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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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.”
Syd Nathan was legendary, one of the most notorious of cigar-chomping, pigheaded and underhanded record men ever to cook up a crooked contract, and while Silvers doesn’t share Nathan’s rapacious ways, their way with the English language is strikingly similar. (“When your goddamn dick gets hard and you’re skin crawls, that’s when you know” was how Nathan described his hit-discovering M.O.) As Silvers matured, he wound up in early ’70s Nashville, writing songs and shooting stars like Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb backstage at the Grand Ole Opry (“I told the manager I was the official photographer for the [country archive] JEMF, which wasn’t true, but he gave me the run of the Opry”) before drifting West to Martin Haerle’s garage.
At CMH, Silvers has produced numerous titles, notably Cash on the Barrelhead, a Man in Black tribute that featured the likes of Wayne Kramer, Russell Means, the Adz and BellRays vocalist Lisa Kekaula. Silvers’ most notorious recent contribution to CMH was overseeing production of Strummin’ with the Devil, an all-bluegrass Van Halen tribute CD on which David Lee Roth himself performed two songs. The juxtaposition of Van Halen’s boozy, spandex-girded, buns-up-and-squealing metal assault and the by-comparison austere bluegrass tradition was an arresting exercise in creative miscegenation — and a typically idiosyncratic, Silvers-y conceit. His current project is a tribute to Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble, with tracks by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and Ray Benson, but Silvers keeps one gimlet eye zeroed in on the horizon.
“We put more artists and producers to work than any other label,” he says. “Look at Pickin’ On — it’s all the cream of the crop of Nashville, but there’s no figuring this market out. It’s so damn hard to develop and produce artists. It’s a pain in the ass. I don’t hear an artist like Hank Snow, who is so compelling that you want to listen to an entire album, but there are a lot of great songs, so we’re going back to singles. We’re starting to build our publishing companies, looking to place more songs in television and movies, and finally starting to get a new website up. I don’t want to get too specific, but let me put it this way: It’s a comprehensive project, with a lot of support from the community, and with the Internet the way it is, why limit yourself?”
Silvers’ guerrilla mentality and zealot’s knack for exploitation mean he’s always finding strange, new outlets: “For instance, Garth Brooks just did an album, but he didn’t give it to iTunes, he gave it exclusively to Wal-Mart. So we got hold of the single as soon it was out, recorded it ourselves and got it on iTunes as fast we could.”
Syd Nathan would be proud.