Dolph Ramseur on Managing Music ‘for Folks’
This is the first time on this column that we’ve featured a manager and/or a label owner, and I can’t think of a better person to feature than Dolph Ramseur from North Carolina’s Ramseur Records. Around 2003, he approached the Avett Brothers after a gig at a wine shop and he said he’d like to work with them. He’s still managing them today.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business and when and why?
Dolphus Ramseur: I was a tennis pro teaching tennis at country clubs as well as the tennis director for the Winston-Salem, NC, Parks and Recreation Department. I eventually left the tennis business to work for my father-in-law, a venture capitalist. Sadly, he passed away a few years later, but before his passing, I had started helping out a few musicians just for fun and the love of music. I was at a crossroads and decided to pursue my true passion.
What do you do now, and how do you describe your business?
My company, Ramseur Records, is a music management company and independent record label. We’re really just trying to turn people on to music that we love. I still feel like a kid in my bedroom making mixtapes for people.
We’ve been honored to have worked with so many talented musicians, including The Avett Brothers, Langhorne Slim & The Law, Bombadil, Chuck Mead, Martin Stephenson, the everybodyfields, Sammy Walker, Samantha Crain, Paleface, Frontier Ruckus, Paul Burch, The Duke and the King/Simone Felice, Overmountain Men, Jim Avett, Sam Quinn, David Childers, Mimi Goese – Ben Neill, Steep Canyon Rangers.
What was the first artist or album that got you into Americana or roots music? Or albums, etc and when, or how did you hear about them?
I grew up in the Piedmont of North Carolina and was continually exposed to roots music: old-time, bluegrass, Piedmont blues, folk, all forms of gospel music, soul, jazz, etc. … I tell people that North Carolina is the center of the universe when it comes to music. I was very lucky to grow up there.
Our local TV station (WBTV – Charlotte, NC) featured the great Arthur Smith (“Guitar Boogie,” “Feuding Banjos”). He had a daily show that featured so many great musicians and forms of American music. At the same time (early ’70s), my father was really into Johnny Cash. His Blood, Sweat and Tears has a lot of train songs on it, and, as a kid, it really took me someplace else.
My best friend’s great-grandfather was J.E. Mainer, and his great uncle was Wade Mainer. They worked in the cotton mill with my grandfather before landing a deal with RCA Bluebird. They were based in my hometown of Concord, NC, and had a record that sold a million copies in the 1930s. They were a big influence on Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Earl Scruggs, etc.
In the early ’80s, I was really into punk and post-punk music coming out of the UK. In 1983, I purchased the Violent Femmes’ first album – it kind of bridged the gap between roots music and punk rock. I met banjoist Tony Trischka at the Denver airport a few years ago. I was so excited – he is one of the world’s greatest banjo players and played on the Violent Femmes’ second album!
I am also a huge fan of so many greats in roots music: Steve Goodman, John Prine, Guy Clark, Bob Neuwirth, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Bromberg, Sammy Walker, Richie Havens, Etta Baker, Elizabeth Cotten, Josh White, Rev. Gary Davis, John Jackson, Charlie Poole, Hank Williams Sr.
Who are your favorite artists of all time, from any genre?
Echo and the Bunnymen’s first four albums are at the top of my list. Ian McCulloch was one of the best vocalists of the ’80s. McCulloch wrote “The Killing Moon” on Ocean Rain. “The Killing Moon” is his “to be, or not to be” moment. Ocean Rain is worthy of being showcased in the Louvre. Will Sergeant of the Bunnymen was the most emotive guitarist from the post-punk scene. The notes that he didn’t play were just as important as the ones he did. He was an artist who used the guitar as a tool to paint a sonic palette. The late great Pete de Freitas was one of the best drummers on the planet. As a live band, the Bunnymen were a force to be reckoned with.
I have also always championed R.E.M. They were the one band from the United States that could go toe to toe with the post-punk bands from the UK. They made me proud and honored to be from the South.
What does Americana music mean to you?
If you remember the Del Fuegos beer commercial from the mid ’80s, Dan Zanes says, “Rock ‘n’ roll is folk music, pretty much, but, you know, that’s ’cause it’s for folks.” I think the same of Americana. I prefer to keep the thought of it very simple. It’s all forms of roots music from all over this great land and, best of all, you know, it’s for folks.
Where do you see radio going in the future?
