Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Starday Story by Nathan D. Gibson

The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built
by Nathan D. Gibson with Don Pierce
University Press of Mississippi, 2011

And so we have a Starday book. Even in my least pessimistic moments, I would not have thought that such a conception could be realized in these distressing times. But Nate Gibson and the increasingly daring editorial board of the University Press of Mississippi have embarrassed my cynicism into temporary remission with this book.

Yodeling Kenny Roberts' Indian Love Call LP does not mark most people's entree to the Starday label. But it becomes clear early on in this book that Nathan D. Gibson is not by any stretch an ordinary listener. A young undergraduate at Emory College in Boston, Gibson, exerting an enthusiasm for vintage country music that I would have thought completely alien to a modern college student, tracks down Roberts and invites him to appear on a recording session with his band in the early 2000s. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon he's on the phone with Don Pierce, president of Starday Records. When Pierce tells Gibson he's available to answer any questions he may have about the label, Nathan hops the next plane to Nashville. The idea for a book soon comes into focus.

Amazing what can happen when you talk to people.

Between 1953 and 1970, Starday and its affiliates released a staggering 2,200+ singles and EPs, and 500+ LPs. To help put that in perspective, Sun/Phillips International released a mere 323 singles and EPs, and 20 LPs within roughly the same time frame. It was one of the most prolific and active labels going during vinyl's heyday, a juggernaut that touched upon a wide array of American vernacular music styles -- except blues. As early as 1956, Pierce was advertising the label as "Exclusively Country-Western," like General Motors a brand name that you could trust.

Starday was begun by Jack Starns, Jr. and Pappy Daily, but it was really Don Pierce, a Seattle-born accountant (who bought into the label shortly after its formation) who made the label a success. Pierce comes across as one of the greatest hypesters in the music business, impossible to dislike, a born promoter who never has a negative thing to say about anyone. A savvy businessman, by the late fifties he recognized that a market existed for bluegrass and old-timers after the major labels had jettisoned them from their studios, and promoted this angle to the hilt. Starday thus became synonymous with "traditional" country music in the late fifties and sixties, perpetually hyping itself as the real thing, not some cash-in on the latest trend. (Pierce hoped no one remembered the rockabilly singles, and must have been tremendously embarrassed when Gibson brought them up.) It was a successful formula -- for awhile.

As you could expect from an economics major, Pierce is great with numbers, instantly recalling the exact sales figures of Starday's hits. And, as with any true music industry insider, he is constantly dropping names: Ralph Peer, Jim Denny, Syd Nathan, Jean and Julian Aberbach, and many more all flit through The Starday Story, and I'm sure Pierce could have kept going until the author stopped him. What Pierce is not so great with is music. His sole comment on the subject? "I want to hear the melody. I don't want no hot licks in there...I said, 'Keep it simple.' We're selling that song and the artist, we're not selling hot licks. That was my code." It was adherence to this "code" that in fact kept much of country music boring and predictable throughout the sixties, and in this regard, Pierce was identical to his peers at the major labels. After George Jones, Starday never developed another major young talent.

Starday eventually couldn't compete with the majors, and was in trouble by 1967. Pierce summoned his vast experience as a salesman and hypester to unload Starday and King, by then two barely functioning labels with only one commercially viable artist between them (James Brown) to Lin Broadcasting in 1970 for an astonishing $2.7 million ($14.9 million in today's dollars). It was only the two labels' song publishing branches (which were included in the deal) that have allowed a portion of that money to be recouped over the decades. Moe Lytle later bought the masters for $375,000.

Gibson covers a lot of ground in this book -- the early western swing and honky-tonk years get a chapter, rockabilly gets a chapter, bluegrass gets full coverage, and he, more so than Pierce ever did, realizes that the custom series is probably the heart of the Starday legend. It would be impossible to thoroughly cover so huge an array of artists and styles in one book, but Gibson does an admirable job hitting on all of the most relevant aspects of "the house that country music built." A remarkably thorough 70 page discography completes the book, helping make The Starday Story both a fun, insightful read as well as an essential reference work for years to come.