Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music

How long have you been interested in bluegrass and old-time music? Could it be that records by George Pegram, the Boston-based Spark Gap Wonder Boys, or Joe Val were among the first that you bought? 

What these artists and the likes of Alice Gerard, Alison Krauss, George Thorogood, Sun Ra, Béla Fleck, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the Blake Babies, and Billy Strings have in common is a chapter in the history of Rounder Records.

In a new book, Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music, David Menconi traces the story of the legendary music label founded in 1970, beginning in the wake of the American folk revival and 1960s movement politics, formed around the eclectic tastes and audacious ideals of three then-recent college graduates who lived, listened, and worked together. 

He draws on previously untapped archives and extensive interviews with artists, Rounder staff, and founders Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy, and Bill Nowlin, who blended ingenuity and independence with serendipity and an unfailing belief in the ‘small-d’ democratic power of music to connect and inspire people, forging creative partnerships that resulted in one of the most eclectic and creative catalogs in the history of recorded music.

For Raleigh resident Menconi, who is recently retired after covering the arts for the Raleigh News & Observer for many years, his ramble started in 2020 ….

“I wound up doing this book primarily because the Rounder Founders’ archive wound up down here at the University of North Carolina’s Southern Folklife Collection. 

I was familiar with Rounder before, obviously, but did not know a lot of the details about their history. It’s quite a tale.

Due to the pandemic, I was not able to spend as much time physically with the Rounders up in Massachusetts. But I did take a trip there the summer before last, and we were in constant phone, email and Zoom touch throughout. I interviewed all three of them at great length, as well as a bunch of their employees, as many artists as I could get to and various industry observers.

We will be launching the book with a panel at IBMA — the three founders, me, and an appropriate artist or two, depending on who is in town that week.”

Oh, Didn’t They Ramble will be available from all good book shops and the usual on-line suppliers. 

Publisher: ‎ The University of North Carolina Press (October 17, 2023)
Hardcover: ‎ 208 pages
ISBN-10: ‎ 1469674998
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1469674995
Dimensions: ‎ 15.54 x 2.54 x 23.5 cm
Foreword by Robert Plant

The 2019 North Carolina Piedmont Laureate, David Menconi is a journalist, music critic and author based in Raleigh, North Carolina. He worked as a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer for 28 years, fromOh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music January 1991 to January 2019.

He has also written for Rolling Stone, Billboard, No Depression, Acoustic Guitar, and the New York Times, among other publications.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.