Red House Records celebrates 30 years

Lucy Kaplansky has been a member of the Red House family for nearly two decades
Courtesy of Red House Records

One night in the early 1980s, Bob Feldman was at the old Coffeehouse Extemporé in Minneapolis's West Bank neighborhood. Performing was an Iowa singer-songwriter who'd been playing the Upper Midwest circuit. Greg Brown wrote poetic, finely observed songs about his grandma, home-grown vegetables, feed caps, and the wonders of small-town life, imbuing them with a gentle majesty. Feldman, who taught a business class at Eden Prairie High School at the time, was astounded — both by Brown's artistry and his lack of a wider audience.

Despite zero experience in the music industry, Feldman quickly put together a sold-out show at the Guthrie featuring Brown and Michigan folkie Claudia Schmidt. Buoyed by the concert's success and their growing friendship, Brown and Feldman agreed to form a company to reissue Brown's first two, self-released albums, 44 & 66 and The Iowa Waltz. Named for the old farmhouse near Iowa City where Brown lived, Red House Records was born.

Three decades later, St. Paul-based Red House is among the longest-surviving independent labels in the country, with an extensive catalog hosting legends Spider John Koerner and Ramblin' Jack Elliot, acclaimed singer-songwriters like Eliza Gilkyson, and young Americana upstarts like the Pines. Embracing artists and fans with the warmth and respect of family members, Red House has survived and thrived against improbable odds, including the notorious instability of the music business, Feldman's sudden death in 2006, and Brown's subsequent departure from the label.

Red House will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a concert Friday at St. Paul's O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, featuring Schmidt, who was essentially there at the start; New York singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky, who's put out nine albums on Red House over two decades; and Wailin' Jennys member Heather Masse, who released a classic jazz record on Red House (Lock My Heart) with pianist Dick Hyman.

"It just amazes me, the durability of the label," Eric Peltoniemi reflects. "It's such a tenuous thing."

Now Red House's president, Peltoniemi has been with the label since 1986, the first employee hired by Feldman, and has virtually done it all, from production to graphic design to issuing his own albums.

"Record labels come and go, and it's very challenging to maintain a staff and keep putting out records," he continues. "A lot of the big indies that were our peers in the early days, like Rounder and Sugar Hill, have all been absorbed into conglomerates. We're the last of that generation of independent, so-called folk labels still going."

Though Feldman didn't want the label to lose money, making good music was more important than making a profit, and creating a significant connection with smaller audiences was essential, recalls John Gorka, who has seven Red House albums, beginning with 1987's I Know. And these principles are still cherished at Red House.

"Bob had his musical vision," Peltoniemi says. "He was really moved by words and music together.... Predominantly it was a singer-songwriter thing. And it wasn't so much folk, it was more an authentic, genuine voice that we were looking for.... We've set the bar pretty high. We've got Greg Brown to measure against and John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky. All of these artists really set the standard in the world of roots music. Another aspect, which Bob really nurtured, there was always a sense of family about the artists here."

Feldman was effusive in his enthusiasm for every new project and had an unorthodox — in business terms — sense of fun. He was renowned for showing up at the label distributor's annual meeting and announcing, "This is the best record Greg Brown's ever put out." Every year. When he and Peter Ostroushko inevitably argued over the budget for Ostroushko's next album, Feldman would insist they settle it by leg wrestling on the office floor. Ostroushko always won. Sometimes, Peltoniemi says, Feldman would pop into the office and announce, "'Pack up, we're locking the office, we're going to a movie,' just for no reason at all. There was always that sort of atmosphere around here."

When Feldman died, it was a huge blow.

"Horrible shock," says Kaplansky, who has been with Red House for 19 years. "Horrible loss. He and I were really good friends. So it was a loss of not just the label head, but a friend. It was pretty devastating to a lot of people."

Feldman's presence is still felt at the label. "It's not like the hole has closed up," Gorka says. "I often think when I'm writing a song or working on a project, what would Bob think of this?"

Losing Feldman was multi-layered for Peltoniemi. "He and I were best friends. Our families were very close," he says. "But also ... the staff was suddenly placed in a crisis management situation and it strangely gave us a kick because we were so intent on keeping this alive. Everybody knuckled down." But for Greg Brown, once the label's linchpin, it was too much. "I think when Bob was gone Greg needed to find something new for himself," Peltoniemi adds. "It affected him very hard. Although we've stayed close. He's always welcome here. He's still family."

Fittingly, Kaplansky's latest, Reunion, focuses on family and the cycle of life, specifically in relation to her young daughter and elderly parents. But she also sees parallels in the Red House experience. "Yeah, talk about the cycle of life: Bob leaving us way too soon. But still, people leave, people die. Other people are born and grow. Red House is a family in a way I don't think any other label could possibly be."

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