Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Liner Notes: Signature Sounds 20th Anniversary Collection: Rarities From the Second Decade

If you’d been prescient enough, 20 years ago, to suggest that in 2014 Signature Sounds Recordings would have a catalog of more than 100 releases, a Top 20 album, and a three-day celebration of the label’s artists, the most astute of scene-followers in Western Massachusetts would’ve told you to dream on. Even Signature Sounds president Jim Olsen, who co-founded the label and runs it with Mark Thayer, would’ve thought you were crazy. “We started the label as a glorified hobby, with no grand ambitions,” Jim reflects. “And Signature Sounds has grown slowly and organically.”

Organically, for sure. The Signature Sounds moniker is first seen on a pair of CD compilations released in conjunction with radio station WRSI in 1992 and 1993 as benefit projects to help fight hunger in Western Mass. But Signature Sounds isn’t incorporated until September 1994 and its first official release, Boneyard, by former Van Morrison sideman John Sheldon and his band Blue Streak, innocuously bearing the catalog number SSRC 1227, appears in January 1995. Including a duet with James Taylor, the CD hints at big things to come.

Jim, already known back then as the host of The Back Porch, the popular Sunday morning radio show featuring an array of Americana, bluegrass, country, and alt-country music, slowly begins building a catalog and roster of artists for the label. In 1997, Signature Sounds becomes his full-time job. By the time the label celebrates its 10th anniversary, it’s been home to dozens of acclaimed releases, including ones by Josh Ritter, Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer, Lori McKenna, Mary Gauthier, Salamander Crossing, Mark Erelli, and Richard Shindell.

And that’s only the first chapter in the Signature Sounds story. During the next few years, in an environment where record labels are constantly becoming more and more generic and the trend toward downloading makes physical CDs less essential for some music fans, the independent Signature Sounds continues to buck the system and thrive. For proof, you need look no further than the CD you hold in your hands. Signature Sounds 20th Anniversary Collection: Rarities From the Second Decade not only showcases the artistry as well as many of the artists who’ve populated the label in its second decade, but it’s a treasure trove of hard-to-find and previously unreleased gems that help define the Signature Sounds sound.

“We had some great material that hadn't been heard, and it was fun to round it all up,” Jim explains. “We didn’t want any demos, home recordings, or live stuff. We wanted everything to be intended for a release.” So there’s a Lake Street Dive track that was released as a vinyl 45 for Record Store Day 2014;  rare tracks by Crooked Still and Jeffrey Foucault; a bonus LP track from Winterpills; a newly recorded track by Chris Smither; EP tracks including one by Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers; previously unreleased cuts by Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem, Peter Mulvey, and others; and much more from the vaults, including a celebratory hidden track by the Signature Sounds artists who hold the distinction of bursting onto the Billboard top-selling 200 albums chart at a lofty Number 18.

So what’s been a key ingredient in the success and the durability of the Signature Sounds label… especially at a time when most record labels no longer have a true identity? “I think there is a continuity in what we do,” Jim explains. “We’ve only added one or two new artists a year, and worked with many of artists for a long time. Our artists tend to be friends and tour partners, which lends a real sense of community to the label.”

Back in the day, a small handful of record labels had personalities of their own. If you were a jazz fan, for instance, chances are you could trust a label such as Impulse Records to put out music worth seeking out, even if you were unfamiliar with a particular artist. For Jim, Reprise Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. was just such an inspiration back in the 1960s and ’70s: “They signed amazing but non-commercial artists like Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. And they stuck with their artists even when their records didn't sell. In time it has become clear that they were a visionary label.”

Just like Signature Sounds.

And just like the selections spanning this 20th Anniversary Collection, music from Signature Sounds—yesterday, today, and tomorrow—is always worth listening to. After all, good taste is timeless.

—David Sokol, Hadley MA, November 2014

David Sokol was music editor for the Advocate Newspapers from 1977 to 1993, going on to edit New Country magazine, which featured early Signature Sounds tracks on its monthly samplers, and Disney Magazine.

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