David vs. Goliath
On the drive into the office this morning I caught a commotion out the corner of my eye. Turns out, a very spunky squirrel was standing up to a very large red-tailed hawk. The squirrel won that round, literally jumping up and clawing at the hawk as it turned tail to fly away. The episode brought the underlying spirit of this issue into focus for me.
Many of the stories presented herein have to one degree or another an element of the David versus Goliath parable, beginning with our cover story on Oh Boy Records.
John Prine made a ballsy move when he decided to walk away from a major label to start his own. He’d had a string of successful singles, to be sure, but, in the capricious and fickle land of the music business, walking away from the infrastructure and support a major offered wasn’t without risk, especially in the early ’80s. Making a record was an expensive proposition in those days, and independent promotion and distribution channels didn’t exist to the extent they do today. His was a case of David saying to Goliath, ”You don’t understand what I’m trying to do, so I’m gonna go do it without you.”
It’s difficult to understand the context of that time in Nashville if you weren’t, at the very least, peripheral to it. I was, and I remember seeing Prine play in local clubs to a handful of people. The same goes for Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. The three of them have become bona fide legends of the genre known now as Americana, but at the time they were lucky to cover their bar tabs.
Prine’s – and by extension, Oh Boy’s – journey, girded as it was and is by an independent spirit and staying true to the art above all other considerations, has struck a chord with a new generation of artists. The life well lived of a brilliant songwriter has become its own parable, one the struggling songwriter can turn to for comfort and strength when there isn’t enough money to pay the rent, when the mailbox is full of rejection letters instead of royalty checks.
So, too, does the parable apply when it comes to vinyl records. I remember going into to Grimey’s first joint in what was basically a ranch house in Berry Hill containing Mike Grimes’ personal (vinyl and very preloved) record collection. I seriously doubt Grimey had any inkling that things would turn out like they have. Not to take anything away from him; the guy is a walking encyclopedia of music. Try stumping him on some obscure release sometime. More than that, as far as the success of Grimey’s New & Pre-Loved Music goes, has been his uncanny ability to surround himself with seriously talented people. People like Doyle Davis and the subject of one of our features, Anna Lundy.
The tenacity she and the Grimey’s family bring to their collective labor of love has had a huge impact on the resurgence of vinyl in the marketplace. Maybe in an unguarded moment one of them might humbly acknowledge this, but don’t be fooled. Their impact can’t be overstated. While the rest of the music business was literally freaking out about downloads and streaming, the Grimey’s team soldiered on to become a cornerstone of the vinyl renaissance.
Jack White seems to have been born with a magnetic tape brain, so the founding of Third Man Records seems like part of his evolutionary process. He, too, found kindred spirits early on with the likes of Ben Blackwell, the focus of ”The Vinyl Frontier” feature. Third Man’s launch took guts. Success was by no means guaranteed. The Music Row majors still held a tight grip on the city’s image and profit margins and weren’t interested in sharing with some upstart – even if it was White’s upstart.
East Nashville has a way of pulling in the Davids of the world, providing solace through a shared struggle against the powers that be. I, for one, am proud to have them as neighbors.