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VOL. 38 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 23, 2014

Third Man Records' simple goal: ‘Just trying to do cool things’

By Tim Ghianni

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The tall young man many have said has “changed Nashville” doesn’t have time for that kind of talk as he spends a gray Nashville afternoon in a glowing blue room tucked in back of his non-descript world headquarters facing Nashville’s “Skid Row.”

Jack White – White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather lead man and wizard guitarist and businessman – sips the amber liquid in a cocktail glass while sucking deeply on his cigarette, politely sticking out his lower lip and tilting his head back to direct his exhale toward the ceiling vents in the almost-fluorescent blue room deep inside his Third Man Records complex.

On this day, White is meeting and greeting folks, trying to peddle one of his most ambitious products – a phonograph-sized vinyl boxed set of pre-1930s jazz – to media gathered in town for a far-different type of music.

The Revenant Records project – the first of two such compilations – comes complete with a file of mp3s that further explore the pop music of an era decades before White left his roots in America’s decaying and highly flammable industrial giant of Detroit and chose a busted-Thunderbird bottle section of Music City as his home base for adding his powerful voice (and, thank God, his guitar) to a seismic and sonic change beneath the Nashville Skyline.

Occasionally, while White holds court and nervously tips at his fedora brim, his old friends – Ben Swank and Ben Blackwell (the other two-thirds of Third Man Records) – slip from the reception room into adjoining offices to tend to the business that has been helping reshape or, at least, add more texture to Nashville’s most-famous product.

This scene in Third Man’s blue room – from last autumn’s Americana Music Festival week in Nashville – demonstrates White’s clout, not just in his adopted hometown but also in the music world at large.

While hundreds of media types, label jocks and musicians were swilling in and swelling up Nashville’s clubs, taverns and caverns with music and speeches about the roots-oriented country music hybrid “Americana,” a significant number of those visitors excitedly slipped away from the amplified fiddles, electric mandolins and Everly-wannabe harmonies to sneak over to an unabashedly guitar-driven and hard-rocking block on Seventh Avenue South to listen to parts of “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932.”

Even by Jack White standards – and he is nothing if not eclectic in behavior and taste – the collection of ragtime and jazz and century-old pop music filling the glowing reception room is an improbable soundtrack for a drinks and finger food gathering of roots music proponents.

This Volume One of the set dug from the Paramount archives, put out jointly by White’s Third Man Records and Chicago-based Revenant Records, has little in common with the music being celebrated around Nashville on this week.

The visiting media – who the night before were treated to Emmylou, Duane Eddy, Rodney Crowell and Grateful Dead mastermind Robert Hunter at the Americana Music Awards at Ryman Auditorium – came with an entirely different agenda.

Even fiddle fanciers find it hard to resist the chance to meet a bona fide rock superstar.

And White was using his marketing noggin to bring some attention to the Revenant Project.

The actual boxed set contains six 180-gram vinyl LPs pressed on burled chestnut-colored vinyl with hand-engraved, blind-embossed gold-leaf labels.

There also are 200 fully restored 1920s images and advertisements, a 250-page large-format clothbound hardcover art book, 800 newly remastered digital tracks on a USB drive and a 360-page encyclopedia-style soft-cover field guide featuring Paramount artists and their discographies.

And that’s not to mention the container, a hand-crafted oak box the size of an old phonograph that has sage velvet upholstery and custom upholstery.

It’s what Third Man and Revenant folks refer to as “the wonder box.”

Carrying a $400 price tag, this set is not for impulse buyers. It is more a monument to White’s love of the old and the analog than a huge commercial project.

And while Charley Patton, King Oliver, Ma Rainey and Geeshie Wiley tunes are hardly the style of music they came to Nashville to hear, the visitors circle the room, listening to the crackly tracks and sipping on free booze while the two Bens wander the confines and White holds court near the bar.

When they get a chance, the journalists each take a shot at visiting with White, whose sonic magnetism and business acumen have drawn them here.

White, for his part, downplays his own significance, even though he is the host of the gathering and his notoriety is a big chunk of the reason the project exists at all.

Most of the folks gathered in the court of Jack have come so they can tell the folks back home that they have clinked cocktail glasses with the young man who has been credited – true or not – with changing Nashville’s musical landscape (while beginning a gentrification of the Sopranos-like desolation of the landscape around his compound).

They talk about the brown vinyl spinning at 33 1/3 rpm on the phonograph and plug the USB in on computers stationed around the room so they can sample from those hundreds of tunes.

One journalist presses him for news about when his next album (Lazaretto) would be out.

“Out when I’m done,” is White’s polite and simple answer, allowing that he had hoped to have it finished and out the first of this year, but there were complications. Always are. That album is set for a June 10 release.

As it turns out, he even made something of a spectacle of that release as well, by recording, pressing in vinyl and selling the freshly minted title single all in, well record time, picking up headlines during April 19’s Record Store Day proceedings. This Nashville business powerhouse knows how to draw attention to his work.

But even as he peddles the Revenant product to a somewhat-dazed and perhaps-confused group of journalists from around the country, he steers, if possible, the conversation away from himself and responds best to an old journalist who asks him how his children are doing.

White finishes his cigarette and smiles as he begins detailing how fast they are growing, what they are up to. He asks the journalist about his own kids. Clearly this is a welcome difference in the conversation surrounding the music of Jack White and the now-obscure names from the Paramount Records imprint in the early part of the last century.

“I’ve been taking off so I could be with them. That’s really what it’s all about,” says White, as 100-year-old music escapes from nearby computer speakers.

He agrees to talk more with the journalist when his next album is to be released, but as May rolled around his year, White and his associates remained unresponsive to attempts for the promised interview focusing on Third Man’s influence on Nashville’s evolving music scene.

Even the two Bens who complete the Third Man triumvirate angle didn’t want to talk about it too much.

“I spent a long time trying to come up with good, insightful answers to your questions (about Third Man’s influence),” says Blackwell, the officially titled “psychedelic stooge” for Third Man.

“In the end, I think there’s little I can offer to the story, in terms of the local scene, our contribution to it, was it was like before,” says Blackwell, shaking off the reporter.

“The way I see it, we’re just trying to do cool things. Some folks may consider that part of the local scene, some folks may not.

“Either way, we’re going to continue doing things that excite us.”

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