As we approach the end of the 21st century’s awkward teenage years, the Triangle’s record-company landscape is mostly dominated by two companies, Merge and Yep Roc. Durham-based Merge will mark its 30-year anniversary with the July 24–27 MRG30 Festival, while Hillsborough-based Yep Roc has been in business since 1997. And they have the same number of Grammy Awards, one apiece (Yep Roc for Jim Lauderdale’s bluegrass album of the year in 2008, Merge for Arcade Fire’s overall album of the year in 2011).
With physical product going the way of buggy whips in the music industry’s transition to online streaming, record labels that sell discs and tapes are an endangered species. But over the years, the Triangle has been home to hundreds of record companies with names like Cred Factory, Blastoplatter, Dr. Lime, Flavor Contra, Jettison, Rice Box and Wifflefist. Many have been artist-run, existing as not much more than a name stamped on a band’s self-made releases, and that’s basically how both Merge and Yep Roc got started.
Merge began in the summer of 1989, started by Superchunk members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance. Yep Roc’s roots go back to an early-1990s Boston-based alternative band called The Vouts, who were putting out their own records. Then two members, Glenn Dicker, and Tor Hansen wound up in Chapel Hill running RedEye Distribution and started Yep Roc to go with it.
But to find one of the Triangle’s earliest record moguls, you have to go back to the 1930s and J.B. Long, who ran the United Dollar Store on Club Boulevard in Durham. While Long didn’t run a label himself, he had a freelance talent-scouting arrangement with the American Recording Corporation where he’d bring artists up to New York to record – most notably the great Durham bluesman Blind Boy Fuller. Thanks to this arrangement, Fuller left behind an unusually large discography of recordings for a bluesman of his time, more than 130 songs including the enduring 1940 Piedmont blues classic “Step It Up and Go.”
In the late 1940s, the scene shifted west to Chapel Hill and Orville Campbell’s Colonial Records. Campbell was the editor-in-chief of the Daily Tar Heel during his time at the University of North Carolina, and he would remain an enthusiastic booster of all things UNC the rest of his life. In 1949, he wrote a song called “All the Way Choo Choo,” about his friend Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, a star running back for the UNC Tar Heels and also best man at Campbell’s wedding. Johnny Long and His Orchestra recorded “Choo Choo,” and Campbell was in the record business. Other records followed, including 1951’s “Way Up in North Carolina” by the Belltones (“That’s as far north as I want to be”) and songs by Billy “Crash” Craddock, Winston-Salem-born country star George Hamilton IV and even Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean.
Colonial’s most significant success story was something of an accident. In 1953, the label released Mount Airy native Andy Griffith’s hayseed interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as a single. But the B-side was the hit: “What It Was, Was Football,” on which Griffith portrayed a rube describing a football game. “Football” became Griffith’s breakthrough hit, reaching the top-10 after Capitol Records bought his contract. After appearing on Broadway and movie screens, Griffith came home to the fictional North Carolina town of Mayberry beginning in 1960 with “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Later in the 1960s, the graduate school at Duke University drew Canadian native Barry Poss to Durham, where he discovered he was more interested in old-time music than sociology. He gave up academia to go into the record business, first with Virginia-based County Records and then his own label Sugar Hill in 1978. Poss had an ear for talent, from Doc Watson and other classic old-timers to rising young guns like Ricky Skaggs and Chris Thile. Sugar Hill won a dozen Grammy Awards and a few gold and platinum records before it was sold to Welk Music Group and eventually dissolved, its catalog sold off.
Also emerging from Duke was Mammoth Records, which graduate student Jay Faires founded in 1988 based on a business plan he wrote for his MBA thesis. Where Sugar Hill was all about staying in its specialized niche, Faires had ambitions in line with his label’s name and scored million-selling albums with Virginia rock band Seven Mary Three and the homegrown hot-jazz band Squirrel Nut Zippers. But like Sugar Hill, Mammoth was also undone at the hands of outside ownership. Walt Disney bought Mammoth right around the time the hits quit coming. By 2000, Mammoth’s local operations had been shut down and absorbed elsewhere before the label ceased to exist at all a few years later.
All of which is to say that Merge and Yep Roc playing the long game and staying independent just might be the secret to a long, healthy existence.
About the Author:
David Menconi, the 2019 Piedmont Laureate, was a music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh for 28 years. This post is adapted from a chapter of a book he’s writing about the history of North Carolina music to be published in 2020 by University of North Carolina Press. He’ll lead a discussion about the history of Chapel Hill’s music and record companies at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 18, at the Carrboro ArtsCenter, 300-G Main. St. Free.