Rounder Records founder celebrates a life in music

Marian Leighton Levy'70 wandered the country in pursuit of the heart and soul of Americana music, a never-intended-to-make-a-living, seat-of-the-pants operation that led to big 2009 Grammy wins for her independent record label, Rounder Records. Last October, Levy was at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville for Rounders' 40th anniversary concert that was filmed for broadcast by PBS and aired in March 2010. Rounder Records was recently acquired by Concord Music Group of Los Angeles, but Levy, along with Rounder cofounders Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin, will remain in a creative and advisory capacity. Anne Gibson, Ph.D. '95 sat with Levy to talk about her music-industry career and her time at Clark.

Marian Leighton Levy and her very well behaved Dandie Dinmont terrier, Hairry, greeted me on the portico of their Newburyport, Mass., Georgian-period home. In the excitement of learning more about her dog (Hairry was named after Harry Potter and his breed after a character in Sir Walter Scott's novel "Guy Mannering"), gawking at her beautifully restored 1777 house, and getting a quick tour of her Kindle, I completely forgot to congratulate her.

Levy is cofounder of the independent label Rounder Records. In February 2009, Rounder artists won seven Grammys at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Music icon Robert Plant, best known for fronting the infamous rock band Led Zepplin, and award-winning bluegrass/country artist Alison Krauss achieved the highest honors for their collaboration "Album of the Year" for "Raising Sand" and Record of the Year for the song "Please Read the Letter." That made Rounder only the second independent label in Grammy history to win in these two top categories.

History, music and literature' the three themes that we traversed in our first few minutes of meeting, are Levy's greatest passions from which she has drawn inspiration for both her career as a music publisher and her life.

Spotting a void in the record bins

Levy spent her freshman year of college at Northeastern University in Boston until she realized that a more intimate environment like Clark's was a better fit. At that time, she says she was an insecure and very shy person from Downeast Maine."A history major, Levy says she flourished at Clark, characterizing its 1960s campus as a "hippie radical school" not just a radical political hotbed but a cultural and musical hotbed as well."

It was a great place to hear music, she recalls; the on-campus coffee house was where she first heard the American folk music duo Holy Modal Rounders, whose interesting moniker influenced the naming of her record label. While at Clark, Levy met her two Rounder partners, Ken Irwin and Bill Nowlin' both Tufts graduates. Together they shared the quintessential 1960s experience: making road trips in a VW bus in search of "the soul of Americana music."

After graduating from Clark, Levy gave Northeastern another shot, this time to earn a graduate degree in modern European history, while sharing an apartment in Somerville with Irwin and Nolan. But the trio's growing desire to seek out roots music and bring it to a wider audience trumped graduate studies, she says.

"We felt there was a void in record bins. An absence, a space where we would have liked to see records by groups and musicians and style of music that fascinated us most," she explains.

"We had no business model. We weren't musicians"

The first record produced under the Rounder label, issued in 1971, was a collection of songs featuring a then 76-year-old banjo player named George Pegram. As recording media changed from vinyl to eight-track tape to CD to downloadable, Levy says she and her partners learned about the music-publishing business as they went along, while they featured the music they loved under the Rounder label and acted as a distributor for other independent labels. Levy comfortably admits to their inexperience, both as musicians and entrepreneurs.

"We had no business model. We weren't musicians. We weren't involved in business degrees," she says. "We followed a few other labels that we liked and saw what they did. The whole thing was a seat-of-the-pants operation. We were living communally, and we called ourselves the Rounder collective. We didn't plan on making a living from it."

Rounder became one of the top independent record labels in the United States, representing under several imprints a diverse group of roots artists with such colorful names as The Acousticats, Ten Shekel Shirt, Buckwheat Zydeco, Pianosaurus and Cowboy Junkies. In addition to Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Rounder has also represented such well-known artists as singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith, children's entertainer Raffi, singer/songwriter/country artist Mary Chapin Carpenter, and acoustic guitarists Norman Blake and Tony Rice.

Rounder has a reputation for artist loyalty, says Levy, which she attributes to maintaining close relationships with its artists and permitting them more creative control than they might expect from a major record company. She cites Krauss as one example. "Alison has been with us since she was 15 years old' for 23 years. The reason is not because she hasn't had many offers. She knows that bluegrass doesn't have a place in country or popular music, and she wants to keep her band together. It's doubtful whether major labels would have allowed her that kind of freedom."

Committed to preservation

While seeking out and promoting contemporary recording artists, Levy and her Rounder partners have also helped preserve older traditional folk music. Rounder teamed with the Library of Congress to reissue on compact discs field recordings of American folk music drawn from the Library's Archive of Folk Culture. CDs included "Cowboy Songs, Ballads, and Cattle Calls from Texas," "Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners," and "Negro Blues and Hollers." Rounder also issued, on more than 100 CDs, field recordings made by the renowned folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax during his travels through the United States, Europe and the Caribbean from the 1930s to 1960s.

Levy's love of folk culture and history is evident, not only in her enthusiasm for roots music, but also in her affinity for 18th- and 19th-century New England domestic architecture. She has purchased and restored two period houses, one Federal and the other Georgian' in Newburyport, a town built on the maritime trade that fueled so many Yankee fortunes.

She rescued the Georgian building, her current residence, when the property was relinquished by the local Catholic parish that had used it as a school over the course of the 20th century. Interior walls had been removed to create classroom space and the old kitchen had been turned into bathroom facilities for the children. The original wooden floors' now covered in historically accurate reproduction Brussels carpet' still retain evidence of the bolts that had secured student desks. Levy spent three years researching the house, immersing herself in the intricacies of Georgian design and architecture. Her restoration effort was so meticulous and true to the period that, in 2007, the house was the subject of a cover article in a magazine on old house interiors. The article's author admiringly characterized Levy's scholarship as being undertaken with "the zeal of someone fresh out of Winterthur."

Life support outside of the mainstream

For Levy, protecting cultural heritage is important. "A lot of the music that I love is non-mainstream music, and so there is an obvious preservation aspect to what we at Rounder have done over the years' not letting music disappear because it's not mainstream. To me, the houses are kind of the same. It's a living history."

Although 2009 was not the first time that a Rounder artist had won a Grammy' Krauss alone had 26 to her credit' it was the first time that Levy had attended the award ceremony, where she witnessed Plant and Krauss collect a total of five awards. In addition to Album of the Year and Record of the Year, "Raising Sands" also garnered Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals, Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, and Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. Two other Rounder artists also received awards: Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra for Best Polka Album and Bela Flek & The Flecktones for Best Pop Instrumental Album.

The psychedelic hippie days of traveling across the nation in a VW bus in search of the next great American folk song are now history; Levy surely sought other, more modern, means to get her to Los Angeles for the Grammys. Regardless of the vehicle, in Levy's words, it was "a trip worth taking."