By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Colonel Jim Silvers, 70-something in-house producer and talent wrangler at Silver Lake indie-label CMH Records, is a character of wild extremes. The country-music misfit and self-described "loud, pushy Jew from Chicago" has been with the company for 30 years, first joining forces when it was operated out of a garage not far from the current Rowena Avenue offices. During a recent visit there with the colonel, whose business card reads, “Bluegrass is Whatever the Hell I Say It Is,” he immediately pulled a knife before announcing, “I have no problem calling up a critic and telling him that if he gets within three miles of me, I’ll eviscerate him — I hate those cocksuckers.”
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Colonel Jim Silvers on music critics: “I hate those cocksuckers.”
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(Click to enlarge)
Now, I’ve known Silvers for years (“You’re the stupid son of a bitch who wouldn’t review my Johnny Cash tribute,” he snarled when we first met), and clearly, CMH is not your typical music-business operation — the mere fact that Silvers still has a place there reflects an immensely liberal worldview. The family-run label has expanded its reach, from hardcore traditional country to include a startling, almost schizophrenic range of genres and album concepts. CMH’s German-born founder, Martin Haerle, got his start in the business with legendary country A&R man/song publisher Don Pierce (whose own career began at Pasadena’s 4 Star Records, circa 1947), and when Haerle started CMH with partner Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith in 1975, they churned a slow but steady series of albums by out-of-fashion geniuses, like Merle Travis, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis and Grandpa Jones, carving out a corner of the market for marginalized and ignored country stars (much the way his mentor Pierce did at Starday Records in the 1960s). What seemed a noble folly gently flourished, with CMH steadily expanding its target hillbilly cult through the years, and today, Martin’s son David Haerle keeps the label’s flag flying. They’re confronting the digital-download market with surprising alacrity, even as they expand their straight-to-retail operations.
CMH, along with subsidiaries Rockabye Baby, Crosscheck, Dwell and Vitamin, spits out dozens of titles that range from bluegrass and black metal to hip-hop and kiddie music. The CMH Pickin’ On series, featuring the top bluegrass acts covering pop, metal and modern-rock artists (Radiohead, Strokes, Kelly Clarkson, Dave Matthews Band and dozens of others), turned out to be an unlikely gold mine: At the series’ peak, the label was releasing them at the astonishing rate of six to 12 CDs every three weeks, but it was a mere first conceptual blush. Their Rockabye Baby imprint specializes in lullaby arrangements of rock & roll favorites, marketed with irresistibly corny ad copy (David Bowie: “Ground control to Major Mom!”; AC/DC: “Do you have a problem child?”); and the discs have been ballyhooed in the pages of TheNew York Times, Blender and the Washington Post. Crosscheck recently issued the extraordinary Voices from the Frontline, a set of actual field recordings of deployed U.S. military rappers serving in Iraq, to which CMH added backing tracks after the vocals were shipped stateside.
Silvers was initially repulsed by the Pickin’ On series, but the albums flat-out sold, “because the kids in the record stores going through the Metallica bin would find our Pickin’ On tribute and buy it out of sheer curiosity.”
The days of teenage stoners flipping through albums at neighborhood shops, of course, are fast closing, but Silvers evinces enthusiasm rather than intimidation. Even with a staff of young bloods buzzing around an office decorated with Ramones and Evil Dead posters, it seems that the certifiable old geezer is more often than not the one who comes up with the most up-to-date reactions to the swiftly evolving Internet-era twist the business is taking. "There’s much less traffic in stores, and marketing has changed, so we’re doing the iTunes and we can concentrate on the songs, be more selective. Rather than putting out a 12-song album, we do three or four of the artist’s best and get them out there. It’s much easier. You’re not spending as much on production and can spend it on marketing instead. "
As a lad in postwar Chicago, Silvers grew up enamored with opera, but, he explained, the Windy City was also “a hotbed of country music. They had the WLS National Barn Dance — which was broadcasting before the Grand Ole Opry — a lot of other country radio shows, and my uncle Syd Nathan ran King Records. He had Ralph Stanley on King, and I’d go down to his offices on Michigan Avenue, and while my friends all wanted to get the R&B records [King’s roster had everyone from Wynonie Harris to James Brown], I’d pick up records by Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Wayne Raney.”