VERMONT WOODSHEDDING AND THE AUTONOMY OF ASHMONT

Cover of "Yours, Mine & Ours"One of the more enjoyable afternoons I’ve spent lost in a supermarket in Vermont, thanks to Ashmont Records co-founder and Pernice Brothers manager/band wrangler Joyce Linehan, who stole me away one Saturday to hang up north with the boys in the band as they worked on what would become the “Yours, Mine, & Ours” album. For the piece below, which originally ran as a full-page feature in the July 18-25, 2002 issue of the Boston Phoenix, I also had a separate chat with Pernice’s fellow Sub Pop alumni Mike Ireland of the honky tonk throwback band Holler, who had just been added to the Ashmont Records roster. During the course of our conversation about the progression (or, more to the point, regression) of country music, Mike mentioned a terrific, under-heard country singer of the ’70s named Sammi Smith. “I’ll definitely have to check him out,” I told Mike appreciatively. “Um great, but Sammi’s a she,” he politely corrected me.  A belated thanks  to Mike for saving me from further embarrassment at the record store, and for turning me onto a singer with a voice like bourbon and heartache. Sammi’s big hit was a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” but all of her early albums are wonderful. She was a lesser known, but no less worthy, contemporary of Tammy Wynette’s and Dolly Parton’s, and I heartily recommend checking her out when you get a chance.  Just remember: Sammi’s a she, not a he. 

BELMONT, Vt. – Joe Pernice is in a hurry. At the moment, he’s bolting from aisle to aisle inside Shaw’s supermarket, darting from the produce section to the corridor of  cold drinks, flinging provisions into his cart before moving on quickly to the next item. He spies a package of raw chicken and is about to toss it into the pile when he pauses for a moment. “This looks a little beat-up,” he mutters dourly before returning it to the display case and selecting another specimen. Another shopper passes by Pernice and his head flicks around, as if startled.

“Ah, shopping with Joe,” cracks Joyce Linehan, his longtime friend, manager, and, for the past three years, business partner at Ashmont Records. She and Pernice started the Dorchester-based label as a clearinghouse for the former Scud Mountain Boys’ singer’s new music after both she and he parted ways with their old label, Sub Pop –  she as its senior director of A&R and he as one of pop’s most highly regarded emerging songwriters.

So after making the three-hour trip to her brother’s summer cabin, where the songwriter and rotating clusters of the Pernice Brothers are in the midst of recording the follow-up album to last year’s  *The World Won’t End*, Linehan’s provided the transportation for this little strip-mall shopping spree. She doesn’t look the least bit surprised at her charge’s jittery, distracted behavior. This is what appears to happen to people who have been holed up for two solid weeks with nothing but guitars, amplifiers, mixing boards, a batch of unfinished songs, and each other for company.

“I went back to Northampton last week to get a guitar fixed and it was freaky,” Pernice says a few minutes earlier, seated at a lunch table tucked in a corner at the Belmont General Store (built 1843) where he’s surrounded by homemade blackberry pies and tourist-y refrigerator magnets depicting the virtues of Vermont. “There were *so many* people. (Northampton) is a small town, but it was like being in a big city.” Indeed, compared to Belmont, a sleepy New England hamlet of mom-and-pop storefronts, picturesque meadows and dirt roads that trail off to unseen distances, Northampton feels like a bustling metropolis.

“We’ve been having some good horseshoe matches up here,” he says of the band’s extra-curricular activities at the cozy white cabin, which overlooks a small lake complete with a canoe adjacent to the property. “It’s pretty relaxed, just being able to come out and sit on the porch –  I’ve been out in the canoe a few times – and take a walk down the street. There’s not much to distract me because there’s nowhere to go. Our cells phones don’t work and we can only take a few incoming calls, but not many people know the number.”

Between canoe rides and the occasional jaunt to the general store to grab smokes and cookies, Pernice and his longtime producer-engineer Thom Monahan, along with guitarist-cum-house chef Peyton Pinkerton (“he’s like MacGyver in the kitchen”, says Joe), have devoted their days to recording basic tracks from a list that’s been whittled down from 25 to 14 songs.

