In April 1855, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published a curious short story by Herman Melville titled “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” It’s one of his more experimental pieces, a narrative diptych set among an enclave of attorneys in London (the bachelors) and a regimen of female mill workers in Massachusetts (the maids). It’s loosely about industrialization linking disparate worlds on both sides of the Atlantic. Writes Melville: “Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies: but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stunning…”
155 years after its publication, the phrase “Paradise of Bachelors” graced the spine of the first album released by a couple of Tar Heel Staters — Brendan Greaves and Jason Perlmutter — who had no idea they were launching one of the most promising labels in the Southeast, arguably the entire country. “What a title for a story, especially one by an author we consider to be a paragon of American literary excellence,” says Greaves, co-founder and Melville fan. “I just thought the title was so compelling and humorous. That was my primary justification.”
It might seem like an odd literary reference for a label so focused on American — specifically North Carolinian — regional music, but Greaves says the name has taken on new weight and significance since its first release, a compilation of homegrown soul songs written, produced and originally released by a stereo salesman named David Lee. “It’s a story about labor,” he says. “That idea appealed to me because when I was in grad school, I wrote a bit about labor lore and occupational booklets — the culture and everyday experiences of work among Americans. And in retrospect, the fact that half the story is about lawyers has become particularly relevant. You deal with lawyers a lot in this business, and that can be both educational and extraordinarily frustrating.”
Neither Greaves nor Perlmutter (who runs the site Carolinasoul.org) had high expectations for their 2010 maiden release, Said I Had a Vision: Songs & Labels of David Lee, 1960-1988, but surprisingly, it sold out before it even hit stores. “We thought maybe we’ve got something here,” recalls Greaves, “maybe we can do another project.” Next on the docket was Poor Moon, the new album by the Durham-based band Hiss Golden Messenger.
As the label grew and matured, Greaves and his new partner, Christopher Smith (late of the band Espers) would work to maintain a sharp balance between intriguing new music (such as the self-titled debut from Nashville folk-rock upstarts Promised Land) and fascinating archival releases (such as Chance Martin’s Music Row obscurity/absurdity In Search). “I’d like to braid the two together in a compelling way,” says Greaves. “I’m interested in older music to the extent that there’s more of it. There’s a lot yet to be discovered.”
Based in Durham, Greaves — a New Englander who moved to North Carolina to study folklore — handles copyright research, oversees most of the graphic design, and writes liner notes. His wife Samantha handles the bookkeeping, and Smith (based in Philadelphia) is in charge of A&R and artist management. “That’s his background. Through Espers, he has had intensive tour experience and understands these matters from the artist’s perspective. I don’t really have that. It’s a shared burden.”
Despite the many miles in between Greaves and Smith, Paradise of Bachelors remains entrenched in the culture and traditions of North Carolina and is becoming an increasing presence in the bustling Tar Heel scene. “One could argue that North Carolina is the birthplace of country music in a broad sense,” says Greaves. “There were a lot of important early country recordings in Charlotte before Nashville took control of everything. All the old-time banjo music string-band traditions, all the bluegrass traditions came from here. And then there’s this amazing wealth of African-American musical traditions, both secular and sacred.” He sees local acts like Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun, and Horseback as continuations of those traditions.
Even so, as Paradise of Bachelors grows, Greaves understands that its scope will transcend state lines. In fact, the label is planning a new set of reissues for a UK artist, which would fulfill the transatlantic nature of its namesake story. “We’d like to maintain and even accelerate our pace,” he explains,” without losing attention to detail or our ability to represent our artists effectively and accurately.”
Speaking by phone from his home in North Carolina, Greaves elaborated on some the label’s small, but growing catalog.
I studied folklore at UNC and one of my first freelance folklorist gigs was consulting for the future Earl Scruggs museum in Shelby, North Carolina — about 40 miles west of Charlotte. The idea was to celebrate Scruggs's contributions to bluegrass but also to document the musical contributions from Cleveland County at large. It's an amazing place — home to a lot of incredible country, gospel and soul traditions. David Lee ran three little independent record labels out of his stereo supply store in Shelby, North Carolina. He had one big hit with an Ann Sexton song; she's a singer from Greenville, South Carolina, who went on to some fame and now tours Europe all the time. David wrote her biggest hits from that era and recorded them. I interviewed him for the project and met Jason Perlmutter. Jason and I decided to do a compilation of Mr. Lee's recordings over the years. We did it to honor him and his accomplishments. We both were impressed by his work and felt like he had gone unrecognized.
