Your Turntable Is Not Dead – An interview with Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records

A few weekends ago, I enjoyed a great time as always in NashVegas. I had great time going to the Grand Ole Opry, eating at the Cock of the Walk, visiting the Ernest Tubb Record Shop (again), seeing an outstanding concert at The Ryman, and enjoying the sights and sounds of Broadway. A new spot I had anxiously been waiting to visit was Third Man Records, which claims “Your Turntable Is Not Dead.”

Within walking distance of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Third Man Records was founded on paper by Jack White in 2001. Jack White is an icon in the music industry. He has three successful bands (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather), produced and appeared on Loretta Lynn’s Grammy award-winning album, Van Lear Rose, and was an integral in the film and bluegrass-influenced soundtrack, Cold Mountain. These are just a few of Jack’s many accomplishments.

Third Man Records set up shop in Nashville in 2009 and hasn’t looked back! A very eclectic decorative style mirrors the wide variety of music found at Third Man Records. The tiki masks and stuffed birds watch as you flip through vinyl 45’s by everyone from Chris Thile to Conan O’Brien!

While visiting the store, I had the chance to interview Third Man Records’ Ben Blackwell about this one-of-a kind music experience.

DM: Third Man Records moved from Detroit to Nashville in 2009, correct? Why the move to Nashville?
BB: Third Man never physically existed in Detroit. It was more an idea on paper before our Nashville opening.

DM: What would you say Third Man Records’ mission is?
BB: We don’t really have a mission statement, but it would probably be something along the lines of putting out music we like and spreading the gospel about vinyl records.

DM: One of the main questions people probably ask is “Why vinyl?” In this day and age, it’s easier than ever to download digital music or pick up a CD to pop in your car. Why go with vinyl records for new music?
BB: Vinyl record is the format that all of our favorite music was originally released on. It sounds better than CD’s and carries a certain “I don’t know” quality that no other format has managed over the past 100 years.

DM: I know exactly what you mean. Now, do you press the vinyl at Third Man Records, or do you rely on an outside source?
BB: We rely on the wonderful folks at United Record Pressing (approximately two miles from our offices here in Nashville) to press our records.

DM: At Third Man Records, you see 45’s that are blue and some that are green. Can you explain what the differences are between these two types?
BB: The Blue Series is essentially for artists that we have a short time to work with…maybe they’re stopping in town for tour or are signed to a bigger label for their albums. We record the music in our studio, take the photo in our Blue Room, press it over at United and then sell it in our shop. Almost an entirely in-house process. The difference with the Green Series is that those records are spoken word or instructional. They don’t have music. Everything else remains the same.

DM: You have such a wide variety of artists. How do you decide who to include? What do you look for in an artist and their music?
BB: We put out artists we like. If it’s something we think might sell some copies that’s good too, but it’s not a requirement.

DM: Who are some Third Man Records artists you would recommend for fans of bluegrass?
BB: The single we did with Chris Thile (of the Punch Brothers) and Michael Daves is probably the most bluegrass thing we’ve done and it’s pretty damn amazing. Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose album is a good down home affair as well things like the Secret Sister’s cover of Big River or Wanda Jackson’s The Party Ain’t Over LP with a wide range of country/bluegrass/Amy Winehouse covers.

DM: Who is YOUR favorite artist on the Blue Series and why?
BB: Duane and Insane Clown Posse both hold a special place in my heart. You can take the boy out of Detroit…

DM: The Green Series is a very unique idea. What was the inspiration behind that?
BB: The idea was 100% Jack. I think it stems from his fascination of tradesmen, people with unique skills and his desire to know more about them.

DM: How do you determine what qualifies as “Green Series worthy”?
BB: If they say “yes”

DM: In addition to your recordings, Third Man Records definitely has a “unique” style in its decorations. Where did the inspiration come from to decorate TMR so differently?
BB: Who wants to walk into any old generic office building with gray walls and cubicles? I think the answer to that question is the answer to the inspiration for the décor at TMR.

DM: It’s so true. Third Man Records is far from generic! In addition to a recording studio, what all does the Third Man Records Complex consist of?
BB: A bunch of offices, loading dock, master tape vault storage, photo studio, live performance room with film screening capabilities, photo developing dark room, store front, loading dock, kitchen, bathrooms, a bunch of taxidermy, a fairly impressive collection of Iggy Pop/Stooges memorabilia, a drinking fountain (a legal requirement in Tennessee), some ladders, a bunch of secret s*** no one knows about and a pet monkey named Rufus.

DM: WOW! Third Man Records seems like it has got it all! You said you have a live performance room. How often do you have concerts on site?
BB: We’ve usually average about a show a month.

DM: You mentioned some of Jack’s collections. Jack is known for collecting some very interesting items. What would say are some of Jack’s most unique items?
BB: Preston Tucker’s personal diary? The original model for the Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair? A piece of the space shuttle Challenger that washed-up on a Florida beach?

DM: Even at a young age, Jack White is an icon in the music industry. What is it like working for/with Jack?
BB: Very, very tiring but very, very rewarding.

DM: What is the most-rewarding aspect of working at TMR?
The fact that it very seldom feels like work.

As I hope you can tell from the interview, Third Man Records is a great place to learn about all kinds of music. The vinyl listening station makes it easy to preview all of the recordings available in the shop. When I walked in, one of my favorite new blues artists, Seasick Steve, was blaring through the shop.

There are several recordings on Third Man Records which may pique bluegrass fans’ interests. Chris Thile & Michael Daves’ 45 of Blue Night/Man In the Middle and The Secret Sisters’ Big River/ Wabash Cannonball were some of the recordings Ben mentioned above.

Actor, John C. Reilley (Stepbrothers, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Talladega Nights) who is supposedly set to play Charlie Monroe in the upcoming Bill Monroe biopic, Blue Moon of Kentucky, shows his musical roots at Third Man Records. He has recorded two 45’s with two different musical partners. The 45’s feature a few songs which are well known to bluegrass audiences. John & Tom (Tom Brosseau) features two Delmore Brothers’ songs: Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar and Lonesome Yodel Blues #2. Becky & John (Becky Stark) features I’ll Be There If You Ever Want (Ray Price) and I’m Making Plans (Osborne Brothers/ Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner).

An LP at Third Man Records which many may have heard of is The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. After the legendary Hank Williams passed away, notebooks were found which included many lyrics to songs which he was never able to record. Some of the biggest names in country and Americana music sang the songs which Hank never got to. Mostly recorded in a style similar to Hank Williams, this album is a very fitting tribute to an American icon. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams features Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Norah Jones, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, Rodeny Crowell, Sheryl Crow, and Third Man Records’ very own Jack White. The album is not a Third Man Records release, but the vinyl editions are associated with Third Man Records.

Third Man Records sells novelties as well. One of these is a portable record player, which makes it very easy to play your vinyl on-the-go. They also have a branded iPhone case which includes a piece of actual vinyl for the back! (I have one of these myself.)

I definitely encourage fans of all types of music to make a visit to Third Man Records in Nashville. It’s just a few blocks from the Country Music Hall of Fame, and is well worth the trip just to look around and learn more about this very unique fixture in the music industry. It might even cause you to dust off your old record player and realize “Your Turntable Is Not Dead!”

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.