Rounder founders accept Kari Estrin Founding President’s Award from Folk Alliance

Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin, and Marian Leighton LevyOn May 15, 2015, Kari Estrin – the founder of SERFA (Southeastern Regional Folk Alliance) – presented Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy and Bill Nowlin (the Rounder Founders) with a special award honoring their work. Also presented awards were Alice Gerrard and Si Kahn.

Rounder Records was launched in October 1970. The three college friends, all passionate music lovers, formed the label in that month, simultaneously releasing two albums: George Pegram (Rounder 0001) and The Spark Gap Wonder Boys (Rounder 0002).

This video, prepared at the time of the 2008 Folk Alliance International Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Award, takes up the story …..


Recently we covered the fact that Rounder Records had been named as recipients of the Kari Estrin Founding President’s Award. Since then, Bluegrass Today has spoken to Ken Irwin, A & R man for so many of the bluegrass music artists that recorded for Rounder Records through the years.

Naturally, he was delighted with the award. Ken said …..

Ken Irwin and Marion Leighton-Levy in the early days of Rounder“Receiving the Founding President’s Award from SERFA is a great honor for us all. Much of the music we were drawn to initially had roots in the Southeast and a significant number of our releases over the last 45 years have been of Southern artists or artists who were influenced by Southern music. Over the years, we have spent most of our travel time in the Southeast – from our early visits to the great fiddle conventions in the Union Grove, North Carolina, and Galax, Virginia, visiting the grave of Charlie Poole, and attending festivals including Reidsville and Berryville. Our first album was of old-time banjo player and singer George Pegram from Union Grove, so it was nice to go back to North Carolina to receive this award.  Montreat, the home for this year’s SERFA Conference is just a few miles from Black Mountain, where we recorded the Morris Brothers with Pappy Sherrill and also close to Brevard, base for today’s Steep Canyon Rangers.”

In presenting her award to Kari Estrin had this to say ……

Kari Estrin“Last year, my inaugural award was presented to The Highlander Research and Education Center in Newmarket, Tennessee. Highlander serves as a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the U.S. South. It is where Rosa Parks received resistance training before refusing to give up her seat on the bus, where the song We Shall Overcome was developed and disseminated and whereas John McCutcheon, last year’s keynote speaker stated, ‘where music was always seen as instrumental rather than merely ornamental to social movement.’

I first heard of Highlander when I served on the Sing Out! Magazine Board of Directors at 24 years of age alongside musical legends such as Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips, Rosalie Sorrells, Andy Spence and Michael Cooney. But it was because of my fellow Sing Out! Board member Guy Carawan, who sadly passed away just this past month, who in his gentle and kind way urged me to experience Highlander. Guy’s request remained with me these four decades and last year at SERFA I brought his suggestion to fruition in bringing Highlander here and creating this award for organizations and people who make an exceptional difference to the music and culture of the Southeast.

All of us here today are consumers of music. Whether we make our own music, play in bands with others, promote or present, we are still consumers – buying CDs and DVDs, magazines like Sing Out!, Bluegrass Unlimited or Acoustic Guitar, by purchasing music biographies and instruction books and videos, by attending live shows, contributing to other artists’ kick-starters, or by just downloading a new favorite song.

Think back to when you purchased your first LP/CD or even downloaded your first iTunes song. That song or album may have helped you get over a breakup, put words to your own unnamed feelings, made you laugh, helped you through some rough times or even set the stage for a perfect party. That song or album may have also made you more aware of the world’s injustice, social conditions affecting ours and lives around us and/or racial and gender prejudice. It may have informed you about factory workers struggling to make a living or emboldened to you to speak your mind and get involved in causes larger than our own.

I mentioned a few minutes ago that this award was inspired by serving on the Sing Out! board, but my awakening to Southern music and our honorees today began back in 1972 when I was a senior in high school in New Jersey while browsing through a local music store. It was there that I discovered this cool, folksy-looking magazine, which was to be my first issue of Sing Out! I found myself devouring every word in that issue while new worlds opened up and sprang off the page to life. This became even more dramatic, for as a bonus, there was also a revolutionary flexible record inserted so you could learn the songs from both the record and from the tablature and lyrics printed in the magazine, way before computers and the internet were available!

On the record and in a related article was a song by this duo just named Hazel & Alice. I mean, they didn’t use last names!

Hazel and Alice were social activists and even ‘feminists.’ And here were two women who sang about it, putting what seemed to be my own story into their words. I learned Custom Made Women Blues from the magazine, written by Alice Gerrard, went out bought the record and listened over and over to that album, played that song on my guitar throughout my high school and college years at every jam session and gig I had. It was my ‘go to song’ – the one I could sing with the most confidence. The one that defined who I was and explained why I didn’t fit in so well, because I didn’t buy the general premise that Hazel and Alice didn’t either. And after buying and playing their self-titled Rounder Record over and over, I learned about something called black lung and the unfair working conditions of the coal miners, I now longed to see the beautiful green rolling hills of West Virginia, I smiled with the wryness of Don’t Put Her Down You Helped Put Her There and my love affair with the south began, – where New Jersey seemed a continent away from those green rolling hills.

And as I was continuing to devour every word in that issue, there was this brief one page article (well, the picture included took about half a page) about Hazel and Alice’s record label called Rounder Records run by The Rounder Record Collective. It was kind of a communal ‘hippie’ label that was bucking the major label trend, formed by people living together in the same house, not caring about profit, putting out the music they believed in and in giving artists artistic control.

I was so impressed and inspired after reading about them, that I just had to write and lend them my support (whether they needed it or not). To my surprise, I got a letter back and eventually a phone call from one of the Rounder Collective members, Bill Nowlin, seated here today 43 years later, and he invited me to their home/basement warehouse at 186 Willow Avenue address In Somerville, Massachusetts, to learn how to ‘pick’ record orders. And from that one letter and response, a four decade relationship was born with the Rounder founders – Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton Levy. That visit in 1972 also earned me the title of being their first ‘official’ intern according to Marian and since then not only did I work at Rounder but later was invited to share office space in their large warehouse at One Camp Street from 1982 – 1985 with my company Black Sheep Concerts and Publications, Inc.

It was during my tenure at the Rounder warehouse as a concert producer/magazine editor in the early 1980s that Si Kahn, came to my attention. Like the Rounders and Alice, Si embodies all of what we have talked about earlier. Although Si was also born in the north he moved to the South in his younger years and found himself an activist for civil rights in his teen years. A musician with a promising musical career back 30 years ago, Si’s day job was founding Grassroots Leadership, which advocated for a variety of social and political rights and causes though over four decades of Si’s leadership until Si retired, a word to use lightly with Si, in 2010. And throughout the decades Si led Grassroots Leadership, he penned an extensive collection of songs that tell the Southeast’s own story – from the perspective of what the working class endured with unfair mining, mill and factory conditions, to gender, racial and other issues of social awareness, to organizing songs, expressive love songs and Si’s own comedic repertoire on the sly! Si’s writing is so intuitive and universal that his songs have been recorded by over a hundred artists and translated into at least six languages, while Si’s classic song Aragon Mill has continually been credited as ‘traditional,’ and ‘Celtic in origin!’ Si has written and had six musicals produced; and four books published throughout his own 18 record career. On Wednesday night at SERFA Sue Massek expressively brought Appalachian activist singer, Sarah Ogan Gunning to life, performing Si’s play, Precious Memories, and Sarah Ogan Gunning was one of Rounder’s earliest releases that they gave to me back in the late 1970s.

So today it is my privilege to recognize five people who have influenced not only my life as just one example, but who with their passion and decades of service have contributed untold wealth to southeast music and culture.

I’d like to begin with the three Rounder Founders – Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy and Bill Nowlin, whose commitment to roots music, the artists and the music they believed in have changed countless people’s lives and although the Rounder catalog is broad in genres, Rounder Records made us aware worldwide about southern culture, southern issues and politics as well as exposing us to the beauty and uniqueness of the Southeast through music. They inspired us through the recordings they chose to release, now 4,000 strong and counting, to open up our minds to new cultures, causes and musical ideas. In the mid-1980s Rounder signed young fledgling artist Alison Krauss and now roughly 14 albums later, Krauss remains a loyal devotee in the business as all her records have been on Rounder because of Rounder’s belief in giving deserving artists freedom in their recording.

Besides giving me my first real job in music promoting records back in 1978 which I still do today, throughout these four decades they have left an indelible mark that encouraged me as I grew from a fledging intern/promoter, to an artist manager, concert producer, magazine publisher. Ken, Bill and Marian have not only become my friends in the business but in life.”

Awards that have been bestowed on the Rounder Records trio include the ….

  • Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive in 2005, Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Folk Alliance International Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Award 2008
  • Kari Estrin SERFA Award 2015

Also Ken Irwin received the IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award in 1994

SERFA is the southeast regional chapter of Folk Alliance International.

Share this:

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.