Radio was first. It was here long before TV, computers, internet, etc. It is something we still champion here and support. I hope that, somewhere, some young 16-year-old is tuning to the left of the dial, stumbling upon something in which Ramseur played a part. Maybe we released the album, maybe we manage the artist. Hopefully, this teen digs it enough to find out more about the music.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
David Childers’ Run Skeleton Run. It was produced by Don Dixon and recorded at Mitch Easter’s studio in Kernersville, NC. What stands out about David and this album is that he merges roots music with a punk rock mentality. He has never kept himself safely located in the middle of the table. He has always danced around the edges, taken chances, and let the art lead instead of making something predictable and safe.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
A few highlights…
It was cool to see Bob Dylan, standing side stage, singing along to an Avett Brothers song during soundcheck for their 2010 Grammy performance.
In 2003, The Avett Brothers played to just a handful of people in New York City. To see them have so much success in The Big Apple today is pretty special. They have headlined Radio City Music Hall, Barclays Center, and Madison Square Garden.
Seeing The Avett Brothers sell over 14,000 tickets at the Greensboro Coliseum. Years before, they played a small coffee shop in Greensboro where tickets were only $2.
The Avett Brothers have sold out three nights at Red Rocks for four years in a row. They have now played at that venue over 20 times.
And just as important: seeing and hearing about the positive impact that The Avett Brothers have on people’s lives is very special.
Getting to see the Avett Brothers work with Rick Rubin. Rick is the best. No equal.
Watching the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Joe Henry-produced album win a Grammy in 2010 was a great moment.
T Bone Burnett wanted the Drops to play the Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ concert at Town Hall in New York City. I recommended that Rhiannon Giddens perform solo. I felt that she hadn’t had her moment to shine … and shine she did! It was her breakout moment and well-deserved. T Bone later produced Rhiannon’s Tomorrow Is My Turn as well as The New Basement Tapes, which included Rhiannon.
I have always been a huge Josh White fan, so getting to re-issue Josh At Midnight – a very important record in the early days of Elektra Records – was a dream come true. Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra, recorded and produced the album in 1955. I flew out to meet Jac in LA, where the album was mastered to vinyl by the great Bernie Grundman. Jac Holzman is a brilliant mind and someone from whom we can all learn.
One evening in 2005, I listened to “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack for so long that my wife made me put on headphones. The next morning, I reached out to the producer and told him that I worked with a band from Concord, NC, that he needed to check out. The late great Joel Dorn called me later that day, and, about a week later, he was at Joe’s Pub in NYC watching The Avett Brothers perform. He called me the next morning and said that he knew he wanted to work with The Avetts within 25 seconds of seeing them play. He brought us up to Sear Sound in NYC and recorded four demos. Working with Joel was a great experience for The Avett Brothers and me. He was special.
What projects are you working on next?
We just had Joe Henry produce a new album by the Steep Canyon Rangers that will be coming out in early 2018. We also just signed two new bands: The Ruen Brothers and The National Reserve. Both bands are based out of Brooklyn, NY. I am sure David Childers, Samantha Crain, and Bombadil will all be working on new material.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
I saw Bjorn Borg play a tennis match in person in 1983. It made me never want to pick up another tennis racket because I knew I could never be that good – I was crushed. Music, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. Great music inspires me and makes me want to help our artists make better albums and works of art.
In regards to what keeps me going: I come from a long line of farmers and cotton mill workers. Both of my grandfathers worked in a cotton mill for over 50 years; my grandmother for over 45 years. Grandpa Ramseur started working as a child in the mill in 1914 and never made over $4,000 a year; my grandmother, in her 45th year of work, made $17 a day. They slaved away to give their kids and grandkids a better life. My father worked a short time in the local cotton mill and luckily was able to escape and land a job at UPS, where he worked for over 30 years, only missing a total of two days of work. Hard work has always been something that you do without question.
What are your most proud accomplishments?
Getting to do what I love every day is something that I never take for granted. Also, sharing what I do with my family is very rewarding. My kids have been exposed to so much music and art from a young age.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests you wish to share?
I’m a lifelong Duke basketball and football fan. And a Raiders fan no matter if they are in Oakland, LA, or Vegas. I started pulling for the Golden State Warriors in the mid ’70s, so this is a very good time for me. Lifelong Wood Brothers 21 race team fan. I have always been dog crazy. When I was 12, I named a dog “Muddy” after Muddy Waters. I once had the honor of meeting Levon Helm at Woodstock. As we were talking, he called his dog over … Muddy. We had a big laugh knowing that we had both named dogs after Muddy Waters. I currently have a Bergamasco sheepdog named Posey, after the great old-time fiddler, Posey Rorer. I also love analog audio and the things that come with it: speakers, tube stereos, turntables, reel to reel players, etc.