Old-time label in Glenwood nurtures overlooked music

by Jordan Green

If you’ve seen Philip Seymour Hoffman play rock critic Lester Bangs in the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous, you can probably picture Steve Terrill, the guitarist and old-time music aficionado who runs Old 97 Wrecords from his home in the Greensboro neighborhood of Glenwood. You will have some feel for his passion, his weird devotion, his sneaky evasion from anything hinting of corruption, his essential outlier status.

The irony, which the 37-year-old Terrill would be the first to note, is that he has never played any rock and roll.

“Sometimes at the fiddlers conventions, someone will be like, ‘Can we rock on these next couple tunes?'” he says. “I’m like, ‘If it’s okay, could we maybe not rock?'”

The one-story brick house with an unruly front-yard garden across the street from a transmission repair shop in this working-class section of Greensboro might seem an unlikely headquarters for an old-time record label. Old 97 has released enough albums to count on two hands, including CDs for the acclaimed fiddler Kirk Sutphin; an offering from Virginia singer Elizabeth LaPrelle, who received a burst of fan attention thanks to exposure on American Public Media’s “Prairie Home Companion”; and Terrill’s own band the Hushpuppies. Then again, North Carolina Piedmont string band music, the label’s specialty, has itself quietly thrived in these parts since around the mid 19th century with little to no outside recognition.

On this Wednesday afternoon Terrill has two wooden chairs set out in the front room of the house he shares with his wife, as if inviting a pair of musicians to play. An elongated painting of a beatific Etta Baker, the late and celebrated Piedmont guitarist from Morganton, hangs in the dimly lit room. Just now Terrill ponders the implications of the breaking news that traditionalist label Sugar Hill Records will pull up stakes in Durham and relocate to Nashville. He admits he doesn’t have a clue what commercial imperatives might prompt such a move.

“We talked from the get-go about me assuming that I wasn’t going to make any money,” he says. “I hear these stories about record labels and I ask myself where I fit. If I took ten percent, that would be four hundred dollars. The benefit to me is that when people come to visit other artists [on the label] they find out about me. So it’s that cliché that a rising tide raises all boats. Or maybe a lowering tide sinks all boats.”

Terrill pays for the label out of his pocket, subsidizing the endeavor by doing graphic design work out of his home. The label’s most popular release has been Elizabeth LaPrelle’s Rain and Snow. After the singer’s 2005 performance on “Prairie Home Companion,” Terrill was inundated with hundreds of PayPal orders. A good month brings about 20 sales, he says.

Terrill has from time to time contemplated the notion that old-time could be popular, but never for very long. After entertaining the thought, he asks himself if he would still like the music if it suddenly developed mass appeal.

“In the twenties they recorded everything,” he says. “A lot of bunches of people would walk into a studio, and make a recording and they would press it and give them some money. This was Columbia Records. It was totally weird.”

Growing up in a Virginia town midway between Roanoke and Lynchburg, Terrill started attending fiddlers’ conventions.

“When I was in high school I think I was the only teenager during the Reagan administration playing old-time music,” he says. “I can list for you eight other people my age who were into it…. I’ll tell you, we were not doing it to meet girls.

“Now you go to [the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in] Clifftop, and now they’re coming in droves: train-hoppers, punks,” Terrill adds. “There’s this kid from Portland named Carrot who shows up in Greensboro and starts hanging around the punks. She says, ‘Where’s the square dance?’ Their response is, ‘Huh?’ In Portland, that’s what they do.”

He notes a continuum between raucous abandon and technical proficiency, but declares that the music’s devotees share one common characteristic.

“People who are into this are total nerds,” Terrill says. “They don’t look cool, they don’t act cool, and they play old-time music.”

The time when Terrill flirted most intensely with the notion of popularity was the 1990s, when he played in a band called Sissy T & the Grownups.

He recalls encountering a young Ketch Secor, then a prep school student at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, at a music festival. Terrill and his bandmates picked up on the future Old Crow Medicine Show fiddler’s intensity and invited him to move to Greensboro to play with them after graduation.

Terrill recalls Secor telling his fellow band members in the Grownups: “Guys, I’m going to go to Nashville and if I’m not famous in thirty days, can I come back and play with you again?”

To that, Terrill responded: “You’re out of your mind.”

Terrill remembers: “Ketch was always like, ‘We need to go out and tour.’ He actually went home at one point and got a group of friends and they would book dates wherever people would let them play. They had rules – things like ‘no one gets to eat before five o’clock.'”

At the mention of “Wagon Wheel,” the seminal song Secor adapted from a Bob Dylan outtake for Old Crow Medicine Show’s first album, Terrill becomes wistful.

“It certainly gives me the chills,” Terrill says. “He was working on that song when he played with the Grownups. There’s a couple lines about ‘I’m coming down to Carolina to play in an old-time band/My baby plays the fiddle; I pick the guitar now.’ He might’ve changed the words around but it’s basically about our band.”

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