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REBECCA BIRMINGHAM - BROOKLYN, NY

Old country girl Rebecca takes us through the traditions, history, and sub-genres of her soulful 78s and honky tonk records.

Rebecca Birmingham – Brooklyn, NY

I first met Rebecca on one of the “Big Ten Inch” listening parties at the Bell House, Brooklyn. She kind of stood out of the crowd. In this “Nostalgia seeking club” largely dominated by men in their forties, Rebeca was kind of a rare bird. She was playing her favorite tracks on the special 78 RPM turntable set up. I was excited and curious to see what’s in her collection, and mostly curious on why is she obsessed about those 78′s and that old country music? She seemed to me as way too young to be into Country and old soul ballads, but after exchanging a few words with her, it immediately made sense, that there is no place here for any contemporary pop music.


Rebecca Birmingham, born and raised in New Jersey, and I live in the Kensington area of Brooklyn, New York.

Q: What was your first album? How did you get it? At what age? Can you describe that feeling? Do you still have it?

A: My first vinyl records were hand-me-downs from my parents and their siblings, mostly Spanish issues of American classic rock albums – Meet The Beatles, The River by Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel. I didn’t inherit a huge record collection by any means. My parents are both from large  families and by the time I expressed interest in the records (probably around age 11 or so), they had been played so much they were destroyed, or thrown out in moves. I still have these records for sentimental reasons, but I very rarely listen to them anymore – I have them memorized!

Q: What prompted you to start collecting? What age did you start? Was there a specific event in your life, an era, which signify your transition from music lover to a collector?

A: I started collecting Hillbilly and Country records at age 20 or so, when I began doing a radio show on WNYU called Honky Tonk Radio Girl. I realized that in order to put together a high-quality program every week I needed records that were stranger, rarer, not necessarily on compilations or out there on the Internet. Plus, despite the issues of scratchiness and skipping, I’ve found vinyl to be far more reliable than digital formats.

A great German compilation of songs by my not-so-secret celeb crush, Ferlin Husky. He was a super smoothie crooner and a spectacular performer on the Opry.

Few of my many records by my imaginary fantasy boyfriend Ferlin.

Q: What was your Initial interest in music? Did you have any influence from your family? Or perhaps your best friend?

A: My grandparents met singing in a choir, and I’ve played instruments since I was a kid. But my interest in records was probably sparked by my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Pray. Before and after school he would play Beach Boys and Beatles records on one of those institutional turntables. His classroom was a welcoming, safe place to hang out and my best friend Kaylan and I found ourselves there a lot.

Q: If I’m assuming right, you were born right about when CDs were starting to appear and vinyl records started loosing popularity. You’re too young to have any nostalgic sentiment to vinyl. Can you think why you’re so drawn to this format?

A: I was born in 1985. When I was a kid, the big format was cassette tapes. I remember our first CD player in about 1992 or so. No one was buying new vinyl except maybe club DJs. But I don’t feel much affinity for the cultural references of my childhood. I wasn’t watching Saved By The Bell, I was watching reruns of Welcome Back Kotter and Match Game 75. Nearly all of the music I love was created for turntable formats (whether it be 78, LP, or 45), so that’s how I prefer to listen to it. Plus, physical records can give you all kinds of clues and insight into the history of a particular performer or song. You’ve got the label, the publisher, maybe the city it was recorded in, the songwriter, lots of other tidbits. On a 45, there are two songs that were released together, on an LP a series of songs meant to be listened to in a certain order. When you listen to an MP3 or CD you lose much of this information and context.

I found a new turntable to fit in this great old hi-fi, that runs on tubes. I’m slightly afraid it will burn my house down someday.

This is a great institutional-style turntable I found in a used furniture store in Austin. They pack a punch, you can bring them anywhere there’s an outlet, and they play 4 speeds – including 16 rpm for all your records of political speeches or language lessons.

Q: When at home do you listen to MP3?

A: Sure. Much of my musical education has been from the great music blogs: WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, Larry Grogan’s Funky16Corners, Derek’s Daily 45, the brilliant DJ Matthew Africa who sadly recently passed away. I have tons of wonderful songs downloaded from those and other sources that I don’t have on vinyl (yet!). But I prefer listening to the real thing if I can.

Q: I see you’re pretty strong into Country music. That’s not exactly the most popular genres these days among young music fans. what drew you to this style?

