New West Records:
A Different Kind of Success
During the 1990s, the term alternative country started being used to describe a genre of music in which artists were deviating from the normal standards of mainstream country music. These artists take a more somber, heartfelt approach to songwriting, and they view success by fans’ abilities to truly comprehend and appreciate their music versus perceiving success as wealth or fame. Independent label New West Records stands at the forefront of Alt-Country, representing some of the genre’s most defining acts. Through the label’s development, partnerships, and unique approach to signing and working with artists, New West Records illustrates a different kind of success—one that directly correlates with the music it represents.
Not Too Long Ago…
Formed in 1997, New West Records began in Los Angeles, California, by Cameron Strang who was practicing entertainment law before he founded the label. With a deep passion for music, Strang began giving free legal advice to local bands, realizing he liked working with musicians more than he enjoyed being in the courtroom. After deciding he needed to form a relationship with the music industry, Strang started up Nice Records with Kelley Deal, mainly to put out the album she had recorded. When their distributors went out of business, Strang managed to procure a meeting with RED, a marketing and sales division affiliated with Sony Music Entertainment; the distribution company worked out a deal with the label that helped them see growth while still maintaining an “independent” status. Strang then went on to form New West Records. Through some fateful encounters, the roster grew at a quick pace with the incl usion of Billy Joe Shaver, Bocephus King, Jon Dee Graham, and Stephen Bruto n. Cameron managed to keep his deal with RED, and the executives were excited about the alternative route he was taking.
Three years after the label started, New West Records partnered with Austin-based Doolittle Records, establishing a second operational facility in Texas. In 2001, the label signed legendary rocker Delbert McClinton and released his Grammy-winning album, Nothing Personal. A year later saw eight releases including Chuck Prophet whose début album reached number three on the Triple A Radio chart. Strang said that his criterion for signing new artists are based on the power of the music itself and that “someone here has to absolutely believe in the music. There really is no formula.” For New West, efforts are focused on artists’ songwriting abilities and how they are able to captivate listeners with their music. Less than a decade after the Austin location opened, New West started a third branch in Athens, Georgia, as the label’s shipping and distribution operations center.
In 2009, New West Records entered into a partnership with legendary television program Austin City Limits, and the label deals with the live albums and DVDs of the show. Austin City Limits wanted to bring in a partner, and the indie nature of New West was attractive to the show’s executives who knew the label could provide personal service. Also, New West’s presence in Austin is strong, and the companies together make up a large part of the city’s music community. The series is America’s longest-running concert music program and is taped live by a PBS-affiliated station. New West puts out re-edited, re-mastered concert footage on DVD that includes never before seen songs from the taping as well as separate audio CDs.
New West Records Artist Kris Kristofferson LIVE at Austin City Limits:
For New West Records, it is all about the music. Founder Cameron Strang ensures that the label takes a personal approach in working with its roster, giving each artist the individual attention and direction he deserves. The label’s formula for the music business is unlike the typical model for running a label, but New West deals with a genre of music that must be led in a way that focuses on emotion and personalized consideration. The company allows artist to have complete creative control and have a substantial input on how the album is produced and marketed. Because of how New West operates its business, some of the biggest names in Americana music have been drawn to work with the label including John Hiatt, Old 97’s, Drive-By Truckers, Ben Lee, Kris Kristofferson, Dwight Yokam, and many more genre-defining acts. The mission for the label is simple: “Help more great music find more people who enjoy it and visa-versa. The music will change your life for the better.” With a different kind of approach to the music world, New West has seen and will continue to see a different kind of success.
The Old 97’s were one of the leading bands of the alt-country movement during the mid to late 90s. The group came to New West after they were let go from Elektra during the merger of Time Warner and America Online. Although they never reached the level of success Elektra had hoped for, the Old 97’s were more than warmly welcomed into the arms of New West. The group has been together for over 17 years, experiencing many changes in the music industry, especially within the realm of technology, and they recognize the importance of social media and digital distribution. Lead vocalist Rhett Miller states that the band prefers “this model to a bunch of men in a boardroom” telling them what to do and how to do it just as they would tell everyone else. This is a band that enjoys people connecting with their music, and New West is the perfect platform for allowing the Old 97’s to create the kind of music they want.
