Business plans assigned for college classes usually don't amount to anything. But UNC-Chapel Hill student Reed Turchi not only came up with a plan to create a niche record label, he turned it into the real thing.
Turchi found a cache of unreleased recordings by Mississippi Fred McDowell, a legendary bluesman who died in 1972. Then he obtained the rights to the recordings, cleaned them up, assembled a package with cover art (by local artist Phil Blank) and liner notes, and released it as an album titled "Come and Found You Gone" on his newly formed Devil Down Records - all in the span of a couple of months.
"Reed is an unusual student with a lot of initiative," said UNC history professor William Ferris, who made the McDowell recordings. "He was in my Southern music class, started poking around my archive and found those recordings. I gave him my blessing, and he mastered a CD of them. Then he said he wanted to produce a CD for this label he was creating, and it seemed like he had the whole thing done by the next day. Just lightning speed."
It may have come together quickly, but "Come and Found You Gone" still took more than 40 years to emerge. It was 1967 when Ferris traveled to Mississippi to record McDowell on his home turf, telling stories and playing "Baby Please Don't Go," "John Henry" and other standards.
Even though McDowell used to declare that he "don't play no rock 'n' roll," his driving bottleneck-slide drones have been influential on artists including the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Megafaun and North Mississippi All-Stars (whose guitarist, Luther Dickinson, contributed liner notes to Turchi's project). "Come and Found You Gone" is an impressive document, both as history and as music, and it sounds a great opening note for Devil Down Records.
Still, it seems worth asking why a college student would go to the trouble of forming a record company at a time when the record business seems to be dying.
"Well, it was more about getting this material out there than a desire to be a producer of records," said Turchi, a lanky and soft-spoken junior from Asheville.
"I don't fantasize about having a big recording empire; I just want to get it out there and have it sound right. As it stands now, sure, the industry is dying. But there's a lot of music and a lot of people still playing. I think a lot can still happen."
Before forming his own record company, Turchi worked for UNC's student-run label, Vinyl Records.
His Devil Down business plan emerged from UNC's arts-entrepreneurship class taught by Ken Weiss, a longtime music-industry executive who has worked with Crosby Stills & Nash, Firefall and other big acts (and has a wall full of gold and platinum records to prove it).
"Starting a niche-market label is always a good idea because most all the majors started as niche," Weiss said. "The record business still matters despite the funeral procession that seems to precede every album release."
One of the challenges Turchi faced was the material he had to work with, which was literally raw. Ferris made the McDowell recordings in informal circumstances, not a studio.
The album's house-party vibe is appealing, but Turchi had to give himself a crash course in sonic tweaking to get the music into listenable shape.
"I don't like the way a lot of blues albums sound," Turchi said. "Because I didn't do the recording and it was sitting there for 40-some years, I wanted to try and make it sound how I wanted rather than have someone else create their version of it.
"The biggest difficulty was wind going across the microphone. I had to try a couple of different things to fix that as best I could. But making it feel as casual, warm and intimate as possible was the goal, and I think that does come through."
Because the recordings already existed and all Turchi had to do was license them for release, "Come and Found You Gone" was a good way to ease Devil Down Records into existence.
But Turchi has an ambitious slate of five releases coming out between now and summer, some of which will be new recordings he commissions.
Coming Devil Down releases include albums by Kenny Brown, Joe Ayers and R.L. Burnside. As things stand, it won't take much to keep the label going.
"While I'm a student, I'm not relying on this to make a living," Turchi said. "Selling out a pressing of 1,000 copies and some digital sales, that will work and that's the model I want to play with.
"The great thing about blues fans is that they love objects, and collecting. So I'll keep going, unless I run out of CDs to put out.
"My goal is to have five out by next summer. Then we'll re-evaluate, see whether or not putting out CDs is still the thing to do."