I first tripped over the fetching BEAR FAMILY RECORDS logo around 1984 or so. Flipping through the Js at Austin, Texas' fine independent record store, Waterloo Records, no doubt looking for something by The Jet Black Berries or some such indierock buzz, I hit a vein of peculiar-looking discs. The Berries' new one wasn't in stock, but four or five never-seen- before Waylon Jennings albums – each bearing the legend 'The Waylon Jennings File' and featuring a photo of the man in his rugged, rough-cut prime – were. That moment, despite having had my head blown off by The Clash and beginning to fall hard for the jangle and roar of R.E.M. and The Jesus & Mary Chain, instantly transported me back to my boyhood.
Cheap records were primetime entertainment in those pre-pubescent days, circa 1969, and long-defunct Texas discount stores like Gibson's, Woolco, B&W, and Spartan carried them by the bushel. Entire aisles were sometimes given over to cutout records – garish psychedelic flops vying for attention among great-but-past-their-fresh-date works by the likes of Charlie Walker, Johnny Horton, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Buck Owens, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Porter Wagoner, novel curiosities by Don Bowman, Homer & Jethro, Wanda Jackson gone gospel, and worthwhile but commercially stillborn efforts by the likes of Henson Cargill, Nat Stuckey, Diana Trask. Discs were price-tagged $1.49 or $1.29 or some such – electronically reprocessed for stereo! they bragged – but I've got a few shrink-wraps left over from those days signaling the princely sum of 44¢.
Within the grooves of these records, on cut-rate labels like CAMDEN, HICKORY, HILLTOP, and Shelby Singleton's ubiquitous SUN imprint, one could just begin to trace the glorious arc of American country music in all its post-war glory, a carte blanch to everything from western swing to rockabilly, honkytonk to the Nashville Sound. Along with Saturday night’s parade of syndicated country TV shows, and twangy radio fare from San Antonio’s KKYX and K-BUC, and KVET in Austin, any conceivable cultural need of a shy, quiet 10-year-old Texas boy were met.
A few years later, though, everything came crashing down. By the mid-80s, Cash, Owens, Bare, Tom T. Hall, Roger Miller – they might as well have been hiding in an underground bunker. Tasteless pop crossover and Urban Cowboy had connived to kill it all; even the once proud Country Outlaws were on the wane. It was up to, of all things, Ersatz punk-rockers Dwight Yoakam and The Blasters to keep roots music fires burning.
But the visionaries at BEAR FAMILY, stepping in where American entrepreneurs couldn’t be bothered, were having none of it. From its humble beginnings, the label set about restoring the very fabric of America’s rich musical legacy. Country, rockabilly, blues, pop, early rock 'n' roll, even vintage TV show soundtracks (Bonanza!), BEAR brought it all pulsing back to life, weaving an epic tapestry out of not only those old budget-label releases, but forgotten regional 45s, the unjustly obscure wanderings of figures like Pappy Daily, and more. Trawling the vaults, unearthing everything from chart-topping singles to fly-on- the-wall session tapes, BEAR FAMILY treated its subjects with a respect and enthusiasm all-too-deserved but rarely delivered.
With a small army of researchers and historians on hand to lend context, storytelling, and perspective, the producers scrapping for every significant morsel of sound, and the design and production teams giving every project a gorgeous gleam, BEAR FAMILY releases are among life’s rare treats. With a BEAR box – say the Carter Family’s 'In the Shadowof Clinch Mountain' or Lefty Frizzell’s 'Life’s Like Poetry', to name just two dazzling examples – one may delve deeply in pure sonic joy: i.e., the unearthly harmonies of the Louvin Brothers; the boom-chicka- boom of the Tennessee Two; the endlessly inventive piano of Jerry Lee Lewis. Or dive headlong into the bends and bumps of an artist or genre (in the case of the latter, the exhaustive rockabilly series 'That’ll Flat Git It' or the equally impressive R&B survey 'Blowin' The Fuse'), picking up on tone, nuance and evolution, such as the impact of a lineup change, or in the case of the Everly Brothers, the calamitous effect of losing the Boudleaux and Felice Bryant songwriting team.
BEAR FAMILY’s fascinating historical permutations plugged easily into my own obsessions: Rank & File, Jason & The Nashville Scorchers, and The Long Ryders, among others, knew this terrain. But plenty of hard-earned cash began exiting my wallet in the direction of Germany as the '80s wore on:
'The Rockin’ Rollin’ Johnny Horton,' 'Wishful Thinking,' a magnificent double LP of Wynn Stewart’s groundbreaking Bakersfield sound, the Webb Pierce box, and my own holy grail – 'SUN RECORDS: The Rockin’ Years,' which dug deep for the likes of Luke McDaniel, Hayden Thompson, and Ray Smith, riveting sound and fury, and the birth of rock and roll, from 706 Union Ave., Memphis, TN.
So, congrats BEAR folks, for enriching lives immeasurably going on 35 years! And please let me know when I can expect to crack the seal on the definitive BEAR box treatment on, say, Johnny Paycheck, Townes Van Zandt, Freddie Hart, or Jack Barlow. Also, can you help me with this dream I keep having? An exhaustive twelvedisc box, 'There Ain’t No Easy Run,' floating just out of reach, colorful ‘60sera truckstops and 18-wheelers on the covers; within the grooves: Dave Dudley, Jim Nesbitt, Red Simpson, the Willis Brothers, Johnny Dollar, Del Reeves, Bob Newman, Johnny Bond, Lawton Williams, Red Sovine, Dick Curless.
Uncut and Wall Street Journal Austin, Texas March 2010