CMH Records keeps bluegrass accessible to a new generation with Pickin’ On Pearl Jam
Founded in 1975 by Martin Haerle and Arthur Smith, CMH Records–alongside Sugar Hill and Rounder Records–was one of the few labels to keep traditional country and bluegrass music alive as major labels dropped heritage acts over the course of the decade.
This allowed artists like Merle Travis, The Osborne Brothers, Joe Maphis, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Grandpa Jones, Lester Flatt, and others to continue to make and release new music on the label, continuing their rich and lively discographies well into the ’80s and ’90s.
In 1994, the label began its popular Pickin’ On series, featuring bluegrass tributes to the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Nirvana, Modest Mouse, and many more, bringing a new generation of listeners to bluegrass through these creative cover albums. The label has also recently begun to dig into its back catalog, reissuing classic albums to digital and streaming for the first time, with releases such as the Grammy-nominated The Joe Maphis Flat-Picking Spectacular once again available to fans.
The latest installment of Pickin’ On, featuring the music of Pearl Jam as performed by series stalwarts Iron Horse, is out this week. We took the opportunity to speak with the label’s James Curtiss (Director of A&R and Brand Manager) and his partner on the classic releases, Jeremy Stephenson (Manager of Digital Assets and Mechanical Licensing) about the label’s history and plans for the modern age.
Jeremy Stephenson: Since we have such a huge back catalog of releases that are still out of print, we periodically reassess what our priorities are for which albums we want to reissue and digitize. We usually try to focus on some of our more prominent artists, but we do like to throw in a few releases from our lesser-known artists that we really enjoy.
What is the process for getting these reissues ready for streaming?
James Curtiss: CMH has done a pretty incredible job of keeping the archive of master tapes and more intact. We also have a full archive of the original commercial releases. When it comes to these digital releases, or the Country. Music. Heritage. LP comp we put out a few years ago, we work with an engineer who knows how to do things like bake the tapes if needed or just pull from the original masters to then digitize or transfer the content and remaster for the new release, whether it’s a first-time digital album or an analog title like a deluxe LP release. It’s an incredibly time-consuming and hands-on process with oversight from Jeremy and myself.
When revisiting these albums decades on, how do you make them relevant for modern listeners–or is that even a concern, when something like The Joe Maphis Flat-Picking Spectacular is Grammy-nominated?
Jeremy: I don’t think making the artists “relevant” is as much of a priority as making the music accessible to younger generations. Music lovers are always searching out older styles and artists that they resonate with. I would say that great music of any style or era is always relevant.
The Pickin’ On and Rockabye Baby! sub-labels meld the label’s past with a new present. Who came up with these ideas?
James: The vibe at the label is very collaborative. Ideas come from anywhere on the staff, as David has a pretty open-door policy when it comes to creativity. With regards to Pickin’ On, David and the staff at the label in the early ’90s collectively created the idea of a bluegrass tribute to The Beatles, which eventually spawned the series to follow. As for Rockabye, the series was co-created by Valerie Aiello, the art director at CMH at the time, and Lisa Roth, who is now the VP of CMH and the Brand Manager for Rockabye.
Where do you go with these series after 25 years of releases?
James: Well, we haven’t covered every song that’s ever existed. Just kidding. That’s not really the goal. The goal is to pay tribute to incredible music, while highlighting bluegrass as a genre and the ability of the musicians and talent within the genre. We have seen a lot more success in highlighting rock, that’s for sure. But rock music is a broad enough category that it can mean anything from Metallica and Modest Mouse to 3 Doors Down and The White Stripes and everything in between.
So, focusing on rock still offers us a lot of material that we love that we’d wanna play with. Pearl Jam is the latest one we’re working on and we’re super happy with how Iron Horse’s work on that has turned out. At the same time, we’re just now getting started talking about the next two or so titles on the horizon, so people can keep an eye out for those.
Why does CMH Records still matter, almost 50 years on?
James: The easy answer is that bluegrass still matters, so CMH still matters. ‘Nuff said.
CMH Records releases Pickin’ On Pearl Jam, as performed by Iron Horse, on Friday, May 12. You can order it on MP3 or compact disc here.