A: I grew up with zero exposure to country music. Neither of my parents like it, and it certainly wasn’t on the radio (except maybe Garth Brooks). When I first started buying records, I had a policy of always looking up the original version of any cover on an album. The Beatles got me into Buck Owens, and Elvis Costello got me into George Jones, Merle Haggard, and many more. I loved the attitude, swagger, and musicianship of classic Honky Tonk and I started delving in further and further.

Buck Owens’ first album, an all-time favorite of mine.

Q: You also collect a lot of Soul, Funk and Blues. Do you often find overlapping points between these genres and Country music?

A: Absolutely, and these overlaps are my favorite musical pockets. If you listen to modern R&B and country, they seem miles apart (and often, miles from any connection to classic R&B and country), but they have very similar origins. They both grew out of the gospel tradition, they incorporated jazz and blues into dance forms, they relied heavily on the banjo (an African instrument) at some point in their history (see the recordings of Smiley Lewis for some great R&B tenor banjo work!). Though they may have been marketed to different audiences, musicians who played for the same label or in the same city often knew and worked with each other, and plenty of R&B groups covered Country songs and vice versa. Look at Ted Jarrett – he wrote and produced tons of great R&B and soul records, but also wrote a hit song for Webb Pierce.

Without the slightest hint of hyperbole, this is my nominee for the National Anthem of the United States of America.

A great New Orleans records from the late 50s that sounds just like early ska.

Variations on a theme: “Sixty Minute Man,” originally by the Dominoes, an R&B group, was covered by Roberta Lee & Hardrock Gunter in an early incarnation of rockabilly. The 5 Royales turned the whole idea on its head and changed it to “Thirty Second Lover.”

Q: You mentioned you often invite friends home for a record listening session, that usually evolve into a dance party. tell me more about it.

A: There are two sorts of DJ nights: those for dancers and those for record nerds. These groups aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s hard to ask the DJ a million questions about a record if you’re out dancing in a loud crowded club, and the record nerd nights can isolate casual listeners sometimes. In my house, it’s more like show-and-tell with occasional mashed potatoes.

Q: I remember one day looking for some Country music to listen to, but as a complete newbie to this genre, all I could find is some really crappy Trucker’s music or some modern rodeo music. can you give us a little introduction to some quality Country? or is it Bluegrass?

A: There are so many different sub-genres within the “Country” category, I think a great way for newbies to dive in is to start with something familiar. If you’re into Blues, you might like Jimmie Rodgers’ Blue Yodels. If you like Hot Jazz and Swing, the great Western Swing bandleaders like Milton Brown and Bob Wills are a good analogue – excellent musicianship and similar rhythms. If you like R&B, you can even look on the same labels you’re used to – the King, Okeh, and Fortune labels also produced fantastic early country, Boogie and Hillbilly records. Then there’s the Nashville scene, a little poppier sound, and you can check out all the ultra-classic LPs: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins, Webb Pierce’s first record, Hank Thompson Favorites. And then for a more rock n roll feel, there’s the Bakersfield sound – The Buckaroos, Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart. I’m not great at summarizing and this is barely scratching the surface, but it’s a start. As for universal appeal, I will always think Hank Williams, Sr. is the gold standard. He had that stunning unmistakable voice, by turns spooky, familiar, uplifting, always had fantastic musicians backing him up, and those songs –I’ll never get tired of listening to him. Plus, his career was tragically short, so it’s kind of an all-killer, no-filler situation.

I found Ernie K-Doe’s first  LP in Austin, in a box on the street marked “FREE,” along with about 25 other incredibly special records. That was a really great day.

Q: You are fascinated by the origin of music and it’s influence on our culture. Is this something you studied at school or is it just a passionate hobby?

A: I did go to music school for my undergrad, and took some classes in music journalism. I’ve always been obsessed with historical detail, individual biographies, regionalism, etc. and how all those things affect the sound of a record. Sometimes it descends into madness – wait til you hear my Nashville soul singer diction theory…

Q: I’m curious now. care to share??

A: I’ve noticed that a lot of the Nashville-area R&B and soul singers have extremely good diction – very precise consonants, very easy to decipher lyrics. It’s mostly guys that recorded for the Champion label, which was run by a guy named Ted Jarrett. He wrote hit R&B and country songs (one of the few black country songwriters at the time) and ran a few labels in Nashville. I wonder if it was a cultural/regional thing, or if Jarrett had something to do with it, or what.

