For our third interview in this month’s Label In Residence series with New West Records, we talked with George Fontaine, Sr., New West owner (and longest running New West employee). Read on to find out how he first got connected with New West, his long-time connection to the explosively creative Athens, GA music scene, his favorite albums from the label’s Texas Music Group (Antone’s and Watermelon Records), and much more!
NoiseTrade: To properly set the stage, give us a little bit of your pre-New West musical background. How’d you first fall in love with music and how’d you end up making a career out of it?
George Fontaine, Sr.: I can remember my granddad giving me a transistor radio when I was around six years old in 1960 when I growing up in Chattanooga, TN. I went to bed every night with that radio on either the two AM Top 40 stations (WFLI, WGOW) or the soul station (WNOO). When I was fourteen, I saw James Brown at the Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga in 1968, and three years later saw the Allman Brothers (with Duane’s foot tapping in my face for three plus hours) at the McClellan Gym on the University of Chattanooga campus. I cannot place enough emphasis on how important those two concerts were in where I am today in this business.
NT: Tell us the story of how you got connected with New West and it’s original founder Cameron Strang. What drew you to New West in those early days?
Fontaine, Sr.: I was the owner of a small label in Austin called Doolittle Records. My original partner and I had parted ways, and I was looking for someone who knew how to run a record label. An associate put me in touch with Cameron Strang who owned and was operating New West. He needed capital, and I needed someone who understood the indie label business. We merged our two labels and here New West is many years later.
NT: Geographically, New West has always had a strong presence in the Athens music community, even with it also having offices in Nashville and previously in Los Angeles as well. What is your personal connection to Athens and what is New West’s history with the surrounding community in regards to its Athens office?
Fontaine, Sr.: Athens, GA… my love affair with Athens goes back to my time there as a student from 1972-76. I flat out love Athens. Before I left for Texas after getting married in 1976, I helped open the Georgia Theater music venue with two friends/partners. My family sent me to Texas to work in the family Coca-Cola Bottling business, so I was far removed from the day to day operations, but I would get back to town as often as possible to catch shows. During this time in Athens, we also had a small booking agency called Harmony Entertainment that was booking local bands, including Randall Bramblett who I am still working with today. He’s probably my favorite songwriter of all time. Anyway, after I left for Houston in 1977, the damn Athens music scene exploded. I always wanted to have a presence in Athens, so New West opened an office here seven years ago, and my wife and I moved back her three years ago with two sons, daughter-in-laws, and three grandchildren here as well. My oldest son, George, is here with New West. I also helped start the music business program at UGA eleven years ago as well. Proud to say there are many Bulldogs interspersed throughout this industry. My Athens love story is a long but dear one.
NT: New West also handles Texas Music Group, which includes the Antone’s and Watermelon Records labels. What can you tell us about each of those catalogs and do you have a couple favorite releases from each one?
Fontaine, Sr.: Living in Texas as long as I did, I was very familiar with records from those two Austin labels. Before Cameron left to run Warner Bros., he convinced me that we should try and pick those two labels up through bankruptcy and we were fortunate to do so. Growing up in the south and having a real love of soul and R&B music, I am more passionate of the Antone’s blues releases like James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, and Matt “Guitar” Murphy, but also love Alejandro Escovedo’s Gravity and Doug Sahm’s Juke Box Music releases from Watermelon.
NT: Finally, as the person who’s been at New West the longest, this might be an unfair question… but can you pick a couple favorite records that spans from New West’s earliest days all the way up to this year’s stellar batch of releases?
Fontaine, Sr.: Wow, you’re right on two fronts. I have been at New West the longest, and this is an unfair question. First of all, one of my favorite bands of all time on New West or otherwise is Slobberbone. Very few bands could touch them live for intensity on stage. Therefore, Slobberbone’s Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today, their pals the Drive-By Truckers Dirty South, and I would be remiss if I did not add Randall Bramblett’s No More Mr. Lucky from the early days. Present day New West records that I am very passionate about include Ron Gallo’s Heavy Meta, Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Silver Tears, and Rodney Crowell’s beautiful Close Ties. This is all subject to change by tomorrow.