This is the story of two guys, one who had some songs in search of a home and one who decided, after much due diligence, to start offering homes to songs. It's too early to tell whether it's a perfect match, but nevertheless, it is a match with roots in the greater New York metropolitan area and blossoms in the greater Chapel Hill artistic community.
Joe Romeo, the guy with the songs, moved to Carrboro from northern New Jersey in 2002. While visiting an uncle in the area, Romeo fell for the town: "It facilitates an artistic lifestyle, and it's much cheaper than where I'm from," he says, some seven years after making the jump. Even before feeling Carrboro's pull, though, Romeo was ready for a move, which was apparent from one of those previously homeless songs, "Wearing Me Out." Romeo wrote it not long before pulling out of Jersey.
"It's a cousin to a Springsteen song like 'Badlands,'" explains Romeo, 29. "You're fully aware that it's time to get the hell out. When so much is going on around you yet nothing is going on for you, you feel so lonely."
Dr. Mitch Collman, the guy who built a home for Romeo's songs, came to North Carolina almost 20 years before Romeo. It was the right move, but it wasn't an escape. Collman, a cardiologist on faculty at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, grew up on Long Island, attended college in Albany and completed his residency in Ann Arbor, Mich. In 1983, while Romeo was still a 3-year-old in New Jersey, Collman came to UNC for his cardiology training, and—pretty sure you've heard this one before—he fell for Chapel Hill. He and his wife, Gwen, started and raised their family here: 20-year-old Sarah, a sophomore at UNC, and 16-year-old triplets, Amy, David and Rachel.
But the two Big Apple-area expats didn't meet until last September, when Collman happened upon the latest in Romeo's string of local bands—Joe Romeo & the Orange County Volunteers—at the Carrboro Music Festival. The Vols had just finished its set outside of Weaver Street Market when Collman approached. Romeo remembers the conversation:
Collman: Do you have a record?
Collman: Who's putting it out?
Romeo: No one.
Romeo indeed had enough songs recorded for an album, but his previous record deal fell through at the last minute. He had songs without a home, and now Collman had an interesting bit of information. Collman, 53, says he's been a music fan as long as he can remember, an interest kick-started by his mom's Joan Baez records. In Albany, he began catching nearly every artist who stopped at Tanglewood or the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, two venues in the area. Because of those circumstances, he cut his teeth on big-time touring acts—James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Springsteen. It wasn't until the last three years that he discovered that an independent music scene—big stars on a miniature scale—boomed right in his backyard.
He stumbled upon that indie world serendipitously. A 29-year-old local musician named Mitch Eubanks, a caregiver for the Arc of Orange County, works with Collman's son, David, who has cerebral palsy and is deaf. Several months after meeting Eubanks, Collman discovered that the private, modest assistant was in a band, the warm-rocking trio Shakermaker. Eubanks invited Collman and his wife to a Shakermaker show, and Collman was immediately hooked. The intimacy of small clubs; musicians you might pass on the street the next day; actually standing up for a show: It was all perfect and nourishing.
Collman previously owned an area chain of cellular phone stores, his cardiology schedule allowing enough time for an outside venture. He enjoyed the experience; specifically, he enjoyed the interactions with people that it brought, taking deep satisfaction in learning from others. "The relationships and friendships that develop over the course of living, both in the personal and business/ professional spheres of one's life, are what make the journey fulfilling," Collman says, with an openness that makes it easy to see how he's made those connections. But the stores had been closed for five years. It was time, he figured, to start establishing relationships in a new sphere. The music lover entertained the idea of starting a record label, of working with those musicians he'd been sharing space with for so long.
Collman's research was both direct and stealthy. He sought the guidance and lessons of those around him: Local 506 owner Glenn Boothe, Burn Unit Recording Studio's David Smith, and Dolph Ramseur, whose homegrown Ramseur Records served as the launching pad for The Avett Brothers, a particular favorite of Collman's. He connected with Ramseur's story.
