With this past month’s City Series focus on Athens, GA we wanted to take a closer look at one of the town’s defining musical institutions: New West Records.
New West Records is the apogee of modern Americana.
If there were ever a synonym for quality roots-based music, it’s New West. The label sets a standard by which all others are measured. One can simply see the New West name attached to an album and be assured of its caliber.
The music speaks for itself. The label’s roster hosts giants like Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Buddy Miller, Delbert McClinton, Patty Griffin and Richard Thompson, as well as incubating torch-bearing new blood like Robert Ellis and Daniel Romano.
Besides their normal releases, New West exclusively puts out CDs and DVDs for the award-winning TV program Austin City Limits, which recently surpassed Soul Train as the longest-running music series in American television history.
They have also released several film soundtracks, notably the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the film Crazy Heart. The original song “The Weary Kind (Theme From Crazy Heart),” penned by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett, won a Grammy, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award in 2009.
With offices in Nashville, TN, Burbank, CA, and Athens, GA, New West has a firm grip on the beating pulse of the American heartland.
“I think one of the things that sets New West apart is the level of passion and commitment we show our artists,” says George Fontaine, Jr., son of label president George Fontaine, Sr. “It’s truly a family company, and I think our artists feel like they are part of that family.”
Alongside his father, Fontaine, Jr. co-founded Normaltown Records, New West’s Athens-based imprint, which is dedicated to developing emerging new talent.
“While we are mostly known for putting out music in the Americana world, I prefer to think of [the New West] sound as just good, honest music. Our bread and butter over the years has certainly been in roots music, but we’re not afraid to branch out of that realm if we like the music,” he says.
Fontaine notes several New West acts, including Wild Moccasins and Athens’ own Yip Deceiver, that are impossible to classify as roots music. “To quote my dad,” he says, “‘we are a record label and not a radio format.’“
New West was initially formed around 1997 by Cameron Strang, who today serves as Chairman & CEO of Warner Bros. Records and Warner/Chappell Music.
The company was originally formed in Minneapolis, but relocated to L.A. shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, George Fontaine, Sr. was running the small Texas label Doolittle Records. In 2000, while Strang was looking for a partner, the two men were introduced. Sharing the common vision of building a quality, independent, artist-friendly label that stands the test of time, they merged operations that same year.
With a concrete philosophy for what New West Records stood for, Cameron was able to land such heritage artists as Delbert McClinton, John Hiatt and Steve Earle.
“Those guys were at a point in their careers where they were sick of playing the major label ‘game,’” says Fontaine. “They were all established in their careers, and looking for something where they had more creative control and freedom, plus an accountable staff to work and market the albums.”
In 2004 George Fontaine, Jr., graduated from the University of Georgia in Athens. He worked at New West’s L.A. office for two years before moving to Atlanta to work for a small indie label.
When George Jr. returned to New West in 2008, they began dreaming up the idea of an Athens office, which officially opened its doors in early 2010.
There were several factors leading to the Athens expansion.
Logistically, it made more sense for the label to have its warehouse in the Southeast than in Austin. Their physical manufacturer and distributer were both in this part of the country, saving a lot of shipping costs and time.
New West also had longstanding ties to many Athens mainstays like Drive-By Truckers, Randall Bramblett and the late Vic Chesnutt, as well as newer artists like New Madrid, Ruby the Rabbitfoot and The Whigs.
So even though Athens was the last addition, it was in many ways the most intentional.
“My family just loves this town and the music scene,” he says. “There is an inexplicable draw to this place.”
Both Fontaine and his father went to college at UGA, along with many other relatives. In fact, George Sr. was one of three people who first opened up the now-legendary Georgia Theatre as a music venue in the late ‘70s.
Fontaine explains, “I grew up a UGA fan, and steeped in the lore of Athens. I first visited the town when I was 16 or 17, and ended up going to college here a couple years later. [After I left,] there was always an invisible force pulling me back.”
