As best as founder Greg Brown can recollect, Red House Records began around 1980, a funky little enterprise it’d be generous to call shoestring. “It was some boxes with two of my records in ’em and a notebook,” is how he puts it. The now living legend of folk-blues couldn’t convince labels of the day to take an interest and decided to hell with it—he’d record and market his music himself.
“I sent my tape around,” he recalls. “Nobody wanted to make a record. So, I set up my own deal.” This while he gigged out of and lived in a small, red house in the country, outside Iowa City, Iowa, (so much for the folksy notion that the label was named to honor the houses of the world’s oldest profession). Brown then got himself to St. Paul in 1983, signing on to perform on radio with Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion”—for considerably less money than he’d been told he’d be making.
“I had a family. So, I had to scramble and get a bunch of gigs.” Busy putting food on the table and a roof overhead, he turned to a fella he’d met just previously, a guy who’d “organized a benefit for an umbrella organization that dispersed money to different ecological and social service types of organizations. Me and Claudia Schmidt had played at one of ‘em.” This was Bob Feldman, a fan of Greg Brown’s and someone with the time to take things over while Brown went about making a living.
“Bob and I got to talkin’ and Bob said, ‘Why don’t you let me run it?’ There wasn’t much to run. All we really did was move the boxes and the notebook over to Bob’s apartment. From there, Bob turned it into a bona fide label.”
By the time of Feldman’s widely lamented passing this January at age 56, he had turned Red House Records into an internationally renowned enterprise. “It’s quite a living testament to Bob Feldman and how he managed to do that,” Brown reflects. “To be an independent anything these days—I don’t care whether it’s a restaurant, a mom-and-pop motel—it’s really hard. The whole process, right now, is for everything to become part of some corporation—to completely eradicate any independent businesses of any kind.
Bob was offered quite a bit of money by quite a few people to sell the label. There was a period there, during most of the ’90s, before the major labels fell apart, where [they] were buying up all the independent labels. Ostensibly to provide minor league farm teams for their labels. [But] one reason the major labels were sucking up to independents was to get rid of them. So, Bob resisted that and said, ‘No. We’re going to keep [Red House] as an independent.’
I have a lot of admiration for that. I have admiration for anybody who tries to keep any kind of thing that isn’t some version of McDonald’s. It’s a deadly, soul-killing, not to mention boring, process. So the way Bob managed to keep that thing goin’ for that long is sort of a living memorial to him, you might say.” He adds, “If I had run [the] label, it would’ve been whatever I liked. There’d’ve been some kind of wild jazz on there. Blues. This, that and the other. It would not have had an identity. I think Bob knew, if you’re gonna make it, you’ve gotta identify your niche to some extent. And go with that. So, that’s probably what made it a label that could last. Just more focus.”
For Feldman, that meant zeroing in on the folk-and-roots genre. Names like Peter Ostroushko, Dave Moore, Prudence Johnson, the one and only Spider John Koerner as well the immortal trio Koerner, Ray & Glover. He stuck to a heartland sound, building from a roster of Midwest artists that eventually expanded to draw on talent from the rest of the country, Canada and the UK. Feldman also put the label’s U.S. and UK distribution in the hands of Koch International, through which Red House discs are on racks as far away as Taiwan, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and across Europe.
It’d be enough that Red House Records went on to become a handsomely marketable product. After all, this year, Eliza Gilkyson’s Paradise Hotel walked off with four Folk Alliance Music Awards and Ostroushko’s score to “Minnesota: A History of the Land” (Twin Cities Public Television) won an Emmy. There’ve been a slew of Grammy nominations, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s win for South Coast. Indie awards have gone to Brown (One Big Town, The Poet Game, Slant 6 Mind), Ostroushko (Heart of the Heartland) Dean Magraw (Broken Silence), Utah Phillips & Rosalie Sorrels (The Long Memory), Martin Simpson (Cool & Unusual) Loudon Wainwright III (Last Man on Earth), Lucy Kaplansky (Ten Year Night, Every Single Day) and Guy Davis (You Don’t Know My Mind). Aside from the individual artists, the label itself was recently recognized with a Folk Alliance Music Award for Label of the Year.
Most remarkable is the how of it all—the personal touch and integrity with which Bob Feldman ran things. The informal, do-it-on-a-handshake partnership by which he and founder Greg Brown got the ball rolling has characterized the operation for the past quarter century. As president of Red House, Bob Feldman had a unique reputation for trusting his artists’ instincts and giving them broad creative control. He stayed good friends with many of the musicians and was both fan and business partner to quite a few of the artists—a quality basically unheard of in the general interaction between artists and record executives.
Feldman wasn’t just turning a buck the most exploitive way he knew how; he genuinely built and faithfully enhanced careers. He always attributed the label’s success to the quality of the roster and in an interview on Minnesota Public Radio’s website said, “They’re wonderful artists that we picked and got involved with, because of how they are in front of an audience more than anything else. Not, ‘Do they make a record that sounds like what the radio’s playing today?’ or anything like this. It’s for their longevity, and their importance as an artist and how they move audiences.”
Along with focus came flexibility and while Feldman never went the route of Greg Brown’s hypothetical hodgepodge, he did realize the need to eventually widen the scope of Red House Records, hanging on to the label’s folk-and-roots origins while accommodating a natural outgrowth.
