BACKGROUND: Known for his work with classic punk bands Rocket From the Tombs and the Dead Boys, Cheetah Chrome shifted gears when he joined Plowboy Records last March. Founded by Eddy Arnold’s grandson, Plowboy aspires to keep the country artist’s legacy alive. Recently, Chrome assembled a tribute album that features covers by notables like Melinda Doolittle, Lamb Chop, Bebe Buell, Peter Noone and Frank Black. Look for Rupert Grint’s portrayal of the guitarist in the upcoming CBGB movie.
I was spending a lot of time on the road. My son was five and growing while I was gone. I was missing my family more than I was enjoying being on the road. The shows were great, but the show’s only an hour a day. So I made the decision I was going to stop at the end of 2013. I made a post about it on Facebook. Shannon Pollard, our president, his daughter and my son are in the same class at school and that’s how we met. He saw the thing on Facebook, had been mulling around starting this label and been looking for someone to take this creative director position. He sent me an email and asked if I’d be interested. He’d had the tribute project in mind, which sounded really interesting. He assured me it wasn’t going to be a country-only label or even a country-related label. It was going to be whatever we wanted it to be. So I decided, why not?
Shannon made clear he really cares about his grandfather’s legacy. His grandfather was misunderstood. He got pegged with “Make the World Go Away” and the back up singers and tuxedo and strings, what they called the Nashville sound. That was one facet of his career, but before that the Tennessee Plowboy was managed by Colonel Tom Parker. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, there was nobody bigger. Even in the ‘60s, the three top selling stars in the world were the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Eddy Arnold. Frank Sinatra wasn’t as big as Eddy Arnold. People don’t know that because country stations don’t play old country anymore.
We made a wish list [of potential contributors] and started with that. Some of that worked out and some didn’t. A lot of these people I knew. Alejandro [Escovedo] I hadn’t seen since 1980. We’d been good friends when he was in the Nuns and I was in the Dead Boys. Frank Black I’d always wanted to work with. We have a lot of mutual friends and he was very amenable to doing it. Big Eddy Arnold fan. He works with Jon Tiven and knew Cowboy Jack Clement, who produced Eddy’s last album. A lot of indie artists are big Eddy Arnold fans. We tracked them down, asked them and most of them said yes. Everybody brought a lot of talent to the party.
The label is basically the three of us: Shannon, myself and Don Cusic. We have people we bring in to do things, but we are the decision makers, do the production and the signings. It’s still very loose. You’ve got to be adaptable in how you do things, because the market changes every month. If you had told me a year ago that vinyl was going to be doing as well as it is, I would’ve said you were crazy. So you’ve got to be ready to change your plans at the last minute.
Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
If you’re going to do this as a hobby, you’ll skimp on things. You’ve got to get yourself the best distribution and publicity you can. And it’s expensive. It’s not something a lot of indie labels want. They see the figures and balk. A lot of them just don’t have that money. But we were lucky enough to have resources, enough to get Shore Fire Media, to get E1 [distribution, formerly Koch] with us. It shows you’ve got skin in the game and you’re ready to go.
Not Just Country
One of the things that attracted me to the deal was when Shannon said, “We can go as far as being unmarketable as long as we like it. We can be anything. We could go in any direction if it’s something we like. We are not going to be a staid label. If it’s something we like, it’s got a chance with us.”
We’ve been getting some good airplay with Bobby Bare. As far as the tribute, that was a little tougher because there’s 19 artists on it that are all pretty well known. To pitch one song to radio is tough. We’re doing a single for Record Store Day, but that’s one of those things where people will find their own songs. Radio will do the same. That’s what they did with the Bobby Bare album. “Farewell Angelina” kind of appealed to the radio people and they picked up on that. We noticed that trend forming before we even thought about putting out a single.
Are you doing this because it’s what your friends are doing or are you doing this because it’s what you want to do? We’re looking for people that do this because they love it, not because it’s a job. So far we’ve been lucky in attracting that kind of people. We’re looking for lifers.
A Fair Deal
[Our contracts are] probably a lot more artist friendly than most. We’re very flexible. Obvously, we’re not just going to give away money or points. We want to be fair. We start off fair and we’re willing to get more fair. I’ve been on the other side, so this is where that experience comes in. I know what I don’t want to see in a contract and what turns me off about a label. We try not to be that label.
I consulted with them; they picked my brain a bit. I actually have a cameo. It’s a CBGB-family movie. It’s not some people I didn’t know doing a hatchet job on Hilly [Kristal]. It’s a very loving portrayal. It’s like a punk magazine cartoon come to life. It’s a very affectionate look at the whole thing.
Right now, our model seems to be something like Third Man. We’re not copying Jack [White]. We don’t want to go in that direction. Right now, we’re in Eddy Arnold’s old offices. We’re going to have a lot of in-house departments. We’ve first got to start growing that way. We’re going to start cranking out product. I’m thrilled about a couple things we’re doing. There’s one band, J.D. Wilkes and the Dirt Daubers, that I’m producing right now. It’s going to be really exciting.
Always put in the hours rehearsing and learning your craft. Anybody who thinks it’s the clothes and hanging out that makes it is wrong. Spend your free time playing and writing songs, because in the long run that’s what you’re going to need. There are no shortcuts.
Digital has become the standard. We’re getting requests for vinyl all the time. A year and a half ago, they were predicting the death of the CD. They’re still flying out the door. The market has changed. There are people who buy one or two songs for their iPod. There are other people, young people, who love holding an album in their hands. I don’t know if they still roll joints on them like I used to, but for some reason they love having that piece of vinyl. Digital, I like it, but the fact is with MP3s you’re just not getting all the music. I want the whole thing. I spend a lot of time in studios now. When you hear what’s really going on and see how much work it takes to get that translated to a master and to just have somebody compress the shit out of it really ticks you off.
-By Andy Kaufmann