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Red House Records looks back on 30 years of championing roots music

Lucy Kaplansky will perform at Red House's 30th anniversary show at the O'Shaughnessy. (Publicity photo)

 

  1. Listen Audio Feature: 30 Years of Red House Records

Now the longest-running independent folk and roots label in the country, St. Paul’s Red House Records is celebrating 30 years in the industry. In that time they’ve established themselves as a steadfast supporter of Americana acts here in the Midwest and a champion of what they refer to as “authentic, honest” music nationally.

For Red House president Eric Peltoniemi, he says those 30 years flew by in a heartbeat. Peltoniemi was Red House’s first official employee, hired by late founder Bob Feldman shortly after its launch.

“It all began with Bob Feldman, who is our founder, and a very passionate music lover,” Peltoniemi says. “He loved words and music put together. “He happened to hear Greg Brown playing at the Coffeehouse Extemporé, which was the big place for that type of music in those days, [and was] totally blown away. Greg had produced two self-released little albums, 500 copies each, and Bob decided these had to get back into circulation. So he convinced Greg that he should take over his affairs. And that was the beginning of Red House: they re-released those two titles and then they recorded a new album called In the Dark With You.”

Feldman named the label after Brown’s home in those early days, “an old, ramshackle farmhouse in Iowa” that Brown had moved into and painted bright red. At first, Feldman ran the label on the side while holding down a teaching gig at Eden Prairie High School, but in 1983 he decided to turn his passion into a full-time job.

“We were out of his apartment, and his apartment was just full of boxes and things. His dining room table was our desk. It was just he and I for a while,” remembers Peltoniemi. “We eventually moved into a little space on Oak and Washington in Stadium Village, and then ultimately we moved to our current location [in Midway St. Paul].”

Though some associate the Red House brand exclusively with traditional folk music, the label almost immediately started expanding its roster to include a variety of genres.

“Someone asked me once, ‘What does the Red House Sound sound like?’ And I said, ‘I can’t describe it, but I know it when I hear it.’ I think it’s an authenticity, there tends to be a lack of BS. It tends to be a very honest sound,” says Peltoniemi. “We’re well known as a folk label, and they weren’t using the word roots music back in those days, but we’ve always thought of ourselves more as what would now be described as a roots label. As we’ve had the opportunity to grow we’ve been able to move into some other areas that we’ve always loved. For example, we’re working with traditional country now with Dale Watson, and we’re working with straight-ahead jazz with Dick Hyman and Heather Masse. And the Pines are sort of an alt-indie sound, we want to do more of that. There’s really nothing off limits, as long as it’s something we like.”

The Pines’ Benson Ramsey with Eric Peltoniemi. (Photo courtesy Red House)

“Red House, more than a lot of labels, they put a premium on the lyrical content of songs,” offers David Huckfelt of the Pines. “So there’s folk and blues musicians on that label, but the thing that threads it together is a premium on songwriting.”

Huckfelt says he had been a fan of Red House’s output for years, and always envisioned the label as one that would be supportive to independent artists. He and Pines co-founder Benson Ramsey signed to the label in 2007, and have since released three full-length albums on Red House.

“Since we started working with Red House, and talking to a lot of other musicians, you see that some of their policies and some of the ways they support their artists are very unique, and they’re very old school, and they come from a place of real honesty and wanting to give a platform for songs, and songwriting, and songwriters,” he says. “It was a revelation to find out that they really do give the artists full control.”

So what is it about Red House that has allowed the label to endure over the past three decades, especially through this most recent era of digital downloads, streaming services, and short attention spans?

“The original vision that Bob Feldman had—I think Bob was a true visionary,” says Peltoniemi. “I can’t imagine anyone else starting this label other than Bob. Bob just had that passion and intense drive and vision for this music, and we’ve tried to carry that on since he passed seven years ago. We’ve tried to keep that alive. Bob’s wife Beth, who’s the owner of our company, has been passionate about keeping the vision going. I owe a lot of this to her. In some ways we’re kind of like an old traditional 20th century label, but we’re trying to bring some of those sensibilities from the 20th century into a more 21st century way of doing business and delivering music to people. But I think it’s that passion that Bob originally gave to that label that’s kept it alive.”

“The main thing that they’ve done is they have an outlook of longevity for an artist,” says Huckfelt. “They try to take the poison out of the music business, a little bit, and the cutthroat nature of it, and say that if you’re willing to work hard and you have a vision, and you’re patient, then there’s a place for you to connect with your audience around the country. I think why they’ve endured is they haven’t changed their ethics. You walk in there and it’s still a handful of hard-working people who are just trying to make the best records possible and get them out into the world. I think mainly there’s a certain kind of integrity at Red House that just keeps things at a par and a quality people like in an independent label.”

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years,” Peltoniemi concludes, chuckling and shaking his head. “It went by fast.”

Red House Records will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a “Women of Red House” concert featuring Lucy Kaplansky, Claudia Schmidt, and Heather Masse at the O’Shaughnessy on Friday, March 1. Tickets and information here.

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    The Pines' Benson Ramsey with Eric Peltoniemi. (Photo courtesy Red House)