The Old-Time Herald Volume 12, Number 3

Feature
Mississippi Records
By Bruce Miller
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hoto by Malin Nylander

Perhaps format doesn’t matter. Those of us who won’t concede that an mp3 of the Blue Ridge Highballers’ manic take on “Darneo” enables us to hear the music every bit as well as an old, crusty 78 may just be stubborn, but there are a number of us who still love laying our hands on the record. Finding a cheap copy of Wilson Douglas’ Rounder-released Brushy Fork of John’s Creek in the “new arrivals” bin of Pittsburgh’s Jerry’s Records meant more to me than the CD ever could. The problem with all this is, regardless of musical style, finding the vinyl you dream about for cheap has gone the way of the independent drug store. All of this has led to tons of things reappearing on reissued LPs, legally and otherwise, as the demand has long outstripped the supply. And while all these wonderful LPs look great in a shop window, the numbers are limited and the prices are, for lack of a better word, silly.

This is where the seven-year-old, venerable Portland, Oregon-based record shop Mississippi Records comes in. Shop owner Eric Isaacson and boyhood friend Warren Hill grew tired of never being able to find compilations of early blues or raw gospel—not to mention LPs by loner-folk artists such as Abner Jay or George “Bongo Joe” Coleman—in the vinyl bins, and they decided to do something about it. Isaacson explains via a phone interview the impetus for starting the label. “Warren and I run tiny record stores and our blues and gospel vinyl sections were pretty bad. We issued a few records to try to change this.” In fact early MR releases were the early blues and gospel comp Last Kind Words, which includes the Geeshie Wiley song of the same name, as well as an album featuring the haunting gospel song of dolceola player Washington Phillips, What Are They Doing in Heaven Today? As for the success of these albums’ sales, Isaacson explains, “We didn’t really expect it would go too far. Those were first pressed in runs of 500 each. When they sold out really quick we were baffled. We stumbled into this. There was no pre-conceived idea of what we were doing.”

In fact, Isaacson seems to have stumbled into a few things. The space for his store was literally offered to him as he was walking down a Portland street, wondering exactly what he might do for a living after the travels that had taken him out of the area brought him back west. In some ways the success the label has seen is due to the simplicity that’s driven it. It doesn’t take much to say, “Hey, this music is amazing and it’s either out of print completely or at least not on vinyl. Let’s put it out.” Since he’s only pressed enough to make sure they sell—a number that is increasing with each release—and because smart independent stores around the country are ordering stacks of them, the label has become a modest but consistent success. As a result, with CD sales tanking, Mississippi Records and its gloriously random catalogue are the wise fools of the business.

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