If It Dances, It’s Probably from This Is American Music

Levon Helm: “Bluegrass or country music, if it comes down to that area and if it mixes there with rhythm and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music, country, bluegrass, blues music, show music…”

Martin Scorsese: “What’s it called, then?”

Levon Helm: “Rock and roll.”

The night I got into Austin for SXSW 2012, I set out to find an unofficial showcase by a label called This Is American Music. Not knowing Austin very well, I glanced at a map, saw that I just had to make one turn North, and set out walking.

Twenty-seven long city blocks later, I was at a bar called The Hole in the Wall. While there, I was a victim of the world’s worst Guinness pour, I ate a cheeseburger so delicious and decadent it made my knees buckle, and I got to enjoy a load of great bands. The night’s roster featured Pink Nasty, Channing Lewis of Grand Champeen, the Pollies, Bohannons, the District Attorneys, Jonny Corndawg, The Arkells, and Glossary. Band after band, ranging from flat-out rock to slightly experimental indie rock to honky tonk country, got up on the dual stages at The Hole in the Wall and just killed it. Twenty-seven blocks of walking on an empty stomach? Totally worth it to catch one of the best showcases of the whole festival.

A second showcase the next day at Mean Eyed Cat included Flint Hill Specials, Wooden Wand, Some Dark Holler, Hans Chew, and Futurebirds. Unjustly, for this isn’t a just world, many of those names won’t ring a bell with many people. If so, it won’t be because This Is American Music isn’t doing the Lord’s work in promoting the heck out of a lot of good young acts. It was obvious from those shows in Austin that if you were a band of certain qualities in the South, or one of their fans, This Is American Music (TIAM, from hereon) was a name to know.

I apparently fall right into their wheelhouse, because members of the TIAM family spend scandalous amounts of time in my CD player. Lauderdale’s Moving On, all full of heartfelt lyrics and Muscle Shoals-informed rock, has proven to be one of the most lasting records of 2011. The District Attorneys, whose infectious and eclectic take on indie rock I heard for the first time that Tuesday night in Austin, released one of my favorite albums of 2012 with Slowburner. Already, Wooden Wand’s dark and dense Blood Oaths of the New Blues stands poised to play King of the Mountain for a spot on my Top 10 list for 2013.

OK, to be honest, that Wooden Wand record isn’t actually a TIAM release. It’s on Fire Records. TIAM, though, is championing the record hard, just like it’s championed other records on other labels in the past — just because they liked them. On the flip side, you can find shout-outs to TIAM in the liner notes of records with no formal ties to the label, such as Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires’ smoking There is a Bomb in Gilead or the recent EP from Roger Bryan and the Orphans. Community is a big part of the TIAM ethos. So even if TIAM doesn’t release a record this year that knocks my socks off (not a legitimate concern at all), they’ll definitely point me to more than a few.

So just what is TIAM? If you click the “About” page on their website, you get this: “We are a record label: digital and physical, band management, marketing, hand holding, best friend, lover of dogs and old people, bbq parties, rock and/or roll… facilitators in the deep, dark, dirty South.” The name comes from a tour a few years ago that featured Glossary, Grand Champeen, Two Cow Garage and Slobberbone, which — if you’re familiar with those hard-charging rock bands — tells you plenty about TIAM’s DNA.

TIAM got its start a few years back while label co-founder Corey Flegel was traveling with Tennessee’s Glossary. As the band’s van made its way from town to town, Glossary frontman Joey Kneiser repeatedly told Flegel that he needed to take his passion for music and use it to build something. “At some point,” Flegel says, “I gave in and went to Chattanooga and got with my good pal Nick Nichols and we decided to do something about it. We started gathering up our friends in bands who had self-released their records, built a crappy website and off we went. Nick and I also have built a great team around us with Jay Cooper and Sean Courtney at the helm with Chris Murray and Corey Hannah starring as our Wee-bey’s (sorry for The Wire reference).” That website went live in late 2010 and in May of 2011, they started selling records.

From there, it would be tempting to call the TIAM story one of growth and evolution, except that it’s happened at such a breakneck pace, with the label quickly building a roster that would be the envy of any indie label. You can practically hear Cooper exhale in wonder when he says, “In barely more than a year and a half, we’ve put out more than 20 records, and may well double that number this year.” While much of the established industry seems to be falling in on itself, TIAM has seemingly come out of nowhere to be an increasing presence among indie labels.