"He had no music background, no experience," Collman says of Ramseur. "He was fueled by a love of music and a willingness to work." The two spent some time together at Ramseur's home in Concord. Ramseur offered Collman a half-day crash course in the biz. He recognized in Collman some of the same qualities that helped Ramseur build his business from nothing into a national success.
"Mitch has a lot of passion for music," offers Ramseur. "When he first contacted me that was what jumped out at me. I think the music industry needs music fans like Mitch getting involved, now more than ever. Problems arise when people in control of this business are not fans of music. Just spend a few minutes with Mitch and you find out pretty quickly that he is consumed by music."
As he became more convinced that label ownership was in his future, Collman took in shows with a new perspective. He took note of the audience's reaction to various bands, and paid attention to his gut feeling about the songs he heard.
"I was obviously interested in a band that had talent. I'm interested in music that crosses categories," he explains. "But more importantly, I wanted to find a band that had the fire. And just as important, a band that I thought I could work with. I want to work with people of integrity and honesty because I was associating myself with them, and they ultimately would be a reflection of me."
Armed with that want list, his observations, and valuable shared wisdom—"Concentrate on building fans, not selling CDs," Ramseur had offered—Collman was ready to take the plunge.
Enter Joe Romeo, recorded songs in hand, exiting that makeshift Weaver Street Market stage. Romeo was leery after being burned once, and Collman, as always, proceded carefully. Romeo's pessimism turned to, in his words, "guarded optimism," and Collman grew more impressed with Romeo at each meeting. After several months and several sit-downs, they fleshed out a verbal agreement: The self-titled debut from Joe Romeo & the Orange County Volunteers would be the first recording on Collman's fledgling Robust Records, a label whose logo is a guitar with a human arm for a neck—complete, of course, with visible tendons.
Something else Collman took from Ramseur was that an act or its record should be unique. Is Joe Romeo & the Orange County Volunteers unique? That's a tough word to live up to, but the band's debut can't be easily summarized. Those looking for the quick comparison might trot out Neil Young or Bob Dylan because those two play guitar and, you know, use words. The slightly less-lazy could cite Ray Davies maybe, or Steve Forbert or a dozen others who know the value of a melody and a story and simply letting a song take you to where it needs to go.
In the case of the Vols' "Fight for You," that destination is a bouncy chorus that's just a horn section away from being a Stax-born cut. "It Could Have Been" lets you take a breath and slow things down a little while still making a deep impression. And for "Wearing Me Out"—that song about getting out of New Jersey, a tune so good, so close to anthem-status that you pray its chorus will be grand (and it delivers)—that place is, apparently, Carrboro, North Carolina.
So maybe Romeo and the record, and what's been involved in getting it out, are best summarized as a labor of love. It's one guy in love with a group of songs that have been incubating for nearly two years now, and another guy embarking on an adventure that he's convinced he's going to love.
"You don't necessarily want to be a label's first release. You want someone who's done it a million times," Romeo says. "But I have no doubt when it comes to Mitch's capabilities. There's nothing DIY about his label; he pays so much attention to the details. And he's a determined guy, a virtue for anyone starting a record label. I have a lot of faith in him."
In turn, Collman goes out of his way to speak of Romeo's integrity and near-singular dedication to music. (By day, Romeo offers guitar lessons out of his house in Carrboro.) It's clear that he thinks Romeo has that fire he was looking for. And although it comes off like a simple statement, it probably represents the highest praise Collman can give about the collaboration: "I think it's a really good album," he says. "I'm proud to have my name on it."
It seems like this could work out. It just might turn into a story with two guys, some songs and a happy ending. "Lord, give me something to brag about," sings Romeo on "Wearing Me Out."
It's been delivered.
Joe Romeo & the Orange County Volunteers releases its self-titled Robust Records debut Saturday, Feb. 21, at Local 506. The music starts at 10 p.m., and the show is free.
Corrections (Feb. 24, 2008): Dr. Collman is 52; his eldest is Sarah.