It’s a truism that musicians don’t make the best business people, and there are examples galore to prove it, from the very heights of the industry on down. Alison Brown, however, is a spectacular exception to the rule. A brilliant musician and performer, she has brought a lot to acoustic music through her own releases. But before she became a brilliant banjo player she was a brilliant student, graduating from Harvard with a degree in history and literature, and then completing a Masters of Business Administration at UCLA.
And then she became a banjo player, but she did it with the same resolve that she had done everything in her life up to that point, and was hired by Alison Krauss in 1987. By 1991 she was the IBMA banjo player of the year. Not bad for a Harvard grad.
The logical intersection of all of this—that is, a life in the arts, and MBA, an informed musical ear and a close relationship to an entire range of Americana musicians—came in 1995 when she and husband Garry West founded Compass Records (Brown calls West “the best bass player in his price range”). Since then they’ve signed a roster of musicians that are dedicated to the label, and rightly so, as the label is seemingly so dedicated to them. Compass musicians aren’t on the road to pop stardom, rather they are seasoned writers and performers who have simply a lot of music to give. There are labels that are about image, but Compass clearly is about music. They clearly are also guiding the work, encouraging partnerships, and providing unequalled production values on the albums they produce.
Two releases this spring are great examples of the kinds of things they do so well and Claire Lynch’s Dear Sister is a case in point. Compass has brought together simply phenomenal musicians, and the Brown imprint is clear; these are the kind of musicians that seem to pop up a lot on albums from Compass.
Lynch of course is a storied vocalist, arranger, and bandleader. But if you need another reason to buy this album—and no doubt you don’t, but there you go—Mark Schatz is a unqualified delight. His is, rightly, given lots of space to let his talents show on this recording, including his skills as a bass player, a banjo player, a “hambone” or body percussionist, and a traditional Appalachian dancer. The last two of those show up on “Buttermilk Road/The Arbours”—it’s true in this day and age that live shows support the recording, but this material is so wonderful and varied that it’s easy to feel that, without seeing the performers, we’re really missing something.
Also here is Bryan McDowell, who at 18 won first place in all the major competitions at Winfield, Kansas, in 2009. No one had done that before, though Mark O’Connor won two in the same year. He’s still just 22, but some of the guitar work here is a master class in how to add voice, interest, and variety to a bluegrass guitar part. Exhibit A is the first track on the disc, “How Many Moons.” Gorgeous guitar work, but it’s not in the service of flash, it’s in the service of the song. The selection of songs is rich and varied, from the Peirce Pettis ballad “That Kind of Love” to an energetic romp through the Osborne Brothers’ “I’ll be Alright Tomorrow.”
Also from Compass this spring, and well within the same category of taste and ability is the Gibson Brothers’ They Called it Music. It’s their third for Compass, and the relationship has been a good one, a time in which they won the IBMA entertainer of the year award. The Gibsons say that this is their best album yet, and in fact they might be right. It’s a confident tour through the themes and traditions of bluegrass music, prefaced conceptually by the title and the title track, which is a statement about the genres of traditional music. Old-time, bluegrass, gospel, it was just music and, as they sing, “I swear their ghosts are with me, I can feel ‘em when I play/ It wasn’t all about the money like it is today.” The choice of songs on the album bear that out, with new tracks (two co-penned with Joe Newberry) alongside “Home on the River” which is more than a century old. Loretta Lynn and Mark Knopfler have credits here too, though the album is truly of a piece, and everything sits nicely alongside each other.
The Gibsons have been at it for two decades, and it shows. They are confident professionals with nothing to prove. Their harmonies are their calling card, and they remain stellar here. There’s a complexity to this disc that comes from their artistic maturity, and you don’t catch it all on the first listen.
So, yes, it’s music. Great music. And it’s great to have a label like Compass, one that prises maturity and grace, to bring it forward. As listeners we appreciate that, though I suspect that the musicians Compass works with appreciate it even more.