Starday Records, one of the most influential, if not the American ‘roots’ label has a long and detailed story to tell. It took Nathan D. Gibson, a scholar, musician and country music fan, to collect all the details, numbers, personal histories, legends and private accounts of the many artists and the few executives at Starday to unveil the impact the originally small independent record label from Los Angeles had on country music.
It became a monumental force in the country music industry and changed the sound of bluegrass, southern gospel and a style later to be called ‘Americana’ almost single handedly already before it moved to Nashville, TN in 1957.
Maybe we owe our current definition of country music to Don Gibson’s personal tastes, since he insisted on recording and producing almost entirely those acts, he personally felt a liking to, regardless of their commercial impact. Gibson, who passed away during the research for the book in 2005, was forever encouraging and assisting author Gibson to fill the few gaps in the label’s history that also was his own.
Many of the artists who started their careers on Starday later became superstars in country music like Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, George Jones, Jimmy Dean, Dottie West. Other artists, who more or less had vanished from the billboard charts, made their comeback with the yellow label: Red Sovine, Moon Mullican, Cowboy Copas, Johnny Bond and others.
And this is one of the few real highlights in music research history that stands out from the rest of the many publications. It was done with passion and discipline and reveals the many treasures still waiting to be uncovered on many 45 singles; and if you are under the spell of bluegrass, obscure Southern string bands, rockabilly, sacred recordings, western swing and of course great country music, you will be grateful for all the information in this book.
Most interesting for the record collector is the 80-page discography, covering most of the Starday output from 1953-1970 (when Don Pierce was the company’s president) including releases on Starday (LP + 45s) and the many sub labels and special series like Mercury-Starday, Starday Country Juke Box Classics, Nashville Records, Dixie Rock’n’Roll, and the now highly collectible Starday Custom Series.
With today’s sales in country music, the style – now having absorbed many impulses from both rock, disco, house beats and sweet pop (not a good thing, if you ask me) – nevertheless was hard to deliver in the 1950s; hard to believe. It is important to note Pierce’s resilience since selling music, or rather his label’s kind of music, was not easily done back then.
The audience was into pop music, rock’n’roll and preferred the sweet country style with strings and orchestra, but not the harsh and straight-forward country beat. The label’s greatest rival then was another independent legend, Sun Records, owned by Sam Phillips. But while there are many documentaries, movies, books and even novels about the Memphis label, The Starday Story is the first book covering “the Pierce sound.”
And while many books on music and recording history refer to styles, outfits and labels long gone, luckily we can still freely order Starday records, since the company’s catalog is still enlarging and many old recordings are still available (on CD) on Starday-Gusto records from, .. what do you guess…. Nashville.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert
Nathan D. Gibson with Don Pierce. The Starday Story. The House That Country Music Built. University Press of Mississippi, 2011, 284 pages.