It was a freezing cold November in New York in 1992. From memory we were over to publicise a new record due to be coming out the following year. My task was to have a one to one meeting with the head of our label and convince him to spend a fortune promoting it…I was less than confident.
The label boss in question was Don Ienner of Columbia Records. A big man with a big personality who ran the operation on a mixture of brute force and fear. I sat outside the office waiting to go in with a knot in my stomach.
Soon the door opened and I was beckoned in to the big man’s hallowed space. There were many things I’d expected (rumours abounded about his ejecting hapless promo guys out for failing to meet targets) but I had no preparation for the conversation that ensued. My 7 year experience of the music business so far had taught me that the higher one moved up the chain of command the less likely it was that anyone ever talked about music any more. So it was with some surprise when Don invited me to sit down and listen. ‘It’s the new Dylan album,‘ he told me over the track. As it finished a smile came over his face. ‘A couple of years back I had a conversation with Bob and ..I never do this,’ he emphasised ‘ but I decided to suggest a project to him. I wondered if he’d be interested in making a record without any band..just him..his voice and a guitar. Of course he wasn’t interested at all at the time and I felt really stupid. He immediately barked back at me, “Yeah and who’s gonna write the songs, Bruce?”
‘ At that point Ienner pulled out the brand new copy of ‘Good As I Been To You’ on CD. ‘And what do you know, he went and did it.‘ He laughed at his own plan coming into fruition. ‘It sounds great too..like one of the old bluesmen, his voice is raw and cracked, and it’s brilliant. As well as all that Ricky, there’s another thing I’m slightly proud of.’ He pulled the CD out of the player and pointed to the artwork. It was the Columbia label just as it had looked on all those classic vinyl albums of the late sixties and early seventies. ‘I suggested we reintroduce our logo on the CD and we’ve done it.’ Rightly, he looked proud as punch.
Music, it seems, always wins the day. We were set up for some high powered meeting which simply turned into two blokes who shared a love of records rejoicing in the fact our hero had made a blistering return to form and it even looked good. My respect and admiration for Don Ienner was complete. I couldn’t imagine many label bosses who would have the same time to share the passion for their own products. As for the Bruce gag…well twenty seven years on, it’s still worth telling.
Listening to songs acoustically, the way they were written is one of the great traditions of roots music. It spawned MTV unplugged and brings people to queue every night outside the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. On this week’s Another Country we will celebrate that tradition in style. We welcome Kathy Mattea, Willie Watson, May Erlewine and Israel Nash into Studio One where, in the round, they will bring you songs and stories from their extensive catalogues.
Just as I was smitten by the Dylan album all those years ago, I’ll be there, sitting in the circle and enjoying every minute of it. Join us if you can this Tuesday from five past nine on BBC Radio Scotland.