A fantastic record by Little Miss Cornshucks, one of my favorite all-but-forgotten jazz singers. Ahmet Ertegun discovered her in DC when he was 19 and was blown away. She’s tremendous.

A really nice French soul record I got from my friend Oli, who described it thusly: “this song, it makes them go on the dance floor.”

Q: How do you research for music?

A: I used to comb the music blogs, but now I have less time for that kind of thing, so I just keep my ears open at DJ nights and when listening to the radio, and take notes.

Q: Can you tell me more on how your passion for vinyl has affected your personal life?

A: My boyfriend is a record collector. We met at a DJ night. We have a life outside of records but it is nice to be with someone who shares the same passion and vocabulary. Our vacations usually include a few digging detours, and we’re a good research team. And luckily, so far we’ve only fought over a record a few times.

Q: What about digging buddies? Do you share or you go solo?

A: For a long time I always went alone. I was the only country collector I knew and most of my friends didn’t have the patience to hang in a record store for that long. Now that I’ve been looking for more soul and R&B records I’ve found it fun and worthwhile to go with other people, especially if you’re visiting a new unfamiliar city.

Q: Do you have other girl friends who collect records? Do you find the vinyl world to be dominated by guys?

A: None of my close friends who are my age, male or female, collect records (though some of them have a few records, they haven’t gone down the rabbit hole yet). There are more female collectors out there than people think, but it’s certainly a skewed ratio. I’ve been to record fairs where I’ve been the only woman in the room, which is a strange feeling. However, when I’ve been out DJing, or when I played records on the radio, the level of appreciation has been split very evenly between the sexes.

Q: In a world of endless musical sources, streaming music, MP3’s,Serato and other digital substances. Do you sometime stop and ask your self “what for???”

A:I’m not an uber-traditionalist, and I don’t think technology is evil. I love that I can listen to pretty good records at work with Spotify and share them with my friends. Youtube is amazing – it allows us to finally see really precious live performances that were formerly locked up in private archives or libraries. But I do think that if you’re out DJing, you should be playing records to create a unique experience for people. Serato doesn’t count, I can do that myself in my house whether I own the records or not.

Q: Do you have a record collecting philosophy or routine when you enter a store?

A: Be a nice, respectful person. If you’re a nice person, record store owners will give you first dibs, dealers will give you heads-up on their new stock, other collectors will let you know when they come across something on your wants list. And if you’re lucky enough to meet people who were directly involved in making great records, you’ll get priceless stories and friendships. If you’re mean and greedy, you might push ahead of the pack sometimes, but it will come back to haunt you, I think.

Q: What other goodies have you found while looking for records?

A: Not exactly while looking for records, but my cousin Joan used to work at Catalunya Radio, which sponsored a John Lee Hooker concert in Barcelona near the end of his life. At the end of the concert, John Lee Hooker befriended my cousin, and signed one of his beautiful Epiphone guitars and gave it to him. When I visited Spain as a kid, we were sitting at dinner and I mentioned taking guitar lessons. Joan said, “Oh, we have a guitar here,” and ended up giving me this incredibly precious gift. It’s absolutely my most prized possession.

I occasionally play John Lee Hooker’s guitar, very very carefully…I don’t think he would want it to just sit in its case.

A classic John Lee Hooker single “Big Legs, Tight Skirt” on VeeJay.

I found this Edison record at a Mexican record store in Texas. I have no way of playing it, but it’s a nice bit of history to have. I think it’s funny that Edison’s picture was on every label.

I lived in Austin for 4 months and picked up a lot of Lyndon Johnson ephemera, including this wacky campaign record.

Q: What’s your comfort album? the one you can always return to?

A: The Restless Kid: Live at JD’s by Waylon Jennings. It’s a recently released issue of a live performance Waylon did in 1964 or so in Scottsdale, Arizona. Waylon’s band is pretty simple and sparse, and his vocal style is almost tender – pretty much the opposite of the bombastic outlaw stuff everyone associates with him. It’s the sound of a band having a good time playing the music they love (including Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, and Beach Boys covers) and to my ears there’s no better warm blanket.

Q: Did you have any covers that scared you as a child?

A: This is an obvious one, but Satan Is Real by the Louvin Brothers scares me as an adult.

“Don’t Make The Good Girls Go Bad” by Della Humphrey – one of my all-time favorite records. It’s like the soul version of Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

Q: Is there a specific musical instrument that attracts you when listening to music?

