For our second interview in this month’s Label In Residence series with New West Records, we wanted to get a bit of an outsider’s perspective on the label from a respected journalistic voice in the industry. We caught up with Craig Havighurst (host of The String, co-host/journalist for Music City Roots, author of Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City) over email to discuss the history of New West, their adventurous contributions to the Americana genre over the years, the relevancy of music videos for indie label artists, his New West album recommendations, and much more!
NoiseTrade: From a journalistic perspective, give us some of your thoughts on the history of New West Records and what role they filled when they first came on the scene in the late 1990s.
Craig Havighurst: I’m pretty sure the first New West album I acquired and fell hard for was Special Twenty by Tim Easton in 1998. I was floored by Tim’s mix of grit and literary voice. His follow up was even better, and that was when I was able to credit a new label – New West – with introducing me to a truly great artist. About the same time they came out with Mountain, the iconoclastic collaboration between Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band. That’s a historic achievement with two familiar and beloved artists that suggested New West was going to support innovation and risky projects. I also remember the impact on me of John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters, a landmark for him. And so the pattern was set: Smart artists who weren’t being supported by anybody else and unique projects by artists we knew. I feel like they’ve never wavered from that commitment.
NT: What roles do record labels play in the music business today and how do you see New West approaching those various elements of the industry for both their artists and their fans?
Havighurst: A lot of labels had to get spanked pretty hard and pay a terrible price in the 2000s when CD sales collapsed. Even where the indies weren’t at fault for making the mass public cynical about music by releasing a lot of garbage, they paid the price for the majors having done so. And even some tent pole Americana indies like Sugar Hill and Rounder wound up being acquired and thus running less freely than their former selves. But New West was one of the labels that kept its sails trimmed and kept releasing stellar music and acting like the curator and promoter labels are supposed to be. They didn’t adopt any new-age models that I’m aware of. They just kept signing great artists, promoting them wherever they could and building the brand by showing up at the key music business events. I admire that. They’re still standing. They’re a label you can count on in the old school sense. The brand means the music is going to be worth listening to and likely excellent.
NT: How do you think New West has helped to define and develop the unruly Americana genre over the years and are there particular New West releases that you think have made significant contributions to that conversation?
Havighurst: It’s quite an accomplishment to be a core Americana label after just a few years, but that’s what New West achieved. Giving a home to Delbert McClinton and Chuck Prophet and Billy Joe Shaver right away spoke volumes. The label folks weren’t just about intellectual songwriters. They were backing badass road house and honky tonk music as well as folks that sound delicious on a performing arts center kind of scene. Add to that the edgier and weirder artists who’ve found a shelter – Vic Chesnutt, Slobberbone and Daniel Romano for example – and the harder rocking stuff, the Old 97s, Tom Morello and Drive By Truckers, and you’ve got an incredibly rounded and diverse vision of American music. New West has also released some of the masterpieces of the genre – Buddy Miller’s Universal United House of Prayer, The Flatlanders Now Again and Mountain which I mentioned earlier. That’s part of expanding a format for sure. New West could be doing more I think in the zones of soul, blues, Mississippi and Memphis-tinged sounds, but with a name like New West I suppose that may not have been its destiny.
NT: One of the cooler things that I think New West does really well that most labels aren’t exactly focusing on right now is music videos. Without an established cultural hub like MTV or VH1, do you feel music videos still have a place in the cultural conversation and if so, has their function or purpose changed at all over the years?
Havighurst: Thank the gods that we no longer have to count on some Viacom company to curate or sequence our music videos for us. I’m glad I lived through the MTV era, and some good came of it, but internet video is probably the most impactful thing that happened to indie and indie-minded musicians (and fans) since the cassette tape. Costs of production came way down. New creative types stepped up to make smarter, more intimate video on behalf of and in cahoots with artists. It’s a renaissance. For labels, it’s tough because videos used to be made with hopes of mass viewership on a single channel, so now it’s about leaner budgets and hopes for virality. But I’m glad to see New West and others selectively investing in concept videos. Aaron Lee Tasjan’s recent “Til The Town Goes Dark” is a good example of a song well enhanced with imagery. That said, I’m ultimately going to learn the most about an artist quickly through well made live performance video, and we’re seeing a lot of that out there as well. New West’s DVD series with Austin City Limits has been important. Video is our global and national language now, for good or ill, so there’s just no choice but to marry it with quality music.
NT: Finally, do you have a few personal New West go-to favorites that you recommend our audience check out for themselves?
Havighurst: I’ve mentioned several of the ones I regard as classics. But also, from early on, and I hadn’t gone back to it in a while, is the obscure but excellent Lunette by Jim Roll, who clearly shares my love for R.E.M. and Alex Chilton. I think Randall Bramblett is one of the unheralded masters of our time and I’m thrilled the label has given him a platform to build an impressive catalog. Still, No More Mr. Lucky remains a cherished title for me. Buddy Miller’s Universal United House of Prayer is iconic in his career and in the format in general. I was thrilled to see New West team up with folk rock god Richard Thompson for Electric, which I thought his best in a while. And Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Silver Tears will always leave me astonished for its inventiveness. I know he’d released music before, but that album will I think be regarded as the breakout masterstroke of a major artist.