Book Review: Oh, Didn’t They Ramble

It’s almost always fascinating and illuminating to learn the back story behind successful ventures. And on a creative and artistic level, there are few endeavors as successful as Rounder Records. Today the roots music label launched more than 50 years ago is a division of Concord Records, but when its trio of founders – Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy and Bill Nowlin – started it, Rounder was a scruffy upstart. And veteran music journalist David Menconi (author of the superb 2020 chronicle of North Carolina music, Step It Up and Go, as well as other highly regarded titles) is the perfect person to tell the story.

The Massachusetts trio wasn’t a likely one to embark upon such an adventure. They were young, wholly without business experience, and avowed anarchists. None of those qualities would seem to augur well in the world of the music business, especially when the biz was at its peak. But succeed they did, by dint of hard work and unbridled passion for the music. Much of what they did shouldn’t have worked, but it did work. After a slow start, Rounder quickly grew into great importance, shining a light on corners of the music landscape that hadn’t previously gotten a lot of love (at least not in a commercial sense).

Menconi’s writing style moves the story along, never burdening the reader with too much “inside baseball” arcana. Instead he focuses on the personalities and their travails and achievements. When he digs into some of Rounder’s more unusual moves (like signing George Thorogood to the label), he presents the facts in a way that fits seamlessly into the larger narrative. At a comparatively slim 224 pages, Oh, Didn’t they Ramble is a tidy and enlightening tale of one of music’s most significant independent labels.

I’ll be interviewing David Menconi in an October 20 livestream discussion hosted by Malaprop’s Bookstore; details on that are here.