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Thursday, June 17, 2004 11:38 am

Root cause

How often do we hear a musician praising his or her record label as the fairest group of people you ever could hope to meet? Close to never. Labels and artists have been at odds with each other since records were pressed into wax. But ask those recording for Bloodshot Records about their label, and they have nothing but praise.

"We work for the artists," says Bloodshot co-owner Rob Miller. That's simple enough, but the industry standard has the relationship in reverse order. "It's sad that the way we do business is an anomaly. That boggles my mind."

Almost as astounding is the fact that this small independent roots-and-rock label is celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer. "I am absolutely proud of these 10 years," says Nan Warshaw, the other half of Bloodshot's ownership.

No wonder. Bloodshot is highly regarded throughout the music world for its important role in delivering alternative country or roots rock from underground obscurity to glossy-magazine covers. Still growing, Bloodshot continues to be driven by the goal of making quality music -- deemed unprofitable by the majors -- available to the world. Warshaw and Miller agree that it will be time to quit when they cease to release records that excite them or they are no longer able to retain their high level of goodwill with their artists. There's no threat of either yet.

Bloodshot was created in Chicago, in the summer of 1994, on a whim. Warshaw, Miller, and Eric Babcock (who left the label in 1998 to pursue other interests) noticed a great concentration of Midwest bands blurring the gaps between punk rock and traditional country -- and going unnoticed. As a means of staving off boredom, they organized a compilation CD, For a Life of Sin. They had no intentions of moving beyond that one release; the loftiest goal was to break even on the lark. However, the Bloodshot instigators soon realized something might be worth harnessing in this folly.

"Bloodshot was the conduit in this part of the country for people who came at their music from varied places to all come together," reflects Sean Burns of the WQNA (88.3 FM) radio show Sangamon Valley Roots Revival. "Bloodshot was a touchstone around here ... that gave people a talking point, to say, 'There is this roots music out there, and you need to be interested in it.'"

Moving beyond regional: The early careers of the Old 97s, Robbie Fulks, and Ryan Adams were fostered by Bloodshot. Critics rushed to identify the burgeoning scene with a name, and the fledgling label found itself at the center of the "alt-country" (a tag the Bloodshot team wish they could do without) boom.

Miller clearly remembers when the notion they were doing something of import first struck him: It was 1997, during a showcase at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Alejandro Escovedo was announced to a sold-out crowd as a Bloodshot recording artist for the first time, Miller recalls, "and hundreds and hundreds of people flipped out, and I thought, 'Oh my God! This guy has kids and a career and a legacy, and he's counting on us. He's entrusting us with his art.'"

Trust has become the modus operandi for the label, both inside the industry and out. Music fans recognize the Bloodshot Records imprint as a symbol of authenticity -- a verifying signature that the music within is the audio translation of the artists' heart and soul and never an attempt to meet a marketable image created by label executives. Maverick musician Wayne Hancock (his music is likened to that of Hank Williams Sr., his attitude to that of Sid Vicious) sums it up: "I don't tell them how to sell records, and they don't tell me how to make them. It's a great deal. I have total artistic control."

"I think it definitely carries weight to hear 'Bloodshot recording artist,'" confirms Brian Reilly, general manager and booking director for the Underground City Tavern in Springfield. "You know it's quality music."

For the uninitiated, the Waco Brothers may be the quintessential example of the "insurgent country" sound that fueled Bloodshot: driving, energetic rock spiced with a little extra twang. But the sound is expanding to include Hawaiian, lounge, and torch-jazz vocalists. No-frills country is fair game these days, and so is unadulterated rock & roll (few like to admit it, but the Yayhoos' unrestrained rock is far superior to anything the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith has done in a quarter-century).

Warshaw and Miller wade through the morass of the music industry while the musicians are busy keeping the music fresh. It would not be possible to get records on the shelves without jumping into the fray, but, Warshaw admits, "I sure don't want to get lumped into the music business."

So they proceed in a manner seemingly bent on treating people the opposite of what is expected. Some Bloodshot recording contracts are mere handshakes. The label and artists thrive in an unlikely symbiotic relationship built on mutual respect and admiration. Hancock is impressed: "There's no people wearing sunglasses with pictures of all the famous people they've been with. They're just regular people."

They just happen to thrive in an atmosphere that is sorely lacking common folk. As for the notion that they have blazed a new trail in American music, Warshaw shakes her head "no"; Miller says, "Personally, I'm not comfortable taking any credit for that. I look at us as part of a never-ending continuum that dates all the way back ... to say that we started something is wrong."

Well, something was started back in July 1994, and music fans everywhere thank the Bloodshot crew for all the gifts of the last decade. As a show of gratitude, here is an extended wish for a happy birthday (in three-part harmony, everyone) -- and many more.