Conqueroo’s Cary Baker: From Cheap Trick to the Blues
This week, I’m continuing my little diversion away from radio personalities and into the world of “behind the scenes” music industry veterans who help to get good music to your ears. This time around, I talked with noted Los Angeles music publicist Cary Baker.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business? When and why?
Cary Baker: I had a junior high school science teacher who sensed my love for music and, for some reason, subscribed to Billboard. He used to bring in his old issues for me. In no time, I knew I needed to work in the music business.
My Chicago suburban high school had an actual FM terrestrial radio station that blew 33 watts into Chicago’s North Side. I was fortunate to have a blues radio program and was later appointed music director and public relations director. I was 15 and my life was already mapped out.
The Chicago Reader began to publish around 1970. I sent in a feature story on Blind Arvella Gray, the Maxwell Street blues singer who brought the tradition of field hollers to the big city. They published the story.
Before I graduated high school, I was also writing for many blues ’zines and early punk-rock fanzines of the day, from Living Blues to Who Put the Bomp.
What have you done since then?
Because by then I saw where my life was leading, I went to college only at my parents’ insistence, maintaining a C+ average while DJ-ing on the college FM station, writing for music magazines, and attending far too many concerts.
The unsigned bar band near my Illinois college town was Cheap Trick, whose drummer, Bun E. Carlos, turned me on to Rockford’s #2 power pop band, The Names. I launched a little 45 rpm label, Fiction Records, and issued The Names’ single.
After college, I got a part-time job at Billboard magazine’s Chicago bureau (yes, they had one) and then a full-time job as publicity director for country label Ovation Records, based in a Chicago suburb with an A&R office on Nashville’s Music Row. From there, I went to work for five other record companies — I.R.S., Capitol, Enigma, Morgan Creek, and Discovery — peaking early and working my way down the label food chain, until launching an indie publicity partnership in 1998 and my own company, Conqueroo, in 2004. I consider what we do at Conqueroo to be the most important work I’ve done in this business.
How do you describe what you do?
I called the company Conqueroo in tribute to my Chicago blues roots — the word “conqueroo,” short for the herb used in rituals known as John the Conqueror Root, found its way into the lyrics of “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I’m a Man.” And beyond that, I felt I could put the word on the map the way the word Google was put on the map, if not quite as profitable. An Austin band by the same name had just given up the web domain and I nabbed it.
As a company, Conqueroo reflects my eclectic musical interests: Americana, blues, singer-songwriters, power pop, some jazz, and reissues. We have four people working at the company now and remain very selective about who we represent.
What does Americana or roots music mean to you?
I was a teenager in the Chicago suburbs listening to Chicago’s early (and short-lived) free-form FM rock stations of the late ’60s when I heard Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud on the radio. My life changed on the spot. Within weeks, I was buying blues albums on Arhoolie and Delmark.
Chicago was also a hotbed for folk (Steve Goodman, John Prine), which, combined with blues and my ongoing love of rock, got me ready for Americana. I remember attending a show by iconoclastic Ovation Records artist Joe Sun in 1981. Sun reminded me a little of Springsteen and I recall turning to a co-worker to say, “This is alternative country!” The co-worker slapped me on the back and said, “Ha, that’s a good one.” Within the decade, we knew the joke was on him.
To me, Americana runs the gamut from Ralph Stanley and Billy Joe Shaver to Alabama Shakes. Working with R.E.M. (whom one “modern rock” radio station initially rejected as a “folk” band), Peter Holsapple’s twangy late ’80s edition of the dBs, and Beat Rodeo immersed me in the no-longer-a-joke alt-country genre. The inception of No Depression magazine sealed the deal.
What was the first artist or album that got you in to roots music?
I mentioned Muddy Waters earlier. Blues ruled my high school life. And when I got to college in DeKalb, Ill., the college town had a world-class folk coffeehouse where I learned to appreciate the likes of Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels. That didn’t stop me from embracing punk rock in 1977 — I took trips to New York during the early days of CBGB, and to L.A. as the Starwood and Roxy were coming up. And finally, my work with mainstream country artists such as the Kendalls and renegade Joe Sun got me ready for Americana. I first visited Nashville around 1979, and I can say with certainty it was a far different place from what it is now. In terms of influential albums: just about everything on Chess and Delmark, country music on the AM radio in 1979, Cheap Trick’s first four albums (not roots, but nonetheless influential), R.E.M.’s first seven albums, Nirvana, Husker Du. Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, middle period Wilco, and probably 100 albums I’ll think of in an hour.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre of music?
I’ll go with R.E.M., who changed my life on a lot of levels. Chronic Town and Murmur inspired me with their jangly guitars and murky sonics. So when I had the opportunity to relocate from Chicago to Los Angeles to helm publicity at I.R.S. Records, I jumped on it. We took them from a 50,000 sales base to double platinum.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
I can’t predict where Americana radio is going, but I sure do love listening to stations like KRSH-FM, KPIG-FM, WNCW-FM and SunRadio when I travel. And I love Outlaw Country on Sirius XM, which is one of my car satellite presets along with The Loft, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, Sirius XMU, and Bluesville. Every Sunday morning, I listen to Kat Griffin’s wonderful Americana show on L.A.’s KCSN-FM. And because I feel it’s important for a “roots publicist” to have greater musical context, I listen to KCRW-FM’s indie-rock-centric Morning Becomes Eclectic.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Lately I’ve bingeing on current albums from Sturgill Simpson, Courtney Barnett, Parquet Courts, Margo Price, and Hayes Carll, to name a few. A lot of my exposure to new music is thanks to my wife, Sharon, who loves music and keeps atuned to new stuff. And because I’m a genuine fan of a lot of the artists we represent, I should add Paul Burch, Tommy Womack, Emitt Rhodes, Brett Harris, Chelle Rose, Charlie Faye, the Posies, the Mavericks, James McMurtry and Janiva Magness to the list, among others. And an unlikely shout-out to Sugar Blue, a former client, whose new album is like an early ’70s Stevie Wonder LP.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
I’ve worked in the music industry for 35 years and have had many amazing moments, like watching R.E.M. write “Driver 8” in a downtown L.A. loft while MTV’s The Cutting Edge cameras rolled. But the biggest moment that comes to mind was during my tenure as Capitol Records’ publicity head, when I was invited to a 1989 Paul McCartney tour rehearsal at a Broadway theater in New York. I asked journalist Bill Flanagan to join me, and he in turn asked Elvis Costello and his former wife, Cait, to accompany us. So when Sir Paul played his set, he headed right over to greet Elvis, and I got to meet him in style. But heck, seeing neophytic Cheap Trick play three sets in a shot-and-beer joint in DeKalb, Ill. In 1975, attending Sunday services at Rev. Al Green’s church and twice visiting Junior Kimbrough’s and R.L. Burnside’s since-torched juke joint in Holly Springs, Mississippi — those may not be work-related but they were unforgettable. I consider myself very blessed to have been in at least a few right places at the right time.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests or anything else you wish to share?
No interesting hobbies to mention, except I do yoga two or three nights a week. It really helps decompress and center me after a day of music publicity, which demands total focus, sensory overload (hundreds of emails per day) and entails its share of rejection. I have a few nonfiction books in my head that I hope to have the time to write one day, and perhaps a documentary film. I produce a reissue once every blue moon, most recently Bobby Rush’s box set for Omnivore, and previously a Little Milton twofer for Chess/Universal and a reissue of street singer Blind Arvella Gray’s album for my own label. And while I used to be a record collector, I’m re-evaluating my relationship with physical music. Selling my blues 78s and 45s was a major step, and I have days on which I regret it.