CKUA/CBC's Holger Petersen's Label Celebrates 40 Years

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CKUA/CBC's Holger Petersen's Label Celebrates 40 Years

Postby jon » Wed May 25, 2016 11:29 am

Stony Plain Records celebrates 40 years with compilation of highlights
Roger Levesque
Edmonton Journal
Published on: May 24, 2016
Last Updated: May 24, 2016 5:36 PM MDT

However you listen to music these days, you may not think a lot about the infrastructure that brings that music to you. Many roots music fans and musicians in Alberta, across Canada and even around the world should consider a nod of thanks this week to Stony Plain Records, the little independent label that has accomplished so much.

As the label turns 40 it is hard to think of another company that has done so much to put Edmonton on the musical map, since that young music-fan-turned-radio-host named Holger Petersen and his accountant pal (now business manager) Alvin Jahns started rolling recording tape. And while the music industry has undergone enormous, unforeseen changes over Stony Plain’s existence, it’s safe to say that we will still be celebrating the label in another decade.

“The music business can be pretty hard these days, but we’re lucky,” Petersen mused recently. “ We’ve got a great catalogue, a reputation and we work with amazing artists who are very active. It’s not a matter of making better records. The artists we work with are great at what they do.”

Over the years Stony Plain has picked up six Grammy nominations, 11 Junos, more from the Maple Blues and Canadian Country Music Association, and the Blues Foundation in Memphis made it Label of the Year in 2014. Most of their blues releases make the Top 5 in radio charts. Petersen was named to the Order of Canada in part for his broadcasting achievements with CBC and CKUA. Stony Plain was part of that too, but beyond all the trophies there has been a simple, continuing mission to bring the world some great tunes.

At last count 392 albums have been released under the Stony Plain banner though a portion of those have reverted back to other owners or fallen out of print. Petersen has just released another intriguing compilation of highlights, Stony Plain 40 Years, with separate discs devoted to Singers, Songwriters, to Blues, R&B, Gospel, Swing, Jazz and more, and finally to Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material.

The last track on that third disc is a new remix of Shakey’s Edmonton Blues, part of Petersen’s first-ever session as producer from 1972, featuring visiting Chicago harmonica great Walter “Shakey” Horton and the local band Hot Cottage. That collaboration was one of several sessions released through the once-thriving major label London Records, only to be re-released later on Stony Plain.

The first official Stony Plain release in 1976 was a country folk disc from Paul Hann, followed by trickles of blues, Irish and Canadian folk, rock and roll, and the pop band Crowcuss. The label was distributed by London Records the first few years, then by RCA, and since 1989 by Warner Music.

Right from the start, Petersen had a nose for sniffing out serious talents who weren’t getting a lot of attention elsewhere – names like Roosevelt Sykes, Tom Russell and Long John Baldry come to mind – and tapping their creative energy to fashion fresh, memorable sessions.

“Most deals they made were probably one-offs, but they were already legends to my mind.”

Alternately he’s been able to discover lesser known sides to talents like blues guitarist Duke Robillard. Showing respect and being fair and square in business helped build Stony Plain’s name.

“It starts with recognizing those huge talents. I’m most proud of making long-term relationships in an industry that’s not necessarily known for that, and I consider a lot of them really good friends.”

Stony Plain nearly folded a couple of times early on but stability came gradually as Petersen started visiting MIDEM in France two years in, making connections and licensing releases for international distribution at the annual music industry marketing conference.

Then there was Cowboyography (1987) by Ian Tyson, who was struggling to re-invent himself as a solo act. It became Stony Plain’s first-ever platinum-selling disc in Canada (then 100,000 sales), and 11 albums later the iconic country singer-songwriter remains the label’s best-selling artist despite its reputation for a wider diversity of sounds.

Other milestones included working relationships with Maria Muldaur, Amos Garrett, David Wilcox, historic sessions from blues-jazz pioneers like Jimmy Witherspoon and Jay McShann and the 1993 signing of Robillard who has now recorded and/or produced over 20 albums for Stony Plain.

Into the 21st century, Petersen is rightfully proud of the label’s association with Steve Earle, Colin Linden, the Harry Manx/Kevin Breit duo, Corb Lund (three gold records), Eric Bibb, Ronnie Earl, Rory Block, Monkey Junk, and on his brand new Stony Plain debut, Toronto bluesman Paul Reddick. The list goes on.

Behind the scenes there’s another parallel story that few are aware of, how other indie labels from the U.S. – Rounder Records, Blind Pig, and Sugar Hill among them – asked Stony Plain to be their distributor in Canada. Back in the day, this had a huge impact on the amount of quality roots music imports you could find in record stores across the country, just as Petersen was getting his own productions out beyond our borders.

Of course technology has brought a series of challenges to which Stony Plain is not immune:

“When we started in 1976 it was 8-tracks and vinyl. You change with the times, but now unfortunately, with all the music being available digitally it’s a bigger challenge than ever. Most music is free and that’s hard to compete with.”

At 66, Petersen seldom sits in the producer’s chair any more but in his time he’s had a few basic principles:

“The first thing is getting to know who you’re working with, even before you sign them, and understanding what we can do to help or guide them. After that, I could be a sounding board in terms of songs or mixes or whatever, I might just stand back and coordinate the artwork, or I might suggest other producers. Each situation is different but I have a lot of faith in the artists I work with. They tend to be artists with a long-term vision and I encourage them to do what they want to do.”

The satisfaction comes in witnessing those “eureka moments” in the studio.

“Those moments are what you live for and quite honestly it happens all the time, something somebody did at the right time, maybe the way they phrased something or a solo or just that little extra thing they do.”

In a larger sense that’s been the guiding philosophy behind the label, doing whatever is possible to foster such artistic impulses.

“We’ve always wanted to remain relatively small and to respect that direct relationship with the artists. In the future you can expect more of the same”.

The name “Stony Plain” was inspired by several associations but mostly as “a nice geographic description of the prairies” in Petersen’s words. 40 years on, it’s a metaphor for fertile creativity, hallowed ground for those who love the rustic sounds of the continent and beyond.
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jon
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