That growth is obviously good for TIAM and its founders, but Cooper points out that it’s also good for the bands: “If we can’t grow and sustain this, we are doing a disservice to the bands we are trying to help, and our own model/plan/viability is, to our minds, essential to what we are trying to do for bands.” Along with that growth has come a lot of critical praise, not to mention the respect and goodwill of the artistic communities in which TIAM travels.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that TIAM hasn’t lost sight of its core purpose: to champion good music, especially from its Southern surroundings, and to do it because it knocks you on your ass with emotional recognition or gets your ass up and moving because the music rocks so hard. Anything that comes to the table as a possible release gets the benefit of a frank and honest discussion between TIAM’s powers that be, and if any single person isn’t on board, it probably doesn’t make the cut. As Nichols puts it, “We’re a label in short, but that grew out something much more basic and what we are now is simply an extension what this thing was founded on — the desire to promote bands we love and get them heard. Seems simple but that’s really it. We love these bands, we want them to succeed/thrive/grow, and we wanted to create something to facilitate that.”

What that means, according to Courtney, is that “We don’t manage every band. We don’t serve as a label for every band. For some bands we do their digital licensing; for others we are their complete label and management team. We do what the artist asks us to do, and we offer to do whatever we can for each artist.”

A big part of TIAM’s model includes digital distribution. Go to the TIAM website and you’ll find a constantly rotating roster of artists, primarily represented by purchasable downloads. To a fogey like me, still tethered to the idea of physical product, the effect can be a little confounding. Nichols, though, sees it as a source of great opportunity. “Many see the digital landscaping as diluting,” he says, “but for us, it has only enhanced our musical community and helped us expand it. Our network grows everyday, which means our bands’ networks grow every day. But aside from digital communities, you have to know where these bands are coming from physically and geographically.” Cooper points out that TIAM is releasing records at a greater pace then most “large indie” labels and praises the agility that technology brings: “Want us to put out a record in a week (a la Joey Kneiser)? Sure. Not only are we down with that, but we’ve done it three, four times already.”

Part of that emphasis on digital distribution comes from what some of the TIAM crew admit is an unwelcome realization: even with the recent vinyl resurgence, people just don’t buy records like they used to. Nichols admits that in the early stages, “We weren’t tied to any model and knew nothing about running a label, so in a way, our ignorance was our best friend. We had a blank slate on which to build. Building digitally allowed us to move quickly and effectively in ways other outlets with ties to the old ways either didn’t want to do or had some other way they had to more gradually transition out of.” Courtney, though, concedes that “I like to buy physical product. I’m also a dinosaur. Nobody else buys physical product. When you go to a panel discussion about music purchasing at SXSW, you realize that the numbers show that physical product is dead, aside from box sets and fetish items.”

He goes on to say, though, that even though TIAM isn’t churning out box sets that double as art projects, the label still manages to differentiate itself: “Digital is today and unfortunately low quality digital is today. I think what we bring to the table is a higher quality download, and it allows us to compete with larger distributors because we do offer our product at an incredible value to the consumer and at an incredible benefit to the artist.” One look at their website confirms that value, with full-length downloads going for a mere five bucks each.

Cooper agrees that “The CD is dying — Sean’s right, people just don’t buy them anymore, except at the merch table — but it isn’t quite dead yet, and we try to do an appropriate level of physical product where it seems right. We all love vinyl, and love to see the growth in vinyl, but the numbers overall are still pretty minimal — and the economics of vinyl are still a hurdle for many projects. The trends still point to diminishing physical sales, for pretty much everyone, so we just want to be smart about how we do it.”

It’s tempting to ask the TIAM crew more questions about the economics of digital distribution, to just walk into the weeds about the nuts and bolts of running a label. The real lifeblood of this group, though, and of the label, is the obvious passion these guys have not only for the bands and music they work with, but also for the music they grew up with. Nichols lives in Tennessee, Courtney in Mississippi, while both Flegel and Cooper call Atlanta home. They’ve spent their lives on top of the wellspring of so much American music.

