Sure, it was a self-centered concern, but it was the first one that entered my mind: As the smashing, unprecedented success of the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Hot, released by Carrboro's Mammoth Records in 1996, became evident, I remember thinking, "Cool. That means Mammoth can keep releasing Joe Henry records."
Hot burned through the charts one year after Mammoth released its first platinum album, American Standard, by Florida post-grunge pigeonhole Seven Mary Three. Together, Hot and American Standard made Mammoth the first indie "alternative" label to sell 1 million copies of two records. That, of course, meant they could afford to sell a million or so fewer of other titles.
It's the nature of the entertainment business for a big-seller to jump-start or support a business: The success of Ricky Skaggs' Sweet Temptation, for instance, pretty much put Sugar Hill, another Triangle-founded label, on the map. Mama Dip's Family Cookbook, the second collection of recipes from Chapel Hill chef Mildred Council, pushed profit margins for the University of North Carolina Press. It was especially interesting to watch things play out in my own backyard to the benefit of a cross-section of my favorite artists. Thanks to a pair of million-plus sellers, I could look forward to a bunch of records whose target demographic seemed to be me and maybe 12 other dudes scattered across the country.
Mammoth, founded in 1989 by Jay Faires, was sold to the Walt Disney Company in 1998 and became part of Hollywood Records in 2003. It's since been shut down, and Faires is now president of music at Lions Gate Entertainment Corporation. But next weekend, the label's old employees and a sample of its sizable roster (including members of those two really big bands) gather to celebrate the label's legacy.
We consider some of Mammoth's 200-plus titles, including some personal favorites from both ends of the tally sheet. And just to put the numbers in some kind of perspective (and, yes, music shouldn't be about numbers, which is easy to say if you don't run a label): Victoria Williams' Loose has sold about the same number of copies as the other five on "The Low End" combined. Add those six together, and you're still short of one-tenth of the numbers for Hot or American Standard, which sold 1.2 and 1.4 million copies respectively.
The Mammoth Records 21st Birthday Show (featuring Dillon Fence; the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Katharine Whalen, Chris Phillips and Stu Cole; Jason Ross & Thomas Juliano of Seven Mary Three; and John Strohm) is Saturday, April 25, at Cat's Cradle. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door. The show starts at 9 p.m.
THE HIGH END
SEVEN MARY THREE, AMERICAN STANDARD (1995)
Those in need of a snappy tag to hang on a band focused on Florida-based Seven Mary Three's whisper-scream dynamics, sensitive muscularity and Pearl Jam echoes, and came up with things like "Southern chapter of Live" and "grunge with a tan." To that end, the band's signature number "Cumbersome" became just that; a song that became the band's identity, getting heavier and heavier as they kept toting it. For balance, be sure to check out "Devil Boy," not to mention vocalist Jason Ross' take on Superchunk's "Mower," recorded for the Songs for Sixty Five Roses collection.
SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS, HOT (1996)
It's tempting to call the Squirrel Nut Zippers more a phenomenon than a band, but that's a tad unfair: Yes, there was a novelty aspect at play, but this local sextet was far from the only outfit looking back across decades for musical inspiration. They just happened to do it better—or, at the very least, with more charm and marketability—than anyone else at the time, as captured on this searing slab of exotic nostalgia recorded in New Orleans.
THE LOW END
THE BATS, FEAR OF GOD (1992)
Originally released on the estimable Flying Nun Records in The Bats' native New Zealand, Fear of God came to the States courtesy of Mammoth. Bats leader Robert Scott had been in NZ's legendary The Clean, the band that launched Flying Nun and the careers of brothers Kilgour and others. The Bats favored the same manner of quirky, ringing pop as David Kilgour and fellow countrymates Straitjacket Fits and The Chills, but the band scratched up the shine with a rustic moodiness that was all its own.
JOE HENRY, SHORT MAN'S ROOM (1992)
Released a few years shy of the so-called No Depression Movement's outbreak, Short Man's Room highlighted two acts that would become early heroes of alt-country, as Henry was backed by his pals the Jayhawks. Pioneering aside, it was Henry's way with a tale and a phrase, whether he was putting his spin on the murder ballad form on "King's Highway" or singing of the guy who somehow ended up with the keys to the bar ("I'll give the pastor his last drink for free/ And maybe have my ride home when he goes"), that made this one jump out. Every song is a short story that just happens to have a backbeat.
ANTENNA, HIDEOUT (1993)
When the Blake Babies splintered, Juliana Hatfield started her solo career, and the other two Babies—guitarist John Strohm and drummer Freda Love—formed Antenna. (The Blake Babies were also a Mammoth act, and Hatfield released several popular records on the label.) Antenna was a pop band at heart, but its mind was filled with dreams of country music and walls of shoegaze sound that made for an alluring combination. Post-Antenna, Love formed the wonderful Mysteries of Life and Strohm the equally swell Velo-Deluxe. Fans of roots-pop at its melodic peak need to get their hands on Strohm's solo gems Vestavia and Everyday Life.
VICTORIA WILLIAMS, LOOSE (1994)
This was Victoria Williams' first release after the Sweet Relief benefit album, on which the likes of Soul Asylum, Pearl Jam, Lucinda Williams and Lou Reed covered her songs to raise awareness for her storytelling talents and the financial struggles of musicians with health issues. Loose is a beautiful album with songs that express bittersweet loss, pure joy and every emotion in between. "You R Loved" in particular is a horn-blessed soul parade, and her take on "What a Wonderful World" is designed for heartburst.
VARIOUS, RARE ON AIR, VOL. ONE (1994)
This was the first of four collections released by Mammoth of live recordings made on Southern California's public radio station KCRW. The spotlighted KCRW show was named Morning Becomes Eclectic, and the performers—ranging from Beck, Tori Amos and Mark Isham to Nick Cave, John Cale and X—lived up to that third word's promise. Future volumes added Jackson Browne, Vic Chesnutt, Joni Mitchell, Beth Orton, Lyle Lovett, Patti Smith and Ben Folds Five to the distinguished, far-reaching roster.
THE BACKSLIDERS, THROWIN' ROCKS AT THE MOON (1