Take, for example, the not-so-stark strains of Lucy Kaplansky, who, since 1994, has cut six releases on Red House. Her voice has a wizened quality, down to earth as a field of wheat. Set to the backup-band accompaniment of up-tempo cuts “Off And Running” and “Hole In The Head” from The Red Thread, it absolutely intrigues, setting serene and seductive against sho-nuff, countrified rock. “I Had Something” haunts—a wistful bluegrass ballad on which steel guitar and mandolin deftly underscore her siren’s call.
Kaplansky’s Red House bio notes that “when her tapes got into the hands of Bob Feldman … he was blown away.” Accordingly, he applied the same principle that held him in good stead when putting out work from bare-bones folksters. “[Red House has] always been really enthusiastic about what I do,” Kaplansky explains. “I hear stories from friends about their labels and when I hear what they go through, I realize [how good I have it]. Red House lets me do whatever I want. They don’t try to control the creative process at all. They trust me to do a good job.”
And then there’s angelic trio The Wailin’ Jennys, out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, just up north in Canada where their Red House debut 40 Days won a Juno Award in 2004. Singer-songwriters Ruth Moody (soprano), Nicky Mehta (mezzo) and Annabelle Chvostek (alto), who are regularly featured on A Prairie Home Companion, were quite a catch for Red House’s expanded vision. They’ve gone on to hit No. 2 on Billboard’s Bluegrass chart with Firecracker.
Moody, who wrote and sang lead on album stand-out “Things That You Know,” joins Kaplansky in applauding Red House’s honest approach to dealing with its artists. “It’s the people”, she says, “and how much they care about the artists. And, it’s the fact that it’s easy and natural to trust them in a world—in an industry—where you don’t know what end is up anymore. You always feel you know where you stand with them. They care about you. That may sound cliché, but that’s why we’re with them.”
If there is, so to speak, a poster-child for Red House Records’ seamless continuity, it has to be the recently signed duo The Pines—singer-songsmiths Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt. They certainly have the endorsement of Greg Brown who, though he handed the reins over to Bob Feldman, has stuck around the whole time.
“One thing that’s exciting, right now,” says Brown, “is the young blood. I hope there’s gonna be a lot more. That’s the only way this music in general [will] survive. I know that Red House is going to record The Pines. That’s exciting to me.”
Not surprising, considering their pedigree. Before coming to the label, The Pines were with Trailer Records in Iowa City, where Brown started out, his daughter Pieta Brown followed and seminal figure Bo Ramsey (Benson’s dad) made his mark. The “Iowa sound,” a natural for the label, is a contemporary take on the old-time folk aesthetic. The songs have more instruments playing, sharper production values, moodier chord progressions and the lyrics are a bit more poetic. But the feel is cut from the same rustic cloth.
Freshly transplanted to Minneapolis, they’ll be pressing their first Red House album this fall. Why switch from Trailer Records, where they were an integral part of the Iowa City music scene? Benson Ramsey says, “Trailer’s a smaller operation [and] they’re not putting any records out, really, right now. We were looking to record and just really like what Red House is doing. It’s nice to be a part of that.”
The new, improved exposure isn’t going to hurt a bit either. “It’s a national label, so that’s a big step up—pretty much where we want to be.” Not that they were pirated away or anything. In fact, they guys remain on good terms with the folk at Trailer. “Absolutely. That’s my family there. Dave Zollo, who owns and operates [that label], would probably can us if we were stupid enough not to move up. We’re all friends.” Asked what the best thing about being with this new label is, Ramsey echoes the amen chorus from other artists.
“The honesty. It’s an honest place in a business that can be very full of deceitful, greedy people. Red House is just about the artist. They care about the artist. It’s really hard to find. We’re lucky to be a part of it.” David Huckfelt feels the same way, attesting, “It really wasn’t that hard of a choice. Red House is one of my favorite labels and has been for a long time.”
Why? “It has to do with not catering to what’s popular, but sticking to putting out good songwriters and people who stretch the traditional forms. It’s a very independent label. It’s the kind of label Ben and I were looking for. [One] that would support us as [artists] and give us all the freedom we could ask for.”
Dovetailing with Brown’s sentiment, Huckfelt adds, “I’m glad to get the chance to put our music out there and not only for us, but to open doors that connect people to the generation before us, y’ know, as songwriters and musicians. I feel very lucky.
It’s not hard to understand why Brown says, “I have a lot of faith in the people who are now running Red House.” He’s talking about professionals who knew and loved Bob Feldman, who respect his vision and are wholly committed to seeing it carry on. The current staff consists of Feldman’s longtime friend, vice president of production for over 20 years and, now, label manager Eric Peltoniemi (whose album Song o’ Sad Laughter is on Red House), vice president of operations Chris Frymire, director of promotions Ellen Stanley, accounting assistant/bookkeeper Megan Hire and members of the Customer Service Department Roland Trenary, Rachel Goligoski and Beth Engelman.
Former director of promotions Alex Seitz shares Brown’s faith. “The staff lives this music. Eric, Chris and Ellen—are all intimately involved in a number of different corners of the business outside of their Red House responsibilities (performance, sound, radio production, etc.). They bring wisdom and savvy from both the artistic and business sides of the biz—a rare combination. Bob Feldman radiated passion for this music and his artists. He hired like-minded music lovers, and the results can be seen in all the years of success. These are people who care enough to obsess over the little things—song order, cover art, etc.” He sums up, “It’s an exciting time over there—I can’t wait to see how things progress over the next year or two.”
For good measure, there’s even a social benefit to the success of Red House Records. It’s a label where women can record on the strength of their merits, marketing themselves as more than eye-candy, and a black blues artist like Guy Davis can actually find an audience. Bottom line, Red House isn’t just a record company. It’s a place where people believe in music.