In each of the cabin’s rooms, recording equipment, microphone stands, and instruments are everywhere. An acoustic guitar rests against a wall under a portrait of a moose. A tangle of wires and cables snake through narrow doorways. Sofas are occupied by a sprawl of reclining electric guitars waiting for their moment. A smorgasbord of effects pedals is laid out like a buffet  on the kitchen table. From this chaos order is taking shape, slowly but surely – even if the album’s working title of *Pretty in Pinkerton* (a facetious homage to both the Psychedelic Furs and the guitarist) is sure to change.

“I’ve left myself a bit of space and left a few of the verses open, (which) is different because every inch of everything, as far as verses, choruses, and bridges were always pretty much written going in and then the music came later. This time, I want to let the music breathe a little bit and maybe give myself the opportunity to change with the mood of the song.” Also for the first time in ages, Pernice isn’t “hearing strings” on the new album. “When *Overcome By Happiness* (Sub Pop, 1998) came out – I remember because I had just come out of the Scud Mountain Boys – I wanted to pile it on. And now, I’m feeling more like I want to start peeling things away a little bit.”

Both Pernice and Linehan have high hopes for the new disc, which is slated to be released on their Ashmont imprint next January, with national distribution through Redeye. The pair’s optimism is understandable. Besides a slew of glowing press for *The World Won’t End* since its release last autumn, the disc has also proved profitable, so far selling roughly 15,000 copies and continuing to move about 100 pieces a week, according to Linehan. Remarkably, despite minimal resources, no mainstream radio support, and a staff of two, *World* has managed to outsell each of Pernice’s previous recordings for his old label, she says, through a combination of shrewd marketing, old-fashioned resourcefulness, and a devoted Pernice  fan base.

Before the release of  *The World Won’t End* , for example, Ashmont put together a limited-edition  EP of unreleased Pernice songs only available to consumers who pre-ordered the full-length. The orders started rolling in. “That was how we raised the money to do our consumer advertising,” Linehan says. Similarly, when Pernice and Pinkerton toured last spring, Ashmont tapped fans on the label’s mailing list to help sell merchandise at each show.

Although Ashmont remains a part-time venture for Linehan (who wears several marketing and public relations hats for non-rock endeavors such as First Night, Inc. and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra), the label has expanded its roster by this year issuing *Big Tobacco*, a Pernice side project previously available only as an import and never saw stateside release.  It’s also published Pernice’s book of poetry, “Two Blind Pigeons”, and signed  another ex-Sub Pop artist, country singer-songwriter Mike Ireland. After a four-year hiatus, Ireland, who also happens to be Linehan’s boyfriend (the two have been together since their Sub Pop days) has just released his second disc, *Try Again*, recorded with his backing band Holler.

“I’m very happy where we are,” says Linehan, who’s also working on her M.A. in American Studies. “When we initially talked about (starting a label), I don’t think we had that much of a plan. But we exceeded our expectations.” For Linehan, who grew up in the Cedar Grove section of Dorchester and later promoted and managed bands like the Lemonheads and the Prime Movers, the road from there to here hasn’t always been easy. Educational and exciting, yes. Smooth and free from conflict, no.

She had her first taste of writing about, and promoting, bands in the early ‘80’s as editor of the High School Times, a syndicated newspaper written by and for New England high school students. When the paper fell on hard financial times, Linehan began setting up benefit shows and discovered she was good at it. “I’m an organizer,” she says. “And I think when you’re that young, you’re really naive. So if I went to somebody for advice and said ‘how do I do that?’ and they said ‘oh, you can’t’, I was naive enough to think that I *could* do it. So I’d ask the question and sometimes people would say yes.”

But it was during her tenure as co-owner of Maverick Management, an independent artist management and promotion company she formed with partner Tommy Johnston, that her association with the Lemonheads took a high-profile turn. So-called “alternative rock” was just  around the corner. “It was my first foray into the major label world so I learned a lot. That was when all of our friends started to get the notice of all these New York (based) major labels and Tommy and I started to get phone calls. RCA was calling (Johnston) about Bullet LaVolta and Atlantic was after the Lemonheads. Here we were, two kids from Dorchester and Quincy being taken to New York for $17 salads, looking at each other going ‘what is going on here’? It was very, very bizarre.”

