Q&A with David Menconi author of “Oh, Didn’t They Ramble”

The following is a Q&A with David Menconi, whose second book with UNC PRESS Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music is available now wherever books are sold.

Oh, Didn’t They Ramble is the definitive history of Rounder Records, drawing on previously untapped archives and extensive interviews with artists, Rounder staff, and founders Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy, and Bill Nowlin. 

What led you to write Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music?

I covered music for daily newspapers for a lot of years, most of them at the News & Observer in Raleigh. Over time I developed a peculiar fascination with the business side of the music industry, especially record companies. The uglier side of the music industry was the subject of the very first book I wrote way back in 2000, Off The Record. That was a novel full of thinly fictionalized war stories of the sort that would get you sued (or worse) if you tried to write about them in a journalistic sense. But if you change some names and call it fiction, you can get away with it.

            The record business also figured into my 2020 history of North Carolina music, Step It Up & Go (also published by UNC Press). And it’s the primary subject of my latest book, Oh, Didn’t They Ramble, which traces the amazing history of the legendary folk label Rounder Records – but it’s a much gentler story than Off The Record, of a grassroots counter-cultural operation that somehow became an institution.

            Even though Rounder began up in Massachusetts and is now based in Nashville, the label founders donated their archive to UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection. That’s how UNC Press wound up commissioning a book about them, and I was who they picked to write it. At the 11th hour of the pre-publication process, I also acquired a “co-writer” when Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Robert Plant contributed a foreword. I’m thrilled to have it.

What was your goal for the book when you started, and did it change over time?

            When I use adjectives like “legendary,” “amazing” and “remarkable” about Rounder, that’s not an exaggeration. The label’s origins are rooted in the great folk revival that swept American college campuses in the 1950s and ’60s, a pre-Beatlemania moment when Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary were topping the pop charts. Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton Levy entered college toward the tail end of the folk revival, and they spent some years in the ’60s traveling the country going to folk festivals. The Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention down here in North Carolina was the first one they went to.

            On this festival circuit, they would encounter worthy artists who had never been recorded because the big labels weren’t interested. So they decided to do it themselves and started up Rounder in 1970. Somehow, they put out more than 3,000 albums, averaging more than one a week for 50-plus years (an era when most independent labels didn’t manage more than one a month). While they were a specialty niche label that started out doing old-time banjo records, Rounder also had some unlikely commercial successes with blues-rocker George Thorogood and bluegrass-fiddler pop star Alison Krauss. That gave them the wherewithal to expand into everything from reggae to college-radio alternative rock, plus blues, soul, gospel, zydeco. You name it, Rounder was probably putting it out. Eventually, this wide range of styles coalesced into the big-tent musical format we know today as Americana. Rounder had a lot to do with setting the canon, because the label released a lot of it.

            While I knew the broad-brush outlines of Rounder’s story, I never realized just how massive their catalog is. The sheer volume of what they put out is truly staggering, and it has some wonderfully odd nooks and crannies like “Hollerin’,” a compilation of rural field hollers that Rounder released in 1976. As I noted in the book,  “Hollerin’” is both a worthy piece of folklore and a great device for clearing one’s house of unwanted visitors.

            There’s no way you could do the Rounder catalog justice with a single playlist, but I put one together to accompany my book (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6XQ6cE2gbwdE1C1JGxm7YB). It has more than just Rounder material – almost every artist and song mentioned in Oh, Didn’t They Ramble is on it.

What did you find surprising while researching/writing this book?

Rounder’s legacy is overwhelmingly positive, and it stands as a gift to art and culture that will last long after the label’s founders are gone. And yet the story has its darker moments, too. Maybe the most surprising was what happened after George Thorogood’s commercial breakthrough in the late 1970s. That unexpected windfall allowed Rounder’s founders to expand their offerings, but it also got the label’s employees thinking that more money should be changing hands for their labor. They voted to unionize and Rounder ownership fought it, hiring the same law firm that had defended Richard Nixon during Watergate. Rounder would remain a union shop for more than 20 years.

            There was considerable irony in this, given that Rounder had started out as a self-proclaimed “anti-profit collective” while releasing pro-labor albums like the 1973 compilation “Come All You Coal Miners.” But it is to the Rounder founders’ credit that, by the time we talked, they seemed to feel genuine regret for how it all went down. I appreciated their willingness to discuss it.

            That appears in a chapter titled “More Money, More Problems.”

What piece of advice would you offer authors that are currently writing their first book?

            Set reasonable, attainable goals for your book, by which I mean break it down into manageable chunks. Spend too much time dwelling on the totality of a 50,000-word book, and it can be so overwhelming that paralysis sets in. But if you compartmentalize it into a dozen or so 4,000-word magazine articles, each one a book chapter, it feels like a more manageable way to think about it.

            Take the research and writing one step at a time, and don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Trust the process. And if you get stuck, back up and just keep going. That saying about how 90 percent of writing is rewriting really is true – you’re just gonna have to rewrite it anyway.