Beyond that original project with David Lee, we had no real plan or strategy for Paradise of Bachelors, and the next thing that crossed our paths was the Hiss Golden Messenger record, Poor Moon. It was very different from the David Lee compilation in many ways, except that it was another North Carolina artist who had navigated the industry in a similar way as Mr. Lee. Mike [Taylor, the creative force behind Hiss Golden Messenger] was fiercely independent and had been frustrated by his experience in the music industry. He was already a friend, and we both went through the folklore program at UNC.
The Red Rippers was a guy named Ed Bankston, who served in the Navy on an aircraft carrier in Vietnam and wrote about the experience on this record. It's one of the most brutally honest pieces of music I've ever heard about the experience of war. We're used to, even inured to, musical statements about the Vietnam War from the perspective of onlookers. Some of it is very powerful, but there's a lot less music written from the soldier's perspective. Of that very small body of music, there is very little that is as unflinching and as frightening as the Red Rippers album. It is bathed in the blood of that conflict without glorifying anything. It's a very conflicted piece of music — not easy to listen to, but fascinating. Ed had had difficulty talking about those years. He did the album, then stopped playing music. It was like he needed to get those songs out of him. His children have told me that the reissue has offered him some access to those memories so that he can discuss that understandably very wrenching period in his life. I hope it's helped him be proud of that music.
Chance's story is an incredible one, and I think it's a story about Nashville and its strange, dark underbelly. Chance was on the fringes of the inside of the Nashville music machine, but he made this incredible outsider's statement. It's a strange and difficult, but really fascinating piece of music — kind of a private triumph of the imagination and a deeply personal document for Chance. It was unknown not only to the world at large, but also to his friends and family. I was down in Nashville a few weeks ago, hanging out at Chance's house by the pool, and a number of people who worked with Chance at Sirius XM — where he DJs — dropped by. I was really excited to meet them, and they kept saying, "Oh yeah, Chance's record…we didn't know anything about that." It's not like he's kept it a secret or anything. He's proud of the album, as he deserves to be.
Like most of the work we've been engaged in, this was really the product of serendipity. Chris and I were in Nashville this past fall, spending some time with Chance, and we DJed at the Stone Fox, which is our friend William Tyler's club. We were on a bill with James Toth of Wooden Wand, and opening up for him was this band that was known at the time just as Promised Land. We were blown away. They were all between 19-22, but they sounded like they had torn through the history of Nashville and Los Angeles country rock. And they're developing so quickly, so what they're playing now is very different from what's on the record. They're moving more into West Coast and European psych territory. The songs are getting swampier and longer and more biting. So their next record is going to be very different.
Haw was the first record Chris and I did collaboratively. Mike's songwriting continues to develop in fascinating ways, especially how he's exploring notions of faith and spirituality in what is a highly secular musical form. This record has become a lot more relevant and powerful to me in the last few months, as my wife and I are preparing to have a baby in October. Haw is basically about children: having babies and raising them. That experience is one Mike was really able to capture. I find myself listening to it a lot lately as we're making these preparations for this new phase in our lives. I think Hiss Golden Messenger makes music for adults, which is refreshing. There's a lot of adult music out there that is incredibly pasty and anemic and inconsequential. But his is adult music that gets at what it means to be terrified of being a grown-up.
Steve grew up with my label partner Chris. They're from the same Philadelphia suburb of Landsdowne, which is also where Kurt Vile grew up. So Chris has been able to watch Steve's artistic development. I've always been impressed by his playing, but thought he was beyond the purview of Paradise of Bachelors for some reason. When I heard the rough mixes for Time Off, though, I knew we needed to do this record. I was exciting to hear this turn inward from his more exploratory solo guitar work. He was already headed in that direction, but this was just a huge leap forward. It's the opposite kind of career narrative from previous generations. You think of John Coltrane beginning as a phenomenally skilled bop saxophone and then take it further and further into the realm of free improvisation. Steve started in that realm, with a very free and largely improvised style that could be quite beautiful but also very challenging. He's gradually restrained himself and honed in on his skills in service of songcraft.