How to start a record label, step 1: Begin in a cave, dubbing cassettes, getting a taste for the biz. Step 2: Find the passionate interest that points the way out and might even sustain you or, most improbably, sustain some kind of art. Step 3: There really is no step 3 -- except work.Something as ambitious as building a stable, feasible and diverse label for some of St. Louis' most accomplished but under-recorded musicians could be characterized as quixotic or inevitable. It's neither. For Dan Randant, who literally started Wildstone Audio in a cave-sheltered warehouse just south of St. Louis, building a local roster has meant connecting the dots in a diverse-roots music scene and finding underlying elements of craft, imagination and staying power -- all of which just might help the label survive where others have failed. In five years, the label has released records by Sandy Weltman (with CarolBeth True and the Sandroids), the Flying Mules, the Orbits, Beth Tuttle and Autumn's Child. Fronting the initial capital, accounting, distribution, mail order, Web design, phone calls and publicity, as well as the nitty-gritty of CD production -- Randant handles all of it. He knows he'll never have a hit record; he also knows these records just might last.
"I've made it a point of working with bands that are out there playing regularly," Randant says. "I don't really seek out older musicians, but I enjoy the music that's made by more mature players, the ones who know where they're going, what they want to do. They've had a chance to hone their chops. There's a lot of music that's popular, that gets written up in the media, and to my ears it sounds very rudimentary. I know you have to start somewhere, but my tastes have changed. The bands on Wildstone all know their instruments; they know how to express themselves through their instruments. I wouldn't take on somebody because I thought I could make a lot of money at it. I have to like the music to invest time and energy into it."
Wildstone's two most recent CDs -- Songs, Tunes, and Riddles by the Flying Mules and Alone and Together by Dave Black -- are premised on capturing what, when all is said and done, St. Louis music culture has always been about: a band or a musician laying it all down, week after week, for tips, beer, food, maybe even steady pay. Randant knows from experience: he has been playing guitar since 1979 in the Lucky Dog Band, a roots-rock band par excellence, journeymen who make commonplace songs like "The Weight" and "Big River" convincing, even exciting again. The Flying Mules follow those virtues even further: on Songs, Tunes, and Riddles you can hear just what makes their Thursday-night gigs at Riddle's Penultimate Café & Wine Bar matter so much. They take old-time music to some dangerous limits, and the performances are so exhilarating and inventive that not even the barside service (to badly abuse the term) can squelch the party.
By chance or design, harmonica and banjo master Sandy Weltman has become a thread running through Wildstone's initial releases. After a series of audio books -- featuring the likes of Elaine Viets, Mitch Jayne and Joel Vance -- and a songwriting compilation called Native Creative, Randant signed Weltman and released the label-defying Sandroid project Escape Velocity. "One of the nice things about having Sandy on the label," Randant says, "is that he's so well respected by other musicians in St. Louis. So it became clear that I wasn't afraid to take on that kind of accomplished, eclectic acoustic music."
"Dan is picking up things that fall through the cracks," Weltman says. "I hate the business end of music. It is necessary, but when I tried to get into that in my career, I never had time to take care of the creative end. I trust Dan. He's a fair person. We made a deal up front, and I knew he would take care of whatever needs to be done as a label. That's freed me up to think about my projects."
Weltman is working on his first klezmer recording, to be released by Wildstone in the spring (a busy season for the label, with records forthcoming from young blues guitarist Brian Curran, rockabillies the Orbits and jazzy singer/songwriter Elliot Raney). Although he's had his home studio together for less than two years, Weltman has recorded Beth Tuttle's jazz album The Kiss Principle (captured on mobile gear, live at the Sheldon) and guitarist Dave Black's solo debut.
Enigmatic, familiar and consistently graceful, Alone and Together says as much about Black's generous-minded aesthetic as any single album could. Meticulously recorded over eight months, the CD forms a series of delicate melodic moments, free of elongated jams. Every solo compresses and distills jazz intricacy into some single emotional clarity. Black's affection for songs, especially pop songs, guides the musical narrative. He covers jazz standards like "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Green Dolphin Street" and "Solar," but the true pulse lies in songs like Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," Hoagie Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind," Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," George Gershwin's "Summertime," Steve Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home," Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" and Black's shining reading of the Beatles' "Here, There, and Everywhere."
"The Beatles got me interested in playing the guitar," Black says. "When I was a kid I was taking a bath, it was Sunday night, and they were on the Ed Sullivan Show. My mom called to me, "Dave, you gotta see this. It's the Beatles!' I stood there watching with a towel around me, covered in soap suds. I was only 7 or 8, but after that I had to have every Beatles record."
Alone and Together presents Black as St. Louis' pre-eminent working jazz guitarist. Black continues to play as a sideman, continues to write original material, still practices with the jazz quartet Brilliant Corners (whose steady gigs have become all too rare); most recently he has joined the R&B outfit Dangerous Kitchen. His musical interests are boundless -- which puts him squarely in Wildstone's aesthetic camp.
"Sandy had always spoken highly of Dan," Black says. "I've also known Dan for years, but never all that well. The word I got from everybody is that he's a man of his word. But I also know I can't rely just on Dan. I'm not some big star. I'm going to get out of town a bit, try to get some more recognition. But Dan is right there strategizing with me, and so I feel like I have an ally."
Wildstone's strength, though, is also its vulnerability. In St. Louis, the phrase "local band" is often used to dismiss, as if the goal of every musician should be getting the hell out, as if making it means never going home again. "It's like that Bible verse," Weltman says, half-smiling, half-serious. ""The prophet hath no honor in his own hometown.' It's the same with artists." The enduring musical family of Wildstone, however, suggests that honor can still be found at home.