Small Maryland Blues Label Celebrates 10 Years of Making Records
If you drive east on Route 100 past Arundel Mills Mall, it only takes a few turns to discover one of the last few pockets of rural Anne Arundel County. On a two-lane blacktop in Severn is an old ranch house, surrounded by grassy fields, trees, and haphazardly parked old cars. But it's not the private home it appears to be; it's the main offices and recording studio for Severn Records, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend as one of the top record companies in the blues world. If it can't match the budgets and stars of the biggest blues labels--Alligator, Blind Pig, Rounder, Delmark, Telarc--it has emerged as a major presence on the second tier.
On a Tuesday afternoon earlier this month Charles Wilson, a Mississippi soul-blues singer now based in Chicago, was sitting at the house's kitchen table. The big, round man with the bald dome, goatee, and yellow shirt was punching the buttons on a boom box as he tried to learn the lyrics and melody to Sam Dees' "Trouble Child," a tune he'd be recording later that afternoon for his first Severn album. He had scribbled the words on a notepad and he sang them softly along with the CD; then he'd punch rewind and try it again.
Down the stairs from the kitchen, the Severn Records house band--Maryland's Benjie Porecki on keys, Philadelphia's Steve Gomes on bass, Boston's Monster Mike Welch on guitar, and Minneapolis' Robb Stupka on drums--was working out an arrangement for the same song. They had all driven or flown into town for the session, and they were tossing around ideas for the intro--Wurlitzer electric piano or B-3 organ? Wah-wah guitar or not? Strict time or stretched time? It's a measure of the band's quality that Welch, a recording artist himself, was hired for the house band only when the former guitarist, Johnny Moeller, was hired away by the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Back upstairs in the office, behind a computer and a desk, sits David Earl, the man responsible for Severn Records. The beefy 41-year-old with the salt-and-pepper goatee, a red polo shirt, and faded jeans points proudly at the wall where a poster advertises the label's 10th anniversary party at the Fish Head Cantina this weekend. The 12-hour extravaganza features such notable blues acts as Rhode Island's Sugar Ray Norcia, Scranton, Pa.'s Clarence Spady, Chicago's Lou Pride, Dallas' Mike Morgan, Boston's Darrell Nulisch, Philadelphia's Steve Guyger, and Maryland's Big Joe Maher. These aren't the biggest stars in the blues world, perhaps, but through their collaborations with the Roomful of Blues (Norcia), Curtis Mayfield (Pride), and Ronnie Earl (Nulisch), their names are familiar to blues fans and respected by critics.
"This show will be a celebration of us surviving, which is quite an accomplishment in the music business today," Earl proclaims. "We wanted to bring together the core acts on the label and celebrate as a family. We've had people ordering tickets from Indiana, Memphis, New York, even Norway. One guy called up and said, `Man, that's the best festival lineup all year.' We're co-sponsoring the show with the Baltimore Blues Society, because they've been such strong supporters of the label."
Earl was an accomplished blues guitarist before he started Severn Records. He grew up in Hyattsville and started playing guitar at 13 when he discovered his dad's Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley 45s. Even when he was a lacrosse player at Hofstra University and Salisbury University, he was playing in rock bands. In 1992 he landed a gig with Maryland blues pianist Daryl Davis, who made a living backing up the likes of Pinetop Perkins and the Coasters. That led to Earl's gigs with Big Joe Maher, the Uptown Rhythm Kings, Steve Guyger, and finally Big Jack Johnson, the legendary Mississippi bluesman who did one-nighters all over the country.
By 1997, though, Earl was weary of the road and looking for something else to do in music. About that time, the New Orleans label Black Top Records suspended operations, leaving two of Earl's friends, Maher and Nulisch, without a label. Earl set up a makeshift recording studio in his basement, and launched Severn Records with the 1998 release of three albums: Maher's I'm Still Swingin', Nulisch's The Whole Truth, and Guyger's Past Life Blues.
It was not an auspicious time to be starting a record company. There was a reason Black Top was going out of business. Small labels in every genre were struggling to find space in shrinking record stores, to get attention from shrinking newspapers and magazines, and to get exposure in the shrinking numbers of clubs. Even when they did sell records, they didn't always get paid. And for the blues, a genre that claimed an ever smaller slice of the marketplace, the challenges were even steeper.
"Blues became a small-niche music when it became more about the player and not so much about the songs," Earl says. "Every blues band had a hot guitar player, and that's great, but what are they really saying? What happened to the original feel of the blues? I wanted to start a label that wasn't about long, drawn-out solos but was more vocal-based. I wanted to find really good singers to sing really good songs over a heavy groove. I wanted to be more soul-based than the other labels--I wanted something more than just a jam."
Earl's philosophy is obvious in the three albums Severn has released this year. Guyger, the longtime harmonica player for Chicago blues legend Jimmy Rogers, blows some thick-toned solos on his new album, Radio Blues, but he always stays in the groove and always echoes the vocal melody. He not only draws on Chicago blues but also throws in some surprisingly strong Louisiana zydeco with his harmonica taking the place of the accordion.
Spady's Just Between Us splits the difference between blues and R&B just as Stax Records often did in the early '70s. Spady's gritty guitar sounds down-home Southern, but his smooth vocals and the sophisticated organ backing sound uptown Northern. Mike Morgan and the Crawl update the Texas blues tradition on Stronger Every Day with a remake of Gatemouth Brown's "Okie Dokie Stomp" and 13 originals by Morgan. Morgan is a fine guitarist, but he is wise to share the vocals with Lawrence, Kan., bluesman Lee McBee and Dallas singer/songwriter Randy McAllister.
In the next few years, Earl plans to release albums by Lou Pride, Johnny Moeller, and Charles Wilson. It's a measure of Severn's stature in the blues and retro-soul world that Wilson contacted the label after recording for the Delmark, Ichiban, Traction, and Ecko labels. Some of these companies often take short cuts in the studio with drum machines and programmed tracks, and Wilson wanted to record with a real band. He was impressed that Severn maintained a house band, a rarity in this day and age.
"I've been touring on the black chitlin' circuit and the white blues clubs," Wilson admits, "and I want to make a record that will get me into more of the blues clubs where the pay is better."
"Charles has an incredibly soulful voice," Earl says. "It's tough, but it's got a sensitive side. He never forces it. He's been ill-served on some of his other records, and I like to bring in a great singer like that, put real musicians behind him, and see what happens. I also like that he's as much a soul singer as a blues singer. I don't want to be just a blues label. We've done a jazz album with Buck Hill and a rock 'n' funk record with the All Mighty Senators. I'm willing to do anything as long as it's good music."
The Malian Blues (4/14/2010)
Finding the soul of American blues music an ocean away
Hungry for Truth (2/24/2010)
The Holmes Brothers return to the blues' reportorial songwriting strengths with Feed My Soul
Phantom Power (3/11/2009)
Guitarist Loren Connors resurrects a 28-year-old recording made in a legendary Connecticut cemetery
Drinking Songs (7/14/2010)
Patuxent Records keeps barroom bluegrass alive in Maryland
A Foolish Wit (7/7/2010)
The Bard's screwball comedy face plants
Keeping it Together (6/30/2010)
Marah and the Hold Steady add a harder, not as hopeful edge to Bruce Springsteen's working-class angst
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201