It's the day after the International Blues Challenge, but Yellow Dog Records founder Mike Powers, in town to help judge the solo acoustic competition, still hasn't heard enough. He's at Huey's watching guitarist Dylan Thomas-Vance play a set of acoustic blues. "Vance was an entry from the Portland, Oregon, blues society," Powers says. "He and [Yellow Dog artist Mark Lemhouse] have been in contact, and I wanted to check him out."
Although he's currently splitting time between Blacksburg, Virginia, and Memphis, Powers calls Yellow Dog Records a local label. "I consider Memphis the epicenter of American roots music," he says. "So far, our first four projects have been based in Memphis. Everything we do is gonna fit in with that theme." Thanks to cell phones and e-mail, he can do his job from anywhere. "What I really need to be in Memphis for is to be in touch with the local scene," Powers emphasizes.
Ironically, when Powers first came to Memphis, he was disappointed by the lack of national acts coming to town. "Every time I read the listings in the Flyer, there were all these band names I had never heard of," he says with laugh. "I thought this sucks. There's no music going on in Memphis. But I eventually started going out to hear local music, and I immediately realized that the local stuff here is fantastic. It's much deeper than what you could hear nationally in many ways. It's a much more authentic scene."
Sometimes running a small independent label is like swimming upstream. "I am trying to pick the best-quality music I can and then find a way to market it, and I think larger labels go about it the opposite way," Powers explains. "Commercially, it makes more sense their way -- to pick a target audience and then tailor the music to it. If I were trying to make a ton of money, that's probably what I would do."
"We can find the stuff that other labels wouldn't bring to the market. Most of my artists aren't established. Take Mark Lemhouse," he says. "Big Lonesome Radio is his first CD. He has virtually no exposure on any level, but he put together a fantastic album. It's the same thing with The Bluff City Backsliders. Putting out that CD was a crazy thing to do. But I think the album is great, and it makes me happy every time I listen to it."
Both releases sold out of their initial pressings of 1,000 each and have since been re-pressed. "We have a great distributor in Japan who's ordered a couple hundred copies of each title," Powers says. "Mark's album is doing great over there. Do a search on Google, and you'll find him on Tower Records' Japanese site. The next thing to do is to get him over there for some shows."
Last month, Yellow Dog Records signed a national distribution agreement with Burnside Distribution. "We wanted to go with someone whose mission we could really agree with," Powers says, citing Burnside's interest in roots music.
It's a good thing that Powers has all his ducks in a row. By mid-2003, Yellow Dog Records will have five releases in its catalog. "We just signed an agreement with William Lee Ellis to release his new album Conqueroo as well as his first CD, The Full Catastrophe," Powers says. He calls the roots guitarist (better known as The Commercial Appeal's music critic) "a very original musician," whose songs like "How the Mighty Have Fallen" have "incredible melody and lyrics."
"We're also planning to do a project with The Bo-Keys," Powers says, explaining that Scott Bomar, the Bo-Keys' bassist, has recently re-formed the group with Stax veterans Willie Hall, Ronnie Williams, and Skip Pitts. "It's an incredible opportunity to work with musicians with their resumes -- Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, it's just amazing."
According to Powers, the Bo-Keys will be going into Willie Mitchell's Royal Studio in late February.
You can e-mail Andria Lisle at email@example.com.