A question like “what’s with all the great music coming out of the South these days?” gets an impassioned response from Courtney: “There’s always been good music coming out of the South. It’s the home of American music. Jazz is from New Orleans. The blues started in the Mississippi Delta. Country music was right here in the South … rock and roll, too. Being from Mississippi, I like to brag on Jimmie Rogers being the father of country music and being from Meridian, Mississippi. The king of rock ‘n’ roll is from Tupelo, Mississippi. The home of the blues is the Mississippi Delta. The first ever rock song was from the soul of Ike Turner in the Delta. So I don’t think that there’s ever been a time when there wasn’t great music coming out of the South.” The rest of the group is equally quick to defend the South’s musical legacy as one long unbroken chain of excellence.

By the same token, you can’t pigeonhole TIAM as strictly a Southern music label, since they just like good music, and good music comes from all over the place. “We’re not bound by geography in any particular way,” Courtney argues. “We have worked with bands from New York and Ohio and even had a Canadian band play our SXSW party last year. But the fact of the matter is, we are somewhat limited in our scope to the bands that are near and dear to us and that means a predominantly southeastern flavor. That doesn’t mean that there is not great music being made in California and New York and Oregon, because there is. It just means that we can’t do a whole hell of a lot about it in Atlanta or Chattanooga or po-dunk Mississippi.”

Flegel confirms, though, that “there’s definitely something going on down here, Alabama specifically. It’s a culture that is opening its arms to original music, food, and art right now. There are some really great spots down here that are making it easier for a lot of these bands to exist and be sustainable. We like to tag a lot of our stuff as “Southern Indie”. It’s not some redneck with some sort of an angular haircut making sad emo music, it’s this wide-spanning indie spirit that we’ve seen up close and personal that seems to transcend any particular Southern genre.”

That new openness that Flegel talks about is part of what drives one of TIAM’s newest ventures: a partnership with the Mod Mobilian arts and media collective, which works to promote the creative communities of the Gulf Coast. Their first ventures include a reissue of Mobile indie rock band El Cantador’s Fools for Light CD as well as the band’s upcoming new album Translation Wave.

That kind of shared community effort is important to the TIAM crew. “We know towns like Athens, Atlanta, Birmingham, Muscle Shoals, and Chattanooga”, says Nichols. “We’re from these places and we go to these places. We eat their BBQ, we drink their local beers, we go to practices and studios, buy merch from their screen printers, and we attend shows at their local venues. Because we understand where these bands come from, we’re much better equipped to promote them. What we do is very community-based despite the fact that we (the TIAM ‘braintrust’) are all in different places ourselves.”

Furthermore, that sense of community that helps TIAM go about its work is also true of the artists it represents. Get a little bit familiar with these bands and you’ll see no shortage of talent-sharing and sitting in on one anothers’ sessions. Nichols characterizes the TIAM roster as “nothing but friends, family members, colleagues; they all love each other and they all realize they’re better together. There’s strength in a community of like-minded, devoted people and they benefit business-wise from thinking communally as opposed to adversarial.”

What else is in the TIAM pipeline? Almost too much to count. There’s already been a release by Dorado, an offshoot of Birmingham’s Through the Sparks. Dana Swimmer and Tedo Stone will release their debut efforts. There’s also an EP by Nashville’s Great Peacock, as well as a release by the Dexateens’ Elliott McPherson of that band’s 2006 “Lost Dexateens” Destroy Me tapes. Some Dark Holler’s Chris Porter has collaborated with the Pollies for what what Flegel calls “some tripped-out Post Divorce/Cosmic/Stoner Country. Man, it’s wild. All those little dudes singing about their girlfriends don’t even know.” Also on the schedule are eagerly-awaited follow-ups from the District Attorneys, the Pollies, and Bohannons. But wait, there’s more: some sorts of projects from Bonnie Whitmore, Kent Goolsby, Mark Utley’s Music for the Mountains benefit effort, the Muscle Shoals Covers project, and “Lord knows who else, too”.

If that sounds like a lot, Cooper agrees. “We expect to have way more in the hopper this year than last,” he says, “but the concept of working on a lot of projects is consistent with the overall vision. If we were just picking and choosing a couple of records and putting all of our eggs in those baskets, this would not be conducive to trying to weave together these different, but complimentary, scenes where the stuff we like is happening. And it would not be easy for us to whittle down what we are working on — nothing is forcing us into a Sophie’s choice. We’re very happy with the way things have expanded and evolved, and we’re not at a point yet where we feel the need to pull back on the reins.”