Look at the list of marquee musicians with songs released exclusively on Appleseed Recordings over the last decade, and you might think there was a major label hiding out in West Chester, Pa.
Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Wyclef Jean, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco, Jackson Browne, Pete Seeger, Lou Reed, and Donovan have all recorded for the label, which was founded by political activist-turned-music exec Jim Musselman in 1997.
The label had two artists up for Grammys last night, guitarist David Bromberg and African-American a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. But Appleseed is anything but a deep-pocketed, major-label powerhouse.
Quite the opposite. The label is a fiercely independent enterprise that has been able to recruit big-time talent to its folk music and social justice agenda because of one word that encapsulates the Musselman philosophy.
“Persistence, persistence, persistence!” the 49-year-old Allentown native and Villanova grad says, with a smile. “It’s all about persistence. They always tend to say no the first time.”
To demonstrate his point, over lunch Musselman whips out a copy of a fax he received in December 1996 from Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau.
The correspondence was in response to a request for the Boss to participate in “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” a two-disc Seeger tribute. It was Appleseed’s inaugural release and would go on to become the label’s biggest seller, with more than 100,000 copies moved.
Landau’s rejection letter explained that because of Springsteen’s busy schedule, recording a Seeger song wasn’t possible “right now.” Musselman, who worked closely with activist Ralph Nader on auto-safety issues in the 1980s and `90s, wasn’t accustomed to taking no for an answer.
So he asked a second time. And a third. And eventually he got the answer he wanted, in the form of seven Seeger songs Springsteen recorded and sent to Musselman to choose from. One of them, “We Shall Overcome,” became the best-known track on “Flowers” and, later, the title track to Springsteen’s 2006 album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.”
Since “Flowers,” Appleseed has put out 87 more albums. Two highlights came out last fall. One was the 10th anniversary release, “Sowing the Seeds,” which includes such heritage acts as Al Stewart and the recently deceased John Stewart, along with younger artists Lizzie West and the Kennedys, and a collaboration between Springsteen and Seeger.
In his role as artistic instigator (his musical skills are nonexistent; “I can’t play a note,” he says), Musselman also pulled together “Give US Your Poor,” a 17-song compilation whose proceeds go to fight homelessness. Contributors include Bon Jovi, Natalie Merchant, Keb Mo and, again, Springsteen and Seeger, who perform Woody Guthrie’s “Hobo Blues.”
In a collapsing industry where chains like Tower Records are a thing of the past, Musselman’s label, with five full-time employees, had a growth year in 2007, selling more than 10,000 copies each of three albums, “Seeds,” “Poor,” and “Try Me One More Time,” Bromberg’s one-man blues album. It was the first disc in 17 years by the Wilmington, Del., guitarist and violin salesman.
“I’ve never had a relationship with a record company like this,” says Bromberg, who plans to record three additional albums for Appleseed. “Jim is just a really solid mensch.” He always does all that he says he’ll do, and he usually does more.”
Before the completion of “Try Me One More Time,” which was inspired by Bromberg’s travels in the `60s with bluesman the Rev. Gary Davis, Musselman told Bromberg’s wife, Nancy Josephson, to “get (her) Grammy gown ready.”
“I think he said that more on guts than on brains,” Bromberg says. “But he’s pretty darn smart, too.”
Bromberg’s disc is up for an award in the traditional folk category. Sweet Honey, the Washington-based vocal group, is up for the children’s album “Experience ... 101.”
Musselman is proud of both.
Of Bromberg, he says, “This guy was so influential. I just think it was sad he hadn’t recorded in so long. There are so many artists who’ve run away from the industry that don’t want the aggravation. That’s a niche I’ve gotten, convincing the Brombergs and Donovans to come out of their shell.” Sweet Honey, he says, “is a perfect match for Appleseed, because it’s all about empowerment in the African-American community through education.”
Musselman’s father, James Patrick Musselman Sr., was an art teacher who used a self-coined neologism, creACTive, to teach students to follow up on an idea with a practical action. His son, who received his musical education seeing artists like Springsteen, Billy Joel and Jackson Browne at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr in the 1970s, and has amassed a 20,000-album vinyl collection, takes the word to heart.
The label head - who lives in West Chester and is the divorced father of a 12-year-old daughter - can’t offer his artists big promotional budgets. But he can give them full autonomy, “so the artist feels a sense of creative control.”
As the music biz morphs, “My motto is, `Don’t go where the retail is, go where the people are,’” he says. So Appleseed CDs can be found at the National Cathedral in Washington and the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, as well as at appleseedrec.com.
Appleseed is inundated with demo tapes, about 1,000 a year. “I listen to all of them,” Musselman says. He keeps a “Jim, You’re an Idiot” box of offerings he passed on, that includes critically lauded indie acts Josh Ritter and The Be Good Tanyas.
This year, Appleseed will issue an album by the 88-year-old Seeger, and one by Tom Rush, another `60s folkie coaxed out of retirement.
Musselman also wants to broaden the label’s base beyond folk. “What I want to do is work with artists who have something interesting to say.” He’s found one for sure in Diana Jones, a soulful old-time country singer from Nashville, who’ll have an album on the label this year.
Though Bromberg and Sweet Honey will be in L.A. for the Grammys, that’s not Musselman’s style.
While avoiding the glitz, he’ll be hoping that his artists do better than previous Appleseed nominees. The label has garnered five Grammy nods in the past, “but every year we seem to have lost to artists who have just died,” Musselman says. “Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Warren Zevon.
“I told David that if he wanted to win he should disappear off the coast for a few weeks, or fake his own death. He wasn’t too keen on the idea.”