Their latest album, The Grand Theatre Volume One was released on October 21st, and Volume 2 is expected for release in May of next year.The tunes of the band have been featured in several popular movies and TV series including Scrubs and Veronica Mars. Their tune “Timebomb” is available for download on Rock Band and Rock Band 2.
Drive-By Truckers & Jason Isbell
Based in Athens, GA, Drive-By Truckers have been together for almost 15 years, bringing their alternative country tunes to the ears of thousands across the nation. The DBT’s were actually one of the first bands to utilize the internet as a promotional tool; however, it was their constant touring that helped them develop a large, loyal fan base. In 2003, New West released Decoration Day, a concept album with dark subject matter and elements of southern folklore. The album’s title track was written by Jason Isbell, who was the latest addition to the band when the album was produced. The album actually ranked in the top 30 on the Billboard Top Independent Albums chart and garnered positive reviews from SPIN Magazine, Pitchfork Media, and even Rolling Stone.
A year later, the Truckers put out The Dirty South, which like the albums before it, contained songs about the South and associated tragedies and hypocrisies. Each song either tells a story or is closely associated with an identifiable theme. Isbell actually penned the catchiest song on the album, “Goddamn Lonely Love,” that he describes as a love song but is actually an emotional, painful song of loneliness that comes with love. This song represents the overall tone of DBTs–very raw, gritty, and vulnerable.
“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man walks into a bar and leaves before his ashes hit the floor. Stop my if I ever get that far, the sun’s a desperate star that burns like every single one before…”
The Dirty South actually made it to the Billboard 200 chart and peaked at No. 14 on the Independent Albums chart. Although Isbell parted ways with the band, the Drive-By Truckers continue to tour, playing the southern tunes at festivals and large club venues throughout the states.
Jason Isbell released his solo album Sirens of the Ditch in 2007. The album focuses on Southern-themed songwriting and bluesy vocals, showcasing Isbell’s musical gifts. His departure from the DBT’s remains uncertain, however, with the nature of the genre, he probably sought a different kind of success. One opportunity to see him perform live, and listeners will gather that Isbell is doing more than performing–he is essentially pouring his heart out on stage. Songs may be uptempo, but the underlying themes involve loneliness, heartbreak, and despair. For Isbell’s first release, the label recognized that the album was great in its entirety and developed a nationwide marketing plan to acquire local PR coverage and drive more fans to Isbell’s and New West’s sites for special offers. In about one month, his MySpace went from zero plays to 124,000 plays.
New West Records put out the soundtrack for Crazy Heart, the critically acclaimed film about a country singer-songwriter whose self-destructive behavior inhibits him from ever reaching stardom. The film received numerous awards, including a Golden Globe. The late Stephen Bruton, affiliated with the label, actually co-wrote many of the songs on the album.
The soundtrack received a Golden Globe for best original song in a motion picture with “The Weary Kind,” written by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett. The song is extremely emotional and captivates the essence of the genres of music New West aligns with. The movie was not expected to reach such popular heights, and it brought a unique type of success to the label. Turn the knob up, and escape to the song that sets the tone for the remarkable film.
A Storybook Unfolding
The artists associated with New West Records have stories to tell. Stories about inner pain, life-long woes, struggles in finding success, and personal battles difficult to overcome. Alternative country is the true form of emotional music. The musicians that create it are true artists, brilliantly talent and equally as complicated to understand. This genre is one of the most under-recognized, misunderstood categories of music. More than a lack of airplay or attention from media, is the fact that the musicians putting out this music do not particularly want that sort of lifestyle. For them, it is a different kind of success–-one that does not rely on stardom and glitz, but rather a success based on listeners abilities’ to fully comprehend where their music is coming from and appreciation for their art not showmanship or gimics. The talent at New West Records brings magic to music. It is a magic formed from sorrow and fear, but the music has the ability to take listeners to another realm of being, if only for a moment. These artists are wrapped up in every note and lyric they sing, completely consumed by the music they play. Alternative country may never see chart-topping action, but that was never its intention. After all, it truly is a different kind of success.
For more information on New West Records and all the hype it’s bringing, check out the sites below! (Click on the links to be directed to the sites.)
Published By: Mallory Grooms
Tucker, Ken Country: Labor of Love. Billboard (6 February 2008) p. 34
Thompson, Brent. “Old 97’s.” Birmingham Weekly (21 October 2010)
Zimmerman, Lee. “Indie: New West.” Goldmine (13 May 2005) p. 19, 24