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The Sounds of Success

The Sounds of SuccessRounder Records, co-founded by Tufts graduates Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin, become the second independent label ever to bring home album and record of the year at this year's Grammy Awards.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.23.09] Ken Irwin still remembers the day, 20-some odd years ago, when he was sunning himself on the roof of his Somerville garage and popped a demo tape into the player to give it a listen. Without the ability to skip through tracks-an option not yet available in the pre-CD era of the mid-80s-Irwin listened to each song from start to finish until reaching track four, when he hit the "pause" button as a new voice sounded.

"That was the first time I heard Alison," he says.

At the time, 13-year-old Alison Krauss was a fiddle player in the band Classified Grass but Irwin and fellow Tufts graduate Bill Nowlin, co-founders of the independent record label Rounder Records, heard her potential as a vocalist.

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That potential was realized over the years, and Krauss continues to make a name for herself as the most-awarded female artist in Grammy history. On Feb. 8, as Irwin and Nowlin took their seats at the 51st Grammy Awards, they saw their initial hunch further confirmed. Krauss's album "Raising Sand," a collaboration with former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, swept every category in which it was entered, including the top two of the night, album and record of the year. By claiming those trophies, Rounder became the second independent label ever to do so.

"When we started out, our only goal was to have a record that would be considered a classic. By that, my thought was, if someone put together a list of the 10 best banjo albums or the 10 best fiddle records, we would be on there," Irwin says. "So, this was pretty much beyond belief."

The album had garnered a lot of attention leading up to the Grammys because of the unusual pairing of singers from notably different genres-heavy metal and bluegrass. Nowlin, however, says that is what the Grammys are all about.

"I never would have thought of seeing Justin Timberlake and Al Green performing together, but there it was," he says of their performance at the ceremony. Of the Krauss and Plant pairing, according to Irwin "Everyone says, ‘Here's this smooth, angelic voice' on Alison, and [Plant] is almost the antithesis from a vocal standpoint, but they have the same sensitivity to roots music."

He adds, "It really helped having a producer like T-Bone Burnett, who could work with both personalities and help suggest much of the music and how to treat it. He was a very integral part of bringing it all together."

The Plant/Krauss combination was something that came together over several years, according to Irwin. Plant, on a recommendation from a friend, had called Krauss about playing together, but nothing actually happen until years later at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for bluesman Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, in 2004.

"Robert was asked to sing at the induction and he asked Alison to come up on stage and sing with him," Irwin says. "They sounded good together, so he said, well maybe we should try recording. If didn't work, they'd still be friends and just go their merry way, and if it did work it would be great."

He adds, "They made this amazing record which is neither Alison's music nor Robert's. They both really stretched their limits as performers."

Irwin recalls his first time talking to Krauss, when he called to sign her to his label.

"Her mother just handed the phone off to her when I called, and here was this 13-year-old who spoke more like she was 16 or 17," he says. "Then I said to her, 'We want to do a record with you,' and at that point everything cracked and she said 'Mommy, mommy'-though she swears to this day that she said 'Mother, mother'-and it was the first time I saw the veneer crack and the kid came out, which was really lovely."

Collaborators since their roommate days at Tufts, where the idea for Rounder Records was born after several hitchhiking trips to bluegrass festivals across the country, Irwin and Nowlin have weathered the storm as an independent label for nearly four decades, through the decline of retail space and the boom of online sales.

"There'd be times when major labels would be involved in a bidding war and we'd just be on the sidelines, not even a player," Irwin says. "But in terms of some of the positives, we've been able to make our own decisions as to who we wanted to sign and what kinds of music. We're small and can move fairly quickly and make decisions and make changes."

While he notes that it is too early to tell what these wins will really mean for Rounder, Irwin adds that since the Grammys, "I think there is a new respect and appreciation for our company."

"We know we've recorded a lot of music that other companies wouldn't have recorded, and we still do," says Nowlin. "People would say, 'What, that's nuts, why would you put that out,' and we'd say, 'Well, because it's the only music of its sort. And besides, we kind of like it.'"

Story by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications.

 

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