Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Holger Petersen celebrates 40 years of Stony Plain Records

After 40 years of running Stony Plain Records, once a “kitchen table operation” that has since produced nearly 400 records, Holger Petersen (Radio and Television ’70) sees this as a time to be grateful.

There’s the obvious reason for that: he and label co-founder Alvin Jahns have managed to keep their small business intact despite industry disruption by the internet. But, as you might imagine of someone who has now spent 47 years hosting CKUA Radio’s Natch’l Blues and 30 with CBC’s Saturday Night Blues, that gratitude goes deeper.

Established in 1976, the label emerged out of a sense of practicality that Petersen – then 25 years old – brought to his role as a blues and roots record producer. In time, it became a way to tighten the bond between his life and music, to work with the likes of Ian Tyson, Jeff Healey, Maria Muldaur and more, and to enrich the lives of listeners (not to mention amass a collection of about 30,000 CDs and records).

“Who would have thought that we’d still be doing this?” says Petersen, now 66. For the label’s 40th anniversary, we asked Canada’s authority on roots and blues to reflect on the achievements of Stony Plain Records – and to share some of the music that made it all possible.

Techlifetoday: What made you think starting Stony Plain Records was a good idea at the time?

Holger Petersen: I had a desire to produce records. I started producing a few going back to 1972. You invested your own money and went into a studio to make records. You had to find labels to put them out, so after doing that and knocking on doors and finding labels and having some contacts, it dawned on me that maybe I should just start my own label.

What do you think has contributed to its longevity?

I think a number of things, but [particularly] that we’ve been focused on blues and roots music and keeping the roster relatively small.

There’s always been relationships with the artists, with sometimes me producing, sometimes as executive producer, but being involved. For me that was the best part of it. So rather than growing the company to the extent that I would be more of an administrator, we always kept it small so it was a hands-on kind of approach. I think that has been really beneficial over the years as we have had so many loyal relationships with the artists.

How do you define success today?

Being able to help an artist and open doors and see that artist’s music get recognition. Sure, you need to sell CDs and records, but it’s a pretty personal thing. We get to know the artists we work with quite well before we sign them and we look at the long term. Success is definitely the great reviews, the awards and airplay that the artists get, but generally it’s just great to see them doing well.

Has blues and roots been affected in the same way as other segments of the music industry in terms of what’s happening with online availability?

I think the roots and blues music world has probably been slower to change. The grassroots level is still a little more loyal in terms of supporting the artist as opposed to just taking music for free from online sources.

When things are tough and distributors close, retailers close, you just have to be very careful and mindful of the business part of it and work with artists who understand your problems and that the budgets aren’t the way they used to be.

Do you feel any sense of responsibility to the genre?

I do feel sometimes that we are putting out records that no one else would be putting out and I feel very proud of that.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a record label?

I’d say it’s not a good business model, to start. We probably wouldn’t be able to start again. Luckily, we have a catalogue and 40 years’ of contacts and good relations behind us. [So] I’d say come up with a business model and see if it makes sense to you.

Where will the company go next?

We’re going to continue to do what we do. I’m hanging in there and Alvin Jahns is still hanging in. Honestly, I’m quite content where we are right now and by keeping the company small and working with the quality of the artists we work with.

How does it feel to have produced so much music?

I’m incredibly proud. I kind of date my own life by the records I’ve been involved with. You look back and think, ‘Man, what a rewarding life this has been to work with [so many] artists.’ It’s fantastic to be part of that.

6 albums that helped define Stony Plain Records

  Cowboyography, Ian Tyson (1987) – Cowboyography had a double impact, notes Petersen. It reinvigorated Tyson’s career as “cowboy artist,” earning numerous awards, including a Juno, and sold well. “It kind of marked our position that we were a label and we did have a future.”
Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!, Corb Lund (2007) – Of the Alberta artist’s 6 albums, this one is Petersen’s favourite, “just because of the quality of the songs and the production and everything about it.”
Richland Woman Blues, Maria Muldaur (2001) – An acoustic blues record, Richland Woman Blues was nominated for a Grammy and featured guests like Bonnie Raitt, Amos Garrett, Roy Rogers and more. “It was just one of those great acoustic blues records,” says Petersen.
Still Jumpin’ the Blues, Jay McShann (1999) – Another Grammy nominee, this record was made in Edmonton featuring local talent as backing musicians. “Jay was in his mid-80s at the time and was one of the last Kansas City big band legends, so it was just a pleasure to work with him.”
Last Call, Jeff Healey (2010) – As Healey’s last record, Last Call was released posthumously and one of half a dozen Petersen made with the celebrated guitarist. “We became very good friends. It was an honour to work with him.”
Father’s Day, Ronnie Earl (2015) – Petersen squeezes Ronnie Earl into our request for 5 records because “he’s just one of the best guitar players on the scene. He’s a deep blues, soul player.” On the basis of value for money, few can beat him: Father’s Day’s 13 songs add up to nearly 2 hours of music.


5 records that shaped Holger Petersen as a music lover and record label owner

  Kind of Blue, Miles Davis (1959) – “It’s magic,” says Petersen. “You can listen to it forever and never tire of it. It was recorded under interesting circumstances – everything was pretty much done in one take, no rehearsals, handpicked musicians. It was one of those things that really came together.”
King of the Blues (box set), B.B. King (1992) – Also a music writer, Petersen is working on a follow up to his 2011 book Talking Music; it will be out in October. “There’s a long interview with B.B. King in the book that has been reminding me how much he has been my favourite person to interview … and of his importance in the genre of blues.”
Genius and Soul (box set), Ray Charles (1997) – “He’s the guy that invented, really, soul music, by bringing gospel and blues and jazz together. Timeless, emotional, wonderful material.”

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (1967) – “The British Invasion was a huge influence on me and that’s what got me involved in a love of music,” says Petersen. While he feels he could have picked any Beatles’ album, the recording buff in him gravitates toward the band’s 8th studio album.

“They would break all the rules with the sounds and the process of Sgt. Pepper’s.”

Greatest Hits, Al Green (1975; image: Dwight McCann / Chumash Casino Resort / www.DwightMcCann.com) – Each year, Petersen attends the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, Tennessee. While in town, he likes to visit the Full Gospel Tabernacle, the church where soul singer and songwriter Al Green preaches.

“To see and hear Al Green in a church with a choir and an electric band and preaching with a great sense of humour, it’s an unusual and incredible experience.”

 



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