Nick Shoulders records music direct to a lacquer disc at the Ernest Tube.
Courtesy of the Earnest Tube

Community Effort: The Processes and Creativity Behind an Independent Vinyl Release

It takes a DIY village for any vinyl record to arrive in the hands of an independent artist. In the case of Nick Shoulders' forthcoming 7-inch (out May 6 via Armadillo Tail Recording Co.), a tight-knit group of friends with ties to Cleveland, Ohio blended the preservation of old-time fiddle tunes via traditional recording methods with a visually-stunning innovation in the record pressing industry.

Shoulders, a punk rocker turned traveling troubadour from Arkansas, keeps alive such early country music traditions as yodeling, whistling and playing the mouthbow without coming across as an anachronism. For his latest release, Shoulders paired "George Washington," a song Pope's Arkansas Mountaineers recorded in 1928, with "Arkansas Traveler," a traditional tune associated with what's widely considered the first commercial recording session of country songs (for fiddlers Eck Robertson and Henry C. Gilliland's 1922 Victor debut). Both were cut live in studio in Bristol, the twin cities straddling the Tennessee and Virginia border that played an important role in the early spread of country music.

The Earnest Tube

Clint Holley works a lathe for Well Made Music.

Courtesy of the Earnest Tube

Clint Holley founded lacquer-cutting business Well Made Music over 12 years ago in Northeast Ohio after investing in a Neumann mastering lathe that hasn't been manufactured since the 1980s.

Per Standard Vinyl, "The lacquer master is the master 'record' we make from the audio source provided by you. This in turn is used to create the stamper, which is a negative image of the grooves on your record. The stamper is what we use to physically press your vinyl records from. Think of it as a mold of your audio being created."

Basically, Holley's team creates the reference discs such frequent customers as Cleveland, Ohio's Gotta Groove Records and other pressing plants use to manufacture vinyl records.

Dave Polster came on board in 2014 to help meet the mounting demand that overwhelms the entire vinyl supply chain, with the team expanding to three in 2018 with the addition of engineer Michael Fanos.

"I had a business plan laid out where I thought I was going to work three days a week and help my wife maintain our house on the other days of the week," Holley told Wide Open Country. "That got blown out of the water very quickly."

Holley, a country music fanatic, has since moved his family to the Bristol area, in part to start a second business. The Well Made team's Earnest Tube recording studio rolls back the clock to the methods and machinery used in the same city by Ralph Peer to capture the seminal recordings by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers that ignited country music's "big bang."

"What we do at The Earnest Tube is we give people an experience of recording like they did in 1927, where we use older disc-cutting machines made by companies like Presto and Rec-O-Kut," Holley explained. "Those machines would've been found very commonly in radio stations at the time because when you think about it, if they wanted to do a pre-recorded advertisement, they couldn't just rip it off on a hard drive or tape machine. They had to record it onto these lacquer discs and then they would use those in the playback studio to play on air."

Holley and his team create an environment where, to paraphrase Waylon Jennings, Shoulders can be sure Maybelle Carter done it this way.

"The Earnest Tube is an attempt to recreate that experience of sitting down in front of a microphone, playing your song in one take and living with the result," Holley said. "If you've ever seen the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? where the band goes in and the guy tells them to sing in the can, that is the exact experience we offer. But we also say that we add modern expertise and insight because then what we do is we digitize the session for people so they can use it on social media, they can upload it to streaming."

Armadillo Tail Recording Co.

Charles Hill Jr., a singer-songwriter based in Northeast Ohio, recorded a pair of songs in 2017 at The Earnest Tube for a limited vinyl release. He's remained loyal to Holley and his team's operation, starting Armadillo Tail Recording Co. in 2018 with local friend Adam Miller in part to provide a label home for Earnest Tube sessions.

The Armadillo Tail Presents series of 7-inches recorded in Bristol began in 2020 with a split release by Canadian artists Belle Plaine and Blake Berglund. The Shoulders title furthers the label's concept with a run of only 500 random-colored records, 25 of which will be deluxe Wax Mage variants (more on that later).

"The idea was that I would get people on the road to stop by and bring some traffic to those guys," Hill said. "And just make friends and share music with people was the whole idea. Get as many hands in the pot as we could to do something all together. I had been aware of Nick just because he's great. I'd seen him online and stuff. I kind of cold-called him a pitch. I sent him an Instagram message, and he was into it so he met us down there [in Bristol]."

Shoulders' inclusion in the Armadillo Tail series and the Earnest Tube recording process ties an Ozarks native to a circle of record collectors and creators from Ohio (an interconnected group that also includes Armadillo Tail Recording Co.'s graphic designer, Ron Kretsch).

