By Patrick Prince
Stony Plain Records began 40 years ago when producer Holger Petersen wanted an outlet to release the various music productions he had been involved in. Petersen started by taking Walter Shakey Horton, one of the great Chicago blues harmonica legends, into the studio to record an album in 1972, and Transatlantic Records in the U.K. agreed to license it. That was followed by producing Johnny Shines, Roosevelt Sykes, Liam Clancy and Canadian artists like Paul Hann, John Allan Cameron and Humphrey & The Dumptrucks. After trying to find more licensing deals, Petersen decided to start Stony Plain Records as a direct outlet.
“(There was) no long term vision involved for the first 10 years,” Petersen explains. “One release at a time, trying to scramble to pay for the next one. Would I be able to do again in 2016? Possibly but it would be hard to make a business case in today’s climate.”
The following is the full interview with the founder of Stony Plain Records, Holger Petersen:
GOLDMINE: Anything behind the name Stony Plain?
HOLGER PETERSEN: Stony Plain describes the area we’re in. On the western edge of the Canadian prairie before it becomes the Rocky Mountains. There is a town called Stony Plain, the Stoney Indians, and a local band I used to follow in high school called Stony Plain. I was also working in a recording studio very close to Stony Plain Road in Edmonton when I started the label with Alvin Jahns.
When we started, our location was a problem. Not much music industry where we were and everything from phone calls to travel was expensive and time-consuming. Being in Canada, Toronto was the hub. This was even before fax machines. Going to music conventions was essential and still is for us. Not being in a major music city I think it did give us a different prospective and probably more productive work time. I also had the good fortune to do radio programs for Canada’s first public broadcaster CKUA in Alberta which opened my ears to all kinds of music which was a huge advantage. The station remains a trendsetter.
Different artists do well in different markets. We’ve done well in Canada with singer/songwriters like Ian Tyson who has been with the label for over 30 years. With Ian, we’ve had three Gold and one Platinum-selling albums. Corb Lund with three Gold records in Canada. Jeff Healey, Eric Bibb, Maria Muldaur in Canada and in the U.S. (Then) Duke Robillard, Joe Louis Walker and Rory Block in Europe. And Ronnie Earl in the U.S. Japan was an important market years ago for Amos Garrett and Doug Sahm. It really depends on an artist’s profile in a market. MonkeyJunk and Kenny Blues Boss Wayne are growing in Europe and the U.S. through touring.
GM: How do you look back at the first albums on Stony Plain?
HP: Our first release was by Paul Hann a Canadian singer/songwriter based in Edmonton at the time. We also signed a band called Crowcuss which was an offshoot of The Guess Who. In the early ’70s we started to license and represent Rounder Records. That led to us distribute Sugar Hill, HighTone, Watermelon and artists like John Prine, Asleep At The Wheel, Sir Douglas Quintet, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. By the late ’80s we were signing more artists directly to Stony Plain for the world.
HP: We’ve been doing anniversary compilations every five years beginning with our tenth. My dear friend Richard Flohil has been doing extensive liner notes for each one. The “40th Anniversary” is a three CD set. Two CDs offer a retrospective look with representative tracks. The third is rarities and previously unreleased tracks that has been lot of fun to put together. Several artists have two tracks: Eric Bibb, Duke Robillard, Maria Muldaur with two live tracks recorded at our 25th Anniversary party. Bob Carpenter has two, and two by Sam Chatmon and the BBQ Boys. Sam Chatmon (Mississippi Sheiks) recorded with the BBQ Boys, two youngsters from Canada including Colin Linden making his record debut back in 1979. Also, one track each by David Wilcox and Walter Shakey Horton on that rarities disc.
During this anniversary year we have just released a new Eric Bibb (with North Country Far and Danny Thompson) album called “The Happiest Man In The World,” a new Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne jump blues album called “Jumpin’ & Boppin’” and Paul Reddick’s “Ride The One” … who we have recently signed. Coming up this fall will be new ones by Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl and Rory Block. We also have a “Best of Jr. Gone Wild” digital release coming along.
GM: How many records/releases does the company put out on average per year?
HP: We release 6 to 8 projects a year.
GM: The record company has released over 300 albums. Which record are you most proud of?
HP: So many. I’m so proud to be working with our artists and especially for the long term relationships and friendships that have developed. I’ve worked with Amos Garrett and Maria Muldaur off and on since the early ’80s. Ian Tyson since 1985, Duke Robillard on over 25 projects since the early ’90s and we are just putting out our ninth release with Ronnie Earl. Joe Louis Walker, Jimmy Witherspoon, Rosco Gordon were a pleasure to work with. I am especially proud to have been friends and to have released albums with Jay McShann, Jeff Healey, Long John Baldry and Doug Sahm.
What was the turning point where you felt the most secure about the company’s longevity? Was it Ian Tyson’s album, “Cowboyography,” that cemented the record company on firmer ground?
HP: Releasing Ian Tyson’s “Cowboyography” made Stony Plain a viable label. The album included Canadian country hits and eventually sold over 100,000 copies (Platinum in Canada). Ian won many awards and it established him as a leader in the western singer/songwriter market.
Maria Muldaur’s “Richland Woman Blues” was important. It included Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Bonnie Raitt, John Sebastian and other legends. It was nominated for a Grammy and won an AFIM Award.
GM: What is the fundamental thing you expect from your artists?
HP: I sign artists who I believe are timeless and have a strong sense of who they are. I’m happy to provide input when requested and I’m happy to step back and wait for the final results. Hard to keep it to one thing — great songs, passion, commitment, realistic goals and hard work for a start.
GM: You started out in radio, and have stayed involved. Do you enjoy being involved in it? Would you miss it too much? Over the years, which artist did you enjoy interviewing on air the most?
HP: Radio has been my other job and equal passion. I’m fortunate to do two shows a week. Forty-seven years doing Natch’l Blues on CKUA in Alberta and 30 years doing Saturday Night Blues on CBC Radio/SiriusXM 169. I love it and will do it as long as they’ll have me. So many great interviews over the years but my favorites would include B.B. King, Ry Cooder, Bill Wyman, Mavis Staples, Maria Muldaur, Steve Miller and Allen Toussaint. I published a book of interviews in 2011 called “Talking Music – Blues Radio and Roots Music” (Insomniac Press). I have a second one called “Talking Music2 – Blues and Roots Music Mavericks” (Insomniac Press) coming in October.
For more information on Stony Plain Records, go to www.stonyplainrecords.com.