything there is to know about the music, and even now when you speak to him it is this producer, this player on this record like back in the ‘60s. He is also another big Gram Parson’s fan.
He met Gram Parsons when he was a GP and Gram was in London with Keith Richards, didn’t he?
Yes. The fact he had time to do everything he has done is amazing. He has a really nice resume. I guess that is what it takes to be a legend.
I have often wondered whether he wore his stage clothes while he was dealing with his patients?
That would certainly get a reaction.
Hank Wangford’s new album, ‘Holey Holey’ has various people on it including Geraint Watkins. Are there any echoes of the old pub rock scene?
That is a good question. My goat is tied more to classic country. I think Kris Kristofferson said, “If it is a country song, you know it.”. You don’t want to put the blinders up for any genre so the ears are open as we look for new artists. That said, my preference is for artists like Wynn Stewart, who I mentioned, but there is a lot going on and I don’t want to overuse throwback or retro but artists like Tessy Lou Williams, who has a new debut record if you haven’t heard it, there is a lot of great stuff coming out of Texas such as Mike and the Moonpies. It may be obscure and niche, but it is not like we are the only ones listening and looking at that kind of more classic feeling country.
Andy Roberts and Hank Wangford
Are your releases only for the UK, or do you release or license them throughout the world?
We work with Cargo Records, who are a great distributor, and are world-wide though most of the focus is on the UK. I don’t know yet as our first record only came out two months ago, but we are working to get our stuff into the US, Germany and around Europe. Obviously, online purchases are always available. Cargo Records have been fantastic to us even though we are a small label to them, and they have given us a push and a pull where necessary.
Ags Connolly has a reputation in the US already doesn’t he?
He does, yes he certainly does. He is going to get back when everything opens up again. He has some family over there as well, and he visits Austin quite a lot. Things are changing over there in the various music scenes because of COVID. Who knows what Austin will look like when we come out of this?
Tell me about Morton Valence.
They started out as a duo doing pop but Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett always had a telecaster and I always thought I heard a Merle Haggard sensibility in there. At one point the phrase urban country was coined and I heard it when I came over about thirteen years ago. They were the first band I would go and see all the time. More and more they have gone americana, a little more country. Their new record has lots of pedal steel and will be a culmination of their journey so far. They have had things on the charts in their more pop new-wave days. They have come a long way now.
I am going to say one word, streaming
Downloads were bad enough but streaming, yeah. Cargo Records are thankfully experts in this area, which I am certainly not. Honestly, I probably started streaming only two or three months ago when I got Amazon Prime. I got it for other things but when I finally listened to it I started listening to it every day. If there is anything new that I hear of it is just there, so I can see the value. I always say I love to be proven wrong, you can see why people like it but I like to listen to albums so I am more of a downloader. I will occasionally download things you can’t get physically. So yeah, streaming is a black art man. Cow Pie is really set up for physical product but we do ensure we get our artists on playlists on Spotify and what-have-you. It is funny, that is one word but it is a big one.
It may be OK for Amazon, iTunes and Spotify but it is not particularly for good artists is it?
The economics are the problem. As the money trickles down it appears someone is taking a big slice. I have read an article that says it is the same economics that get back to the artist, especially with the ability for artists to self publish. As a niche independent label, we see it as our job to help the artists and maybe get some things out that wouldn’t ordinarily get out. The formats are what we focus on, but then you have steaming which helps get the music out. I can see the value of say in America, where they haven’t all heard of Ags Connolly, they can easily hear him immediately. They don’t have to wait until it ships from our shop. The more songs are played and the more channels available does help the artist get their music out. It is a tough one though, algorithms that the banks use for mortgages are behind the pages of printout on plays we get and it is tough to know what it means but it is cheap. If you are pressing vinyl or CDs you need a minimum of like £10k. It is obviously a big part of the economic numbers and even last month the digital downloads for artists were down, singles were down, everything was down. There was a spike when stores opened and people weren’t downloading as much. It is something we have to understand. The Bottom-line is anything is good that helps artists get their music out there. Prince decided to give his recorded music away and get his revenue from live music and merchandising. So it is good for artists to have various channels, so we at Cow Pie embrace it.
You have your first new product, you seem happy with it, how are you going to publicise it under the current restrictions?
This is another one of the main legs on the chair. We work with a couple of different promotors depending on the history and the artist. Lyndsey Evans is someone we know very well, and she is doing the PR for BJ. We do as much as we can in that area, we are out talking to people, issuing press releases to the magazines, online magazines like Maverick and physical like Country Music People. We have some good ones out in the US, Saving Country Music is one that comes to mind. We just have to get our work to them and, hopefully, they will help us with features and reviews. Like you guys, you have covered Ags Connolly a lot. BJ will be doing a video for the release party if we can’t do a socially distanced live show. We are working on a video for the Morton Valence record. There is a whole different bunch of things, it is not things that haven’t been done before. It didn’t become a cliché because it was the wrong thing to do. So we are working hard because the product is just part of it.