"It's nice to record somebody like Nick where we go down there and we're staying together in an Airbnb for a weekend and getting to know the guy and just kind of hanging out," Hill explained. "Everybody involved in the process is legitimately our friend. That's the most important thing to both of us is we really do know everybody in the team, from the artist to Clint and Dave and then once the session's done, those are the same guys cutting the lacquer. Then they send it to Gotta Groove. We're so fortunate to have it here where if anything goes wrong in the process or if there's any issues or anything, I can email or call those guys. I can drop by. I don't have to worry about shipping. I can just go to the plant and get them."

As for what might be next for Armadillo Tail Presents, Hill revealed that Shoulders recorded enough songs in Bristol for a second 7-inch.

Dollar Country

Franklin Fantini in front of his basement setup for Dollar Country

Franklin Fantini

Franklin Fantini, the Cleveland-based host of the Dollar Country radio show and podcast, represents the funding aspect, be it through crowdfunding or a lone benefactor, that's often integral to the modern record manufacturing process.

"Franklin had contacted me after I put out that Belle Plaine and Blake Berglund record, asking me if I had plans to do more of these Armadillo Tail Presents live at Bristol records," Hill said. "I hadn't had anything on the books yet, but we were working on some stuff and I had just gotten ahold of Nick. Franklin had mentioned that he was thinking about doing a record with Nick, and it just sort of worked out that we were all doing this stuff at the same time. Franklin ended up throwing us some funds to get it done, so all of the records themselves have his logo on it and it says 'brought to you in part by Dollar Country.'"

As often happens in circles of DIY-minded creative types, Shoulders helped Fantini in the past, from providing him a place to stay during record-digging excursions in Arkansas to creating the artwork for Dollar Country's Ozarks mixtape cassette.

Wax Mage

A rare Wax Mage variant of a Charles Hill Jr. album.

Armadillo Tail Recording Co.

Over time, Gotta Groove employee Heath Gmucs experimented with ways to expand the proverbial palette of variants from the multi-colored and splatted options that drive pre-orders for labels of all sizes to one-of-a-kind works of art.

Early results of Gmucs' vinyl sorcery first appeared in 2015 on the Wax Mage Records Instagram account. A Wax Mage variant add-on became an option through Gotta Groove's order form in 2018, which started a new record collecting subculture within punk, metal, indie and roots music scenes.

"There's never two that will look the same. I think that really hits the collector's brain," said Soul Step Records owner and repeat Wax Mage customer Melvin Dillon. "How could you not want to have one of those? Not only are they incredible looking. They're a unique, limited, hand-made item, and they've helped build excitement and demand."

The magic of Wax Mage releases, which Dillon calls "the physical NFTs of the world," can be chalked up to Gmucs' creativity plus factors that make each project nearly impossible to replicate.

"I have a process that's repeatable, but it differs depending on the color that I'm using and depending on the job that I'm pressing because on every single stamper, even the same job from A side to B side, the groove width is different so the vinyl is always going to act different," Gmucs explained.

Hill worked with Gmucs before the Shoulders record, including a solo album that became an example of how Wax Mage variants can incorporate more than dazzling color patterns.

"As far as the Wax Mage goes, I just tell Heath, you know, free rein," Hill said. "Heath is never going to let you down, I'll tell you that. We did a record together of my own stuff, and we kind of collaborated on that idea where we did a label burst inside the Wax Wage that was a bunch of love letters that I collected from history. That was the only time I had any input. I just kind of tell Heath to listen to it and see what it sparks in him."

Wax Mage variants don't sell for cheap, even before they hit the secondary market (where King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard's Teenage Gizzard album and multiple Cadabra Records releases sell for top dollar). Price tags don't phase devoted customers, with Dillon and other record label bosses frequently selling every Wax Mage copy to mailing list followers in a matter of minutes and, in the process, recouping a sizable chunk of vinyl pressing costs.

"We paid for almost our entire run of Tim Easton records with just the Wax Mage copies, meaning then that I have to sell less of the standard, black copies to break even," Holley said. "That's very attractive for a label or an artist because when you're spending thousands of dollars to put out a vinyl record, you don't want to sit on them for two years before you make your money back. What Heath has done is create this entire collector market that helps the artist pay for their pressings almost immediately, and that's really valuable.

"The people that collect these things, oftentimes they want to own more than one because they're different," Holley continued. "Or people buy a Wax Mage copy and save that as a work of art and then buy [a standard] copy that they play on a regular basis. Either model of that helps the artist out because you're putting more money in an artist's pocket that way."

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