Opening Normaltown Records was an idea they had kicked around for a couple of years, before actually launched in the spring of 2012.
“It gives us an avenue to sign and patiently develop some younger artists that we believe in,” he says.
Current Normaltown acts include Daniel Romano, Lilly Hiatt, and Ruby the Rabbitfoot. These acts may lack the touring base and mass appeal necessary to be a New West release, and it creates a less immediate pressure to sell albums. Normaltown artists also tend to lean in more alternative and left-field categories, compared to New West releases.
“It’s more about the long-term vision,” says Fontaine, “The idea is to work with them and grow with them until they do reach that point.”
Fontaine doesn’t have a straight answer for what makes Athens such a magnet.
“It’s hard to exactly put you finger on what’s special about Athens,” he says, “I think there’s just something in the water – or the beer.”
He continues, “I think part of the reason Athens has fostered so much creativity over the years is because it’s a little progressive pocket in a not-so-progressive region of the country. It’s a great place for free thinkers to come live and collaborate.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the cost of living is relatively low. Fontaine says Athens has a healthy amount of flexible service industry jobs that help you pay the rent while at home, but allow you to leave for days or weeks at a time to go on tour, “because we all know it’s hard for an emerging musician or artist of any kind to make a living on their art alone.”
To help tell the New West story, we asked George Fontaine Jr. to pick out some of the label’s most memorable records.
Delbert McClinton: Nothing Personal (2001)
This is the release that really put New West on the map, both critically and commercially, and also brought the label it’s first Grammy.
The Flatlanders: Now Again (2002)
Joe Ely, Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock reunite as The Flatlanders for the first time in about 30 years.
John Hiatt: Beneath This Gruff Exterior (2003)
New West’s first album with the incomparable John Hiatt.
Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day (2003)
New West’s first release with DBT, who would become a pivotal band for the label. Also, this is still my favorite album of theirs. We would go on to release four studio albums, a live DVD from the 40 Watt in Athens, and Austin City Limits CD/DVD, two compilation albums… plus solo albums from both Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell.
Susan Tedeschi: Live From Austin, TX (2004)
This was the first release from our Austin City Limits series, which would go on to include DVD and/or CD releases from Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, R.E.M., Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Dough Sahm, and more.
Buddy Miller: Universal United House of Prayer (2004)
The beginning of a long, fruitful relationship with the great Buddy Miller,
Dwight Yoakam: Blame The Vain (2005)
This was a very fun one to work on, as I have been a huge Dwight fan since I was a kid. Such a talent!
Kris Kristofferson: This Old Road (2007)
Just being associated with Kris in any way is an honor.
Steve Earle: Washington Square Serenade (2007)
Our first release with Steve Earle. His fourth studio album with New West comes out on February 17. There are also two Austin City Limits CD/DVDs in our catalog, and we reissued his excellent album with Del McCoury Band called The Mountain.
Crazy Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2010)
Now this one was a whirlwind. We ended up with this soundtrack because several other people passed on it. At the time no one was even sure if the movie would come out, but then Fox Searchlight bought it from CMT, and implemented an excellent rollout plan.
People loved the movie, and it ended up bringing in Oscars and Grammys. And just having Jeff Bridges around was amazing. New West artist Stephen Bruton (R.I.P.) co-wrote many of the songs and acted as Jeff’s mentor during the filming process, which made the whole thing that much more special. This soundtrack is New West’s biggest selling album to date.
Robert Ellis: Photographs (2011)
Robert can be seen as the beginning of the new guard at New West, when we started investing in more young artists as opposed to so many heritage artists. This is where we are building the future of the company.
Kalen Nash: Ukred (2012)
The first release from Normaltown Records, Kalen is the lead singer of Ponderosa. The majority of this album was actually recorded at our office in Athens. Of our other Normaltown artists, we are particularly exited about New Madrid and Ruby the Rabbitfoot. We released both of their albums last year, and will have new stuff in the works soon.