Where do you think Cow Pie will be next year?
We are on a small upward curve. I have spent most of my career doing a lot more boring entrepreneurial efforts. Some grew very quickly and very successfully, but there is always the danger of growing too fast. There is no real reason for us to push this year, we have a couple of releases for certain in probably the first quarter next year. I can’t see us doing more than five releases a year in the first two years. This year we will just do four. The guidance is if it feels we are pushing too hard, we probably are. We are going with the heartbeat, that is the way we are playing it. When we were starting this and BJ and I were talking, it was the DNA of the original label that we wanted to maintain and that was to record the best of British country. Country music had its scene then, whether it was Hank Wangford or Bobby Bare playing with Scottish Bands. As much as Americana is growing, or Nashville is growing, I don’t really listen to any of that stuff by the way, country music is country music even though it has changed a lot over the years. From hillbilly to country was a term a producer came up with, but I can’t remember his name. He didn’t like the way the music was portrayed, he thought it was too downhome and rural to sell many records. Then that changed, but I tend to listen to 1940;s and ‘50s hillbilly stuff., Hank Williams and Lefty Frizell, those kinds of people. My point is that country didn’t die when there was orchestration in Nashville. There were only three labels there running all the releases. Waylon Jennings had to start a fist-fight to get his band to play on one of his records. Country has changed many times over the years, and it has changed now where there is a scene and genre for whatever you like. We are maintaining a brand so that people will understand what we do, but we will be planning a couple of surprises as well.
In terms of new artists, are you actively looking to sign more or are you just going to keep your eyes and ears open for anything interesting that comes along?
That is a tough one when nobody is playing. There are a few things online that have been very good. My ex-wife once said I have thousands of records but they are only by like 25 artists. I listen to a lot of music, naturally. I listened to Suzy Boggus the other night but then I find some new people like Tessy Lou Williams, who I mentioned earlier, there are a couple of guys in Texas who interested me. Everyone is doing these online things so if we are going to sign somebody it is not going to be as easy as going to hear them play, but the music is still out there and we are still following it, we have to sign new people to keep moving forward.
What do you think the music industry will be like post COVID?
There are a lot of trickle-down things like live gigs, and I follow both types of music, country and western, so I’m not out there on the pop or the rap scene but they are all having the same issues, musicians aren’t able to play and record sales are down, the new things that are being released have been in the pipeline since last year, people haven’t been able to go into the studio. The other thing you have is all the big festivals have been pushed back a year so people are now booking a year or two years out or longer when you are talking tours with American artists coming over. So that is going to have an impact, particularly when finding talent, I think. We are playing pretty close to traditional at Cow Pie so I think for us we have made an investment in vinyl which we are going to keep. We have our production partners in place, we have our mastering guys and we know it is going to sound and look good and we are taking the time to make sure that happens. For us I don’t think it is going to change that much next year but you are certainly going to see effects, it is already happening. How is new talent going to be booked next year when established talent is re-booking. No doubt things are backed up with regards to sales and I don’t know whether it will be like a rubber band where people will buy more records and downloads at the end of COVID. I tend to think this is definitely a major glitch but we will come out of it and I don’t see the economics really changing in the future.
You seem clear on the ethos of Cow Pie and you seem to know what you need to do. It seems as if you are as insulated from events as much as you can be. Would you agree with that?
Yes, we stick with what we know and we have a clear vision of what we want the label to be and I am so excited with the list of artists that we have, we are family right now, and that is going to continue. We are talking to Hank Wangford about a greatest hits, BJ is working on this next thing, Ags Connolly is as well, Morton Valence have a couple of surprises coming, so it will keep us busy. Look, I am not going to start a record label if I can’t influence the music it releases. We are super thankful for everyone who came into the Cow Pie boat.
At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share the top 3 tracks on Cow Pie’s current playlist, assuming there is such a thing?
I have been listening to more new music than I have ever have since we started the label. Even with my radio show, it has been primarily those 25 artists I mentioned earlier, Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart, Lefty…what have you and it has been like that for five years. Listening to more new stuff has been eye-opening, on my playlist I would say last years release by Mike and the Moonpies ‘Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold’, Vincent Neal Emerson is a cat I enjoyed with last years ‘Fried Chicken and Evil Women’ which is downhome Texas blues and I’m looking forward to his next offering, I must mention Marty Stewart and his record a few years ago, ‘Way Out West’, and that is kind of a legend even though it was three years ago. That is kind of where my heart is, and I always have time for Wynn Stewart, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. I am enjoying listening to new stuff and even more, to finding those kinds of artists in the UK when we get things rolling again.
You seem to be a fan of Wynn Stewart. Did I pick that up correctly?
Yeah, I am a big Wynn Stewart fan. He was there at the beginning and if you listen to his vocal style it is difficult to do better than that. Whatever the arrangements you can’t get away from a great singer. Marty Robbins is another one, he did everything but what a good singer and that is what draws people in. Lyrics are one thing, but to have that performance, those are legends just there.