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September has a lot of album releases that I’m really enjoying or looking forward to. In fact, it’s the most lucrative month for music for my taste in quite some time.

Last Tuesday (September 7), Rounder Records released The SteelDrivers’ second album, Reckless (which is pretty spectacular, by the way) and this week, they will be releasing Robert Plant’s follow up to his 2007 collaborative album with Alison Krauss, also on Rounder. From the streaming preview that can be heard on NPR’s website until release day, the album is a wonderfully rootsy project helmed by Plant and Buddy Miller and includes guitar work from Darrell Scott. October will also finally see the release of Joe Diffie’s bluegrass album on the label.

When one learns that an album will be released through Rounder Records (which has recently been sold to Concord Music Group), it’s pretty much automatically expected that the project will be quality. Whether it’s The SteelDrivers, Robert Plant, Joe Diffie, John Mellancamp, Alison Krauss or Willie Nelson, it’s reasonable to assume certain aspects of a Rounder release, including that the album may even stray from a typical artist release to be more rootsy in approach, as is the case with the recent Willie Nelson and John Mellancamp albums, along with the upcoming Diffie project. More often than not, I can count on Rounder Records to please my musical sensibilities, even with unexpected artists, since I never expected that Robert Plant would be recording some of my favorite roots music.

As much as I love and count on Rounder Records to produce great music, my absolute favorite record company is Sugar Hill Records (owned by Vanguard Records). Incidentally, Joey+Rory will be releasing their anticipated second album through Sugar Hill on Tuesday (September 14). Additionally, Marty Stuart’s recent release, the excellent Ghost Train, was released through them as well. Other artist who have been associated with Sugar Hill include, but are not limited to: Nickel Creek, Ricky Skaggs, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Darrell Scott, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, The Duhks, Sarah Jarosz, and the list goes on. As with Rounder Records, many artists seem to release albums with Sugar Hill as a deviation from the music for which they are most popularly associated, as is the case with Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, and even Rodney Crowell, who released his venerable The Houston Kid on the label.

Right now, it seems that my favorite record labels aren’t in the business of releasing music that we hear on mainstream country radio, though Joey+Rory are attempting to crack through. While I don’t have the inside knowledge to say that it doesn’t exist, we don’t hear about the red tape and politics that is ever present with major companies like, lets say, the infamous Curb Records, which has produced some rather publicly disgruntled artists, most notably Tim McGraw and the two Living Hank Williamses.

But when I was a kid, MCA Records was the label that seemed like the powerhouse record company for country music to me. Some of my favorite artists were on that label, including Trisha Yearwood, George Strait, Reba McEntire and, of course, Vince Gill. I admired the country roster of Arista as well, which included Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio, Radney Foster, and Blackhawk.

Along with reminding you about some good releases that have recently been released and will soon be available, this is the very long and self-indulgent way of getting to the question of:

What is the record label that you most admire and can count on to release your favorite music?


  1. In the nineties, it was definitely Arista. When led by Tim DuBois, they had an amazing roster. I actually would check an album out if on that label.

    I don’t know of a label today that I feel the same way about, in terms of new music at least. For reissues, I’m always checking out the Raven Records label in Australia.

  2. As mainstream labels go, Mercury and MCA (both under UMG) are by far the closest. I never assume that any given mainstream album will be quality anymore, but those two seem to collect the greatest number of artists with real promise (Gary Allan, Vince Gill, David Nail, Randy Rogers Band, Ashton Shepherd, George Strait, Josh Turner, Lee Ann Womack, Laura Bell Bundy, Easton Corbin, Jamey Johnson, Sugarland, Shania Twain).

  3. I agree with just about all of the thoughts expressed here. MCA and Arista were really great back in their day. But these days it does seem like there are no major labels that can be counted on to consistently produce quality material. All of them seem too focused on releasing the kind of music that they think country radio wants.

  4. I don’t really have a particular one.

    However, I will say that it seems as though a lot of MCA artists are jumping ship now to Big Machine OR Valory… Which is interesting to me, at least.

    I wonder if Mercury had the same problem a few years back when Reba jumped to MCA? (I thought I heard something like that).

  5. Nonesuch’s artist roster is extraordinarily varied but I find that if it releases an album by a country or roots musician that I like, the album is almost invariably of a high quality. Artists who have recently released albums on the Nonesuch label include Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, and Sara Watkins, as well as Chris Thile and The Punch Brothers.

  6. I never paid much attention to record labels but I did attend Rounder’s 40th anniversary celebration last Columbus Day evening at the Grand Ole Opry. The show was hosted by actress/singer Minnie Driver and included performances by Minnie, Nathan & the Zydego Cha Chas, Bela Fleck, Irma Thomas, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Alison Kraus & Union Station. It was quite a diverse musical offering. The show was recorded for a PBS special that also included performances from other venues by Steve Martin, Madeleine Peyroux and maybe others. I believe the PBS show aired about 6 months ago.

  7. Well now days I don’t think any label really catches my attention. But when I look at my most played artists on LastFM it’s all from either MCA or Mercury from the ninties.

    Terri Clark (Mercury)
    George Strait (MCA)
    Reba McEntire (MCA)
    Gary Allan (MCA)
    Trisha Yearwood (MCA
    Sugarland (Mercury)
    Lee Ann Womack (MCA)
    Patty Loveless (MCA)
    Shania Twain (Mercury)

    those are all in my top 20 artists. So I guess I used to like their rosters.

  8. Arista in the ’90s was pretty reliable. Along with those you mentioned, the debut albums from Brooks & Dunn and The Tractors were pretty killer, too.

    New West (Old 97s, Corb Lund, Buddy & Julie Miller, The Flatlanders, Steve Earle, etc.) is pretty high quality these days, as is Lost Highway (Hayes Carll, Ryan Bingham, Robert Earl Keen, Lucinda Williams).

  9. I have to concur with Leeann. Most of my favorite releases lately have been on Sugar Hill or Rounder. No major label is consistently putting out a good product these days. In the 90s, MCA was definitely the creme de la creme.

  10. During the 1960s and 1970s Decca/MCA and RCA were my favorite labels. Decca had ET, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, Red Foley, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Bill Monroe, The Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Cal Smith, Jack Greene, Matthews Southern Comfort, Burl Ives and many more.

    RCA had Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Connie Smith, Elvis, Porter & Dolly, Kenny Price and Nat Stuckey.

    Since the end of the 1980s, no label has maintained such deep rosters, so I really haven’t had a favorite country label other than Bear. In recent years Heart of Texas has produced the most consistantly good music

  11. Rounder has the consistent roster that I enjoy (and includes Mary Chapin Carpenter as well). There just doesn’t seem to be the commitment to building acts at the mainstream labels like there was in the 90s, which is why labels like Arista don’t have the same cred anymore. I’m interested to see what happens with Big Machine and Valory in the future.

  12. I should mention that I expect Rounder to maintain its quality standards. Concord, primarily a jazz label, has, (along with Blue Note,Verve and Pablo) been the gold standard for quality jazz releases.

  13. The problem all the way around seems to be that each label has one A-level artist their marketing department spends their time on, a couple of B-level artists that kind of rotate and everyone else is on a very short leash with minimal support.

    I’m very interested to see what happens at Big Machine Records now that Rascal Flatts (formerly the A-level act at Lyric Street) will be competing with Taylor Swift for marketing attention.

    And it seems that this formula is found regardless of the size of the label. Lost Highway’s current roster is alright (I enjoy Hayes Carll and Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, though the latter isn’t country). But consider that just a couple years ago, they also released albums by Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams, Shelby Lynne, Van Morrison…all of whom have left the label.

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