For someone who runs a record label, Jim Pugh isn't losing much sleep over record sales.
Three years ago, the veteran session musician—his resumé includes stints with the likes of B.B. King, Etta James and Van Morrison—founded the nonprofit Little Village Foundation. Operating on grants and donations, the label pays for everything, including recording sessions and publicity campaigns, and gives 100 percent of proceeds from sales to the artists.
It's a model as freeing for Pugh as it is for the musicians.
Acting as a sort of internet-era Alan Lomax, the Northern California native seeks out musicians who might otherwise never be heard outside of their own communities. So far, that's included everything from a 17-year-old spoken-word poet, to a group of farmers playing Mixtec folk music, to an Indian immigrant fusing Bollywood with the blues.
This weekend, three recent Little Village discoveries are playing the Waterfront Blues Festival. Willamette Week spoke to Pugh about where he found them, why other record executives think he's crazy and why modern blues fans might not be the label's ideal audience.
Willamette Week: Where did the idea for Little Village come from?
Jim Pugh: I worked with Robert Cray for 25 years, and when I got done doing that, I really looked at trying to find what I had a passion for doing, and how do I make that into the next thing I want to do. And I realized I have three basic passions. I've always had a passion for music, a passion for community service, and having basically grown up in Oakland, I have a real love of diversity. So the short answer is I took the passions I have and built a framework around it, which is Little Village.
Why did you feel like you couldn't do that while running a traditional, for-profit record label?
My board wonders that sometimes, too. Part of it is because I'm lazy. Everyone I know who was a small record company, they're either owed money or they owe money. And at the end of the day, they're not making much money. I had someone at a prominent record label, Alligator, tell me, "My artists are my record stores, and if they're not out there 120 days a year selling my records, I don't care how much I love them, I'm not signing them."
The press release says you're looking for artists from "non-traditional backgrounds." What does that mean?
There are two kinds of people I've found I cannot help. Those people who want to become a big deal—I have no idea how to help anyone become extremely successful. That's just not part of what I can do. The other thing I've found is, sadly, that if people are trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from, I can't help them, either. So that, to me, would be slightly nontraditional. It's not as if I'm going out trying to sign Aerosmith. It's not pop bands. I'm not looking to sell a million records. [The artists] are given 1,000 CDs—they owe nothing, it's all given to them—and a publicity campaign. This completely flies in the face of traditional record companies. People from regular record companies think I'm nuts for doing this.
How do you track down your artists?
I don't really necessarily look for them. It's what I run into in a given period of time. The record I did last year, Mariachi Mestizo, I found them through some friends that know about mariachi music. I drove out and found them in a park outside Delano. These are, like, the grandkids of the farm workers who were on the grape strike in the '60s. I found them playing, and one thing led to another, and I recorded them at Capitol in L.A. We recorded in the main room at Capitol, in that Jetsons-looking building, in the room Frank Sinatra recorded all his albums in. And in April, they played Carnegie Hall. They went from playing a park to playing Carnegie Hall. And it's the first mariachi music at Carnegie Hall since 1966.
It seems like, with many of these artists, it'd be difficult to remove them from the context in which you experienced them and put it on record. Is it hard to capture what they do in the studio environment?
The majority of the records I've done, I've done at Greaseland Studios, which is a house in San Jose. It's really a remarkable environment for making records in, because it's so low-key, and it's so not intimidating. Part of what I try to do—I have no expectations. If these records sell a million copies or sell 10 copies, it doesn't financially make a difference to what I'm doing. I'm not going to make anymore money for them being unbelievably successful. They own all the intellectual property. So one of the advantages of it is, I don't have to worry. When you take the pressure out of it, you get the trust of people to realize that all they have to do is be themselves, and you get a good chance of getting these kind of recordings.
You mentioned in an interview that you feel the concept of Little Village might not catch on with the modern blues community. Why?
I don't want to say anything that'll make people think I'm an asshole. The contemporary blues scene is, unfortunately, being overrun by rock-guitar players playing blues. And that's fine, I have nothing against that. But I think blues itself needs to move back to a time like it was when blues used to be, where the singing and the song were as important as the guitar playing. These days, there's so much blues music where the only thing that seems important is the guitar solo. And it's kind of killing the business. Hopefully, that's going to change. But there's no contemporary blues-guitar god in Little Village.
Do you try to downplay your role in getting this music out?
Absolutely. I get called to do interviews, and I don't want it to be about me at all. I don't want to be Anthony Bourdain in Sicily standing next to the locals cooking. There's nothing more disgusting to me these days than someone trying to insert themselves around a bunch of people like that. I really find that disdainful.
The Sons of the Soul Revivers
This brotherly vocal group is continuing a family tradition, performing gospel-soul highlighted by heavenly four-part harmonies.
"Quartet music is one of my passions. These guys are from San Francisco but they live in Vallejo. Their fathers were the Soul Revivers, and they're the sons. Bob Brown, Huey Lewis' manager, called me up and said, 'I found this quartet, I think you should record them.' And I go, 'Fuck, I've known these guys since the 1980s.' They did this record, and it's really fabulous singing. Oddly enough, I play organ and piano, but keyboard has, for me, killed contemporary gospel music, because it's gotten so far away from simple guitar and four-part harmony. It's beautiful to me, and they've gotten a tremendous response." The Sons of the Soul Revivers play the First Tech Blues Stage at 3 pm on July 2.
The San Jose-based guitarist plays raw, rugged roadhouse blues, but his self-titled Little Village album also showcases his facility with jazzy, piano-driven slow burners.
"He's like a cross between Ray Charles and Jerry Lewis. I went to Europe with him two years ago to play with Wee Willie Walker, and he lost his passport four times between the curb and the gate. He's kind of tormented in that way. This [record] is a departure for him—it's like an early '50s, kind of Ray Charles [album]. He plays beautiful piano, and he's never played piano on a record before. It's all intuitive with him, all feel, and it just pours out of him. If you ask most musicians who know the scene, they'd say he's someone who's been denied." Chris Cain plays the First Tech Blues Stage at 4 pm on July 3.
Formerly the frontman for grimy desert punk band Throw Rag, Wheeler's debut solo album, Sand In My Blood, goes in a more blues-inspired direction that's no less gritty.
"Last year, at [the Waterfront Blues Festival], Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie's brother, played, and his rhythm guitar player is a friend of mine. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me he was going out with this guy, Sean Wheeler. I'd watched Throw Rag on YouTube and went, 'Oh, I totally get this.' He's a known entity in his own world, I just haven't been able to tap into it. But he's a serious performer. He told me at one point he was banned from every nightclub in Southern California. I know some of those places he played, these punk dungeons. How the fuck do you get banned from a place like that?" Sean Wheeler plays the Crossroads Stage at 9 pm on July 3.
SEE IT: The Waterfront Blues Festival is at Tom McCall Waterfront Park on Friday-Monday, June 30-July 4. See waterfrontbluesfest.com for a complete schedule and ticket prices.