St. Paul’s Red House Records has done the impossible: surviving since 1983 and, now, prevailing as arguably America’s most significant purveyor of acoustic blues and folk music. This in a day and age when corporations have shunted blues, rock, jazz, and just about every other legitimate genre off the television and radio airwaves in favor of pop-schmaltz and thug-and-stripper rap. You can hardly blame the label for congratulating itself with a 25th anniversary concert tour.
Our Side of Town: Red House Records’ 25th Anniversary Concert is Saturday, November 22nd, 8 p.m. at the Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis. For information, see thecedar.org.
The tour began in St. Paul last February and has made stops in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Austin, Texas. Soon it will come full circle, winding down in Minneapolis at the Cedar Cultural Center—where, in fact, a lot of Red House artists got their start. There’ll be a hot ticket blowout featuring John Gorka, Cliff Eberhardt, and Eliza Gilkyson. (By the by, Grammy-nominated songwriter Gilkyson’s new album Beautiful World was met with a slew of glowing reviews and called a “masterpiece” by the All Music Guide.)
The Cedar Cultural Center show, billed as “Our Side of Town: Red House Records’ 25th Anniversary Grand Finale Concert,” has another big plus. The newly-released 3-CD box set Red House 25: A Silver Anniversary Retrospective will be on sale at the event. It’s 64 tracks (including previously unissued material) by acclaimed folk and roots names like Red House founder Greg Brown, the Wailin’ Jennys, Utah Phillips, Lucy Kaplansky, Loudon Wainwright III, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and a bunch more.
Ellen Stanley is director of publicity and promotions at Red House Records—and, when she steps into the phone booth, she emerges as her alter ego, acoustic performer Mother Banjo. (Her EP Swing Low is well-worth a good listen.) Don’t look for her on the box set, though. Stanley’s not a Red House artist—she just works there.
Without exception, Red House Records artists I’ve interviewed say the label Red House respects them and gives them complete artistic control. You don’t often hear that. With co-founder Bob Feldman’s passing, who’s been most active in sustaining that practice of putting the artist first at Red House Records?
Red House’s new president Eric Peltoniemi was one of the first employees at Red House, along with vice president of operations Chris Frymire. They worked closely with Bob to help build the label [and they] carry on Bob’s vision of being an artist-driven label.
The silver anniversary box set. Who decided what material went on it and how did he, she, or they go about making what had to be tough choices?
All the staff helped in selecting the tracks, each person selecting their favorite songs from each year. This narrowed the list of about 2,500 total Red House songs to about 210. From there, Eric worked on further narrowing the song selection, focusing on the label’s musical diversity and artists that have been important to the label’s history. The staff helped him program the tracks chronologically, making sure they had a good sense of flow. Minnesota folks will be especially excited to find tracks from West Bank legends Spider John Koerner, Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson, Dean Magraw, and Pat Donohue, as well as a live John Gorka track recorded at the Cedar Cultural Center in 1989.
How pleased are you with the end product?
I’m very proud of the project and feel that it does justice to the music as well as the history of one of the longest-running roots music labels in the country. It includes archival photos, a complete history, extensive liner notes, background stories and testimonials from people in the industry and other artists that have been influenced by Red House’s music. It truly captures the depth and breadth.
It may not be rags to riches, but Red House certainly went from shoestrings to international success in putting out music that doesn’t depend on the latest pop trend. How’s it feel to be part of an operation that has stayed such a course?
I feel so honored to be a part of Red House. I was a fan of the label many years before I worked here, and I still can’t believe I get to work with some of my favorite artists. It’s fun and rewarding work to help promote music I believe in.
How’d you first come in contact with Red House?
I first met Bob Feldman when I was a student at Oberlin College, running the folk festival, which brought in many Red House acts. After I graduated, I moved here and got involved in the local music scene, and ended up hosting the radio show after his on KFAI. Eventually our stars aligned and he hired me to be a publicist at Red House—something I’ll always be grateful for.
What’s next for Red House Records?
A busy 2009, with new releases from Jorma Kaukonen, Guy Davis, Storyhill, John Gorka, and a label debut from a new artist we’re very excited about and will be announcing soon!
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.