Small record labels fold more often than a vintage road map. The one out of a thousand that succeed usually are purchased or merged with larger labels and lose the very core of what made them unique. One amazing exception to this rule is PlasticMeltdown Records, spinning their magic for 33 1/3 years in San Clemente, CA, USA. PlasticMeltdown served as a home for a variety of artists, primarily in the blues/roots/folk area sometimes described as Americana music. Dennis Roger Reed recorded during nearly the entire history of the label, and Before It Was Before documents over 30 years of these recordings. There's rock, roll, blues, swing, country, bluegrass and a couple of other kinds of music that are difficult to label… And don't worry: PlasticMeltdown Records will return in Washington State, USA, sometime in the foreseeable future.
Dennis Roger Reed/Before It Was Before: With so many Dylan related songs and so much organic back porch picking, you could easily mistake this California guitar based record as being from Woodstock. Knowing his way around Dylan, blues, originals and more, this is one of those sweet albums you take very personally as its full blooded and speaks right from the heart—right to you. A tasty ride through the back country throughout.
By John Roos
When the legendary Bob Dylan once defiantly proclaimed that the times, they are a changin', he was of course alluding to the youth-driven social and political movements in the 1960s. But that sentiment is just as relevant to the music business today, particularly its impact on our local music scene. No one better reflects these winds of change than Dennis Roger Reed, the longtime San Clemente resident, retired Beach and Parks Maintenance Manager and Americana singer-songwriter-guitarist who just weeks ago released his brand-new CD, "Before It Was Before" (PlasticMeltdown Records).
A staple of the Orange County music community for over 25 years, Reed has shared his music with us as a solo performer, duo with his brother, Don Reed, and in several folk-roots-rock-blues bands including Blue Mama and Suitcase Johnnie. He also spent five years playing bass in the early-1990s with the Andy Rau Band, a progressive bluegrass outfit that recorded two albums for Turquoise Records. In addition, Reed pens Reed's Ramblings, a column for the Sherman Oaks-based online publication FolkWorks.
I recently interviewed Reed at J.C. Beans Coffeehouse in Dana Point to discuss the current state of local music, including the challenges posed by the shrinking venues that showcase original live music; the transition to digital platforms and social media; and his ability to survive, if not thrive, in a profession that commercially prefers youth and trendy styles over authentic, timeless music.
"Years ago, there were a lot more coffeehouses and bookstores hosting acoustic music, like Borders, Diedrich Coffee and the Gypsy Den (in both Costa Mesa and Santa Ana). If you were lucky, you could land a gig opening shows at the Coach House (San Juan Capistrano) or the Living Tradition Music Series (Anaheim.) But most of these have dried-up."
Reed typically plays several live shows each month at venues including Alta Coffee Warehouse and Restaurant in Newport Beach, Iva Lee's in San Clemente and two cozy spots in Idyllwild, Café Aroma and Middle Ridge Winery Tasting Gallery. At a performance I attended a couple months ago at Alta, Reed and multi-instrumentalist Don Segien played and sang for two hours before a small but attentive audience that experienced Reed's engaging blend of original songs and choice covers (The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," Tom Petty's "Southern Accents," Hank Williams' classic "Hey Good Lookin'," and others.)
"I've been playing (at) Alta for so many years now and I love it," said Reed between sips of coffee and bites of a bran muffin. "But the fact is, some of the venues pay one-fourth of what they did in the late-1980s/early-1990s. So it's obviously not something I do for the money." In fact, Reed gives away his older CDs for free and hopes to make up for it with contributions in his tip jar.
Fast forward to "Before It Was Before." PlasticMeltdown Records, the indie label and recording studio that Reed has worked with/at for 25 years, recently moved away from its San Clemente location to Sequim, Washington, where it will re-open sometime in 2019. So as part of the big move's preparation, the label's owner, Brent Hoffenberg, began moving old audio files into the digital realm. Hoffenberg had been bugging Reed for over 20 years to finish a version of a song titled "The Cuckoo" that had been partially-recorded more than two decades ago. This lead to them working on a bunch of unfinished or unreleased tracks, mixing and tweaking new vocal and instrumental parts—plus adding five new Reed originals.
The result is a terrific, 21-track recording (a double-album in the old days) featuring not only Reed's brother Don (lead electric guitar, mandolin, lap steel) but a slew of other talented sidemen, including Chris Darrow (fiddle and lap steel), Mike Dowling (resonator guitar), Tim Horrigan (organ) and Don Segien (acoustic lead guitar), among others. There's no denying the energy and camaraderie that bubbles to the surface throughout this eclectic mix of roots, country, swing, blues, bluegrass and rock.
But will "Before It Was Before" find its audience and be financially viable?
"Well, being a musician is just not as lucrative as it used to be," insists Reed with a sigh. "It's kind of like society in general, where you're either on the low or top end of the class divide. There's not much in-between. The number of people making a living as a full-time musician sadly keeps shrinking."
Reed adds that the marketing model has completely changed. "Most people today, except for the audiophiles, aren't that interested in the sequence of songs or the sound quality. Consumers can listen to songs in advance before buying, so why buy a CD when you can get digital MP3's individually and cheaper, even though you lose the high- and low-end sound quality?"
Bear in mind that Reed is 66-years-old and has described himself as being, at times, an Old Man Ranting.
"I don't use social media but I do have a revamped website," said Reed, who added that he's guilty of not taking his own advice shared in a prior FolkWorks column urging musicians to be more social media-savvy. Although he also sends email updates to fans and friends who've signed up for his mailing list of live gigs, Reed still prefers the old-school method of mailing out promo CDs, photos, etc. to radio stations, music critics, booking agents and other supporters of independent roots music.
What motivates Reed–who was born in Pasadena and moved to San Clemente in 1978 after attending Cal-State Fullerton–to keep performing and recording new music that yields diminishing financial returns?
"There's a difference between making money and earning the recognition of your peers," said Reed, who has garnered positive reviews of his CDs from as far away as Belgium and had his songs played on the airwaves in both Canada and Australia. "It means a lot when you open a show for someone like Don Dixon and Marti Jones (at the Coach House in the late-1990s) and they walk up to you later and say how much they enjoyed your set. Things like that make it all worthwhile."
A little perspective on one's life doesn't hurt any, either.
"The past couple of weeks were personally challenging for me," said Reed. "A friend of mine has cancer, and my son smashed up his car and quit his new job. So it's been stressful. But I love what I'm doing and will wake up tomorrow morning, brush my teeth and then start my day."