The bumps began after she left Sub Pop after a four-year stint at the end of 1997 and began managing both  Pernice (whom she had singed to the label while he was a member of the Scuds) and Ireland. As a manager, Linehan describes herself as demanding and protective of her clients, characteristics that can cause friction when dealing with a record label with its own interests to protect. “I think both artists kind of suffered for (Sub Pop’s) dislike of me,” she says in retrospect. “And I was continually painted as difficult, which I may or may not have been. I guess I was.”

To make matters worse, Linehan’s mother had also been diagnosed with leukemia around this time. “It became increasingly apparent over the course of 1998 that the relationship was not going to work and that Joe and I were together to stay and Mike and I were together to stay and that both artists needed to be released  from the label. So we made that decision and tried to figure out how we were going to do this.”

“I can’t say enough about the artistic freedom,” says Pernice. “There’s a lot of grunt work, making sure you get posters to gigs, making calls to retail – but those problems exist at someone else’s label as well. Things are possible in doing it this way, making a living and enjoying what you do.  Doing it for Sub Pop was working for somebody else. It seemed like a very gauzy and not very realistic situation, like a dreamworld. This is more tangible. But I don’t feel like I was ever wronged, really. This (step) would not have been as easy as it was had it not been for Sub Pop.”

Mike Ireland and Holler’s prophetically titled *Try Again* is the latest entry onto the Ashmont roster. The album, built around Ireland’s tender tenor and laconic narratives, works as a song cycle about love, faith, and the perseverance implied by its title. It’s also awash in the kind of classic country and pop references – simultaneously lush yet economical arrangements, warm strings – that made AM radio a staple of growing up during the  ‘60’s and ‘70’s. “I’m a big Billy Sherrill fan,” says Ireland of the producer who worked with George Jones, Charlie Rich, and Tammy Wynette.

“But hopefully, I’m not just going after Billy Sherrill, because when you think of those AM radio hits, whether they were soul hits or country hits or just straight pop hits, there wasn’t that big a difference in what they sounded like. When you listen to the orchestral backing on (Billy Paul’s) ‘Me and Mrs. Jones’ , that’s not terribly different than what’s backing Charlie Rich on ‘Behind Closed Doors’. There was this mentality where you could take any kind of music and use whatever resources were available to support the emotions in the songs. That, as much as anything, is what I’m trying to capture.”

*Try Again* follows Ireland’s well-received 1998 debut, *Learning How To Live*, which, despite great reviews and a hearty push by Sub Pop, sold scant copies. What’s his assessment of the experience? “I owe them a lot actually,” Ireland says on the phone from Kansas City. “The small degree to which people know who I am and would actually seek out the record is due in large part to the work that they did on the last record. I think in a lot of ways they worked hard on that record and put money behind it and it didn’t work. But I think they really tried. I was probably a lot harder of a sell than a lot of things they had been working with, so in that way, I kind of feel bad for them. There’s not really a lot of alt-country acts selling tons of record. When they start selling tons of records, they’re usually playing rock.”

Prior to releasing his debut, Ireland played in the Starkweathers, a mid-‘90’s roots-rock band that fell apart when Ireland discovered his wife had been having an affair with the lead singer. Hard as it is to believe, some good came from the devastating experience. He began writing songs in bunches. “I wouldn’t have wanted to go through my divorce, I wouldn’t have wanted to go through splitting up with my wife, but that might’ve been the thing that broke the dam. It certainly put me in a place where it’s easy to sing and it’s easier to write songs than it was before.”

The new album, Ireland says, is about trying to move on from the heartbreak and bitterness of the past. “That’s what’s been on my mind a lot lately – how you decide to make those choices to commit to something when you know how badly it can turn out, and how badly you could be hurt, or you could hurt somebody. And yet you do it again. There’s joy in it but there’s also this recognition that there is risk, and there is pain, and there will probably be prices to pay. You want to protect yourself, but in the end you just can’t. And you wouldn’t want to.”

To see the original story, go to the Boston Phoenix archives here: http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/music/cellars/documents/02356695.htm

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