A: Like any self-respecting country music fan, I love a good pedal steel (Don Helms is pretty much a patron saint in my book). A great tenor or bari sax line always gets me. Hammond B3 organ, also spectacular. I hate (with exceptions) soprano sax and flute.

Q: Tell me about the most unlikely place/occasion where/when you found records?

A: Recently I found an ad on Craigslist for 500 45s going at fire sale prices in central New Jersey. It turns out the guy lived right near my mom’s house, and had an awesome box of 45s he found at a flea market. From the selection of records (a mixture of soul hits from the 50s-70s, Newark-area gospel, and some 60s obscurities) plus some other clues (jukebox tags), I hypothesized that this was the personal collection of a former bar owner in a predominantly black city in Jersey (maybe Newark or Camden). It was a nice portrait of a stranger and I got some great records out of it.

Q: Tell me a particularly sad record story!

A: I don’t know if this is sad or funny or both, but when I was on the radio, I used to get a lot of calls from Rikers Island (a mental institute EP) . The Rikers guys would inevitably request the most poppy, schmaltzy country…when I could find something I wasn’t embarrassed to play I would oblige them.

 

Q: Tell me about a record that has healed heartbreaks!

A: MOTOWN. Never fails to make me feel better if I’m down. If I was forced to pick a favorite, maybe “(Loneliness Made Me Realize) It’s You That I Need” by the Temptations, “No More Tear Stained Makeup” by Martha & The Vandellas, “Every Time I See You I Go Wild” by Stevie Wonder…obviously I can’t pick just one.

Q: Who has the toughest record collection that you have ever seen?

A: Matt Weingarden. He has magical, impossible records.

Q: Impossible? in what way?

A: Impossible to find, or impossible to understand why they were never released, or why only one copy would exist, or why so many elements could come together for two-and-a-half fantastic minutes.

Q: Who would you like to see featured next on Dust & Grooves?

A: Westen Borghesi in Austin, Texas. He’s got an amazing collection of hot jazz 78s along with a really diverse mix of other stuff.

Q: Why do you have so many records about sports?

A:I think most collectors end up with these funny subcollections that become minor obsessions, sometimes for no reason. Mine include: records with my name (either Birmingham – easy, or Rebecca – harder), songs about the law or judges, collecting every version of “High School U.S.A.” by Tommy Facenda, and songs about sports or by athletes. They might not really be good records by any stretch of the imagination, but if I see one, I can’t resist.

Muhammed Ali’s single – the other side is a semi-listenable version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”

There’s not a lot of aspects of bowling that one can put into a song, so this is mostly garage rock with sounds of strike after strike.

 

 

“Even if you focus your collection on a tiny subsection of a musical genre, there is an infinite amount to learn and discover. It’s a great equalizer – even as a young collector starting out, I occasionally uncover things that are fairly unknown.”

I’ve been spinning at Lavender Lake – 383 Carroll Street in Brooklyn every Saturday night (I go by DJ One Mint Julep). And occasionally I write stuff about music at http://onemintjulep.tumblr.com, though lately I’ve just been posting Youtube videos of records that I like…

20 Responses

  1. With another guest come another kind of music, another way of collecting… This site is amazing. As a musiclover and kind of vinyl freak myself I read it (with my approximative understanding of english language) whenever I can and I’m always surprised, never deluded. A wonderful job, generous and very openminded.
    Thanks from France,
    TwinSelecter

  2. Glenn Young

    Hi

    Love your website. My question is that I view your website using an iphone. My problem is that the text gets chopped of on the righ side. Any possibility that could be fixed? Keep up the great work.

    Thanks

    Glenn Young
    Reaganrvltn@gmail.com

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  4. El Crab

    I love your Hifi and other players. They are so cool. I also love that green rug your hifi sits on. Thanks for sharing your collection with us

  5. PCL

    I remember getting that “Hello Lyndon” record from my father shortly after I had gotten a record player for my third birthday. Too bad I didn’t hold onto it. I’m so glad to see someone much younger willing to keep these little bits of history intact. Thanks.

  6. Pingback : Dust & Grooves – Adventures in Record Collecting » Mix – Rebecca Birmingham – In the Country

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  8. Andrew

    Really enjoy the blog. Nice to see other people with the same obsession who can share their passion. Really jealous of that John Lee Hooker guitar too.

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