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40 years later, still singing sweet harmony

Rounder Records celebrates milestone with special on PBS

Rounder Records owners Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy, and Bill Nowlin. Rounder Records owners Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy, and Bill Nowlin. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / February 28, 2010

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It’s an odd fact that the corporate office of Rounder Records is less than a mile from the Burlington Mall. With the long-running Massachusetts label specializing in folk, bluegrass, and indigenous music from around the globe, the nondescript two-story brick building, set back in a wooded grove off the Middlesex Turnpike, might as well be a log cabin in the long shadow of American mall culture.

That hasn’t stopped the company from becoming one of the most successful independent record labels in the business. In the coming weeks, PBS stations across the country will broadcast Rounder’s 40th anniversary concert, filmed last fall at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. WGBH will debut the special on March 8 at 8:30 p.m.

Hosted by singer-actress Minnie Driver, the show features performances by Alison Krauss, Madeleine Peyroux, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and comedian Steve Martin in his alter-ego as a serious banjo player. The event was a rare opportunity for the label’s three co-founders to bask, however briefly, in the cultural preservation that has defined their commercial enterprise.

“It’s more than business for the sake of doing business,’’ said Bill Nowlin recently in the Rounder conference room with his two co-owners. “We like to think there’s some cultural significance to what we do.’’

Not that these old friends, who met as music-obsessed college students in Cambridge’s folkie heyday, have a haughty perspective on their collective lives’ work.

“We don’t want to call it a ‘higher calling,’ ’’ said Ken Irwin with a smile.

While the record industry struggles with major technological and economic changes, Rounder was rewarded for its stoicism at last year’s Grammys, when the label took home its first Album of the Year honor for the collaboration between Krauss, its top-selling, fiddle-playing songbird, and former Led Zeppelin banshee Robert Plant.

For a company that has weathered plenty of storms in its 40 years, often hoping just to break even on pet projects with limited commercial potential - collections of Cajun and Celtic music and historic recordings of old-time rural shouting contests - the Grammy win and the Opry gala represent a vindication of sorts.

Anxiety in the business is nothing new, noted the third co-founder, Marian Leighton Levy. She remembers the early ’80s being “particularly fraught,’’ followed by a debilitating mid-’90s price war between Circuit City and Best Buy. Every day, Rounder employees drive past a reminder of such uncertainties: Near their office is a defunct Tweeter store.

“Things are always changing,’’ said Leighton Levy. “You’re looking for a stable place to hang your hat? This is not a business to be in.’’

After more than 20 years in a make-do building on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge - the CEO was often interrupted by the squeaking of a clothesline outside his window - Rounder moved to the remodeled Burlington office, a former technical school, in early 2007. No longer acting as a distributor for dozens of small independent labels, the company needed considerably less warehouse space; its payroll has been trimmed from 100 to about 35 employees.

When they moved, Nowlin went to a town selectmen’s meeting to request permission to change their mailing address to One Rounder Way.

“Nobody had been in the building for several years,’’ he said. “They were happy to have somebody come in.’’

Irwin and Leighton Levy now make their homes in Newburyport. Nowlin, who is also known as a Red Sox historian, having written, co-written, or edited a small library of books on the team, still lives in Cambridge.

Over slices of a Mardi Gras king cake, the co-founders talked about the label’s hard-won core of repeat customers, who still buy plenty of compact discs at a time when digital downloads have become the focus of the industry.

“Most people think physical product is much deader than it is,’’ said Leighton Levy.

Despite their mainstream success with Plant and Krauss’s “Raising Sand,’’ the owners regret that they can’t afford to take esoteric risks as routinely as they once did. Nowlin mentioned a YouTube video someone recently alerted him to, featuring an African musician tapping dazzling sounds out of a guitar with the help of a spoon held in his teeth.

“In years past, I would have hopped on a plane,’’ he said. “If we could sell 2,500 copies, that would be enough to cover our expenses.’’

Asked to identify their personal favorites over the years, Leighton Levy cited several New Orleans acts. Irwin recalled first hearing a demo tape of the Whitstein Brothers, an old-time country-harmony duo, in his car: “I had to pull over,’’ he said.

As he recounted an anecdote about a surprise meeting between the Judds, the hit mother-daughter country act of the 1980s, and their singing heroes, bluegrass pioneers Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Irwin suddenly found himself sniffling.

“Weird that I get choked up, 30 years after the fact,’’ he said.

Clearly, the business they built remains an emotional and intellectual commitment. As Irwin blew his nose, Nowlin told him that he’d been listening to Dickens just the night before. Her solo lament about the coal miners’ affliction, “Black Lung,’’ had unexpectedly made him cry.

After four decades, the Rounder catalog still has the power “to reduce two of us to tears within 18 hours,’’ Nowlin joked.

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