Friday morning, the first day of the IBMA Fan Fest, is usually spent fighting the crowds angling for good concert seats and buying new neat stuff in the exhibit hall. Fortunately, this time I had an opportunity to meet with Sam Passamano, President of Rural Rhythm Records, in a quiet room to discuss the history of Rural Rhythm, the changes in the music business, his recommendations for new bands coming up, and his plans for 2011.
For a record company executive, Sam is one of the easiest people to talk to that I’ve met in a long time. He is passionate about the music, the business, and confidant in the future of bluegrass music.
Sam purchased Rural Rhythm Record, Sage Brush Publishing and Uncle Jim O’Neal Mail Order in 1987 after a long career working for some of the major and specialty record labels in various senior roles. But even when he was younger he was learning about the business. His father worked in the recoding industry and Sam got a chance to learn the field beginning in high school. During college he had a part time job working in the warehouse at Uncle Jim O’Neal’s Mail Order, the company he would later purchase. The positive and motivating influence of his Father in his life was quite evident, quoting him throughout the discussion.
“This is always what I knew I wanted to do. My kids, they work with us. I’m blessed with a marriage of 34 years, 5 wonderful kids, 8 grandkids, and 4 of 5 kids work for us at Rural Rhythm Records. It has been a wonderful experience to have a dad as well as a best friend and mentor teach you the do’s and don’ts, the trials and tribulations.”
Prior to 2005 releases on Rural Rhythm were compilation albums primarily drawn from masters he acquired though the purchase of Uncle Jims. At the urging of his son, they issued their first new artist release in 2005 by Clay Jones. From that single release in 2005 the output has increase to 25 new releases in 2010. Over the last year and a half Rural Rhythm has had 23 number 1 song and album releases on the Bluegrass Unlimited and Bluegrass Music Profile charts.
The recording industry has gone through a lot of changes over the past 5 to 10 years, and Rural Rhythm has had to negotiate through those changes as well. With the proliferation of Internet downloads and the threat to the accessibility of “brick-and’-mortar” stores many in the industry are struggling to find their direction. According to Sam Rural Rhythm has a simple approach to these challenges.
“I don’t think anyone knows how the economy is going, so how can I determine with any kind of confidence where the industry is going? We need to just make sure we have the most efficient delivery system for our artists, music on the physical CD side and the digital side, and as many creative promotions to allow the fans and the audience to be aware of the new releases. You can’t sit around and cry about where the business is and where it’s downsizing to. We have to make Bluegrass music exciting, put a charge in it, make people want to buy, want to listen…”
When asked about suggestions for new artists just coming into the bluegrass industry, Sam was quite specific. The artists must take and keep control of their future and not turn it over to someone else.
“Everything you do has to be measured against your direction as a band, that it is the direction you want to go. Your reputation is everything, how you conduct interviews, your professionalism. You want to amass as much of an army and team and maintain as friendly and positive atmosphere as possible. You want to make friends in the industry and with the fans.”
Besides the planned new releases scheduled for 2011, there is a new project in the works that should be of great interest to the bluegrass community. As you probably know, 2011 will be the celebration of the 100th birthday of Bill Monroe. Rural Rhythm is planning a concert and live recording to celebrate this occasion. He has enlisted Mark Newton, himself a big Monroe fan, to help coordinate this event. While the details of the event are still in the works, it looks to be a great addition to the Bill Monroe celebrations planned throughout the year. As Sam himself describes the event,
“I think with some of the elements that Mark is bring to the picture here and some really important people in our Bluegrass community who want to be a part of it, it may turn into something that definitely has that cool factor, and more importantly. honors Mr. Monroe and what he has done through the years and the important contributions he has made and how he has touched other people’s lives.”
Rural Rhythm Records has a long and storied history, one that is still growing the bluegrass community. Sam Passamano and his family plan to be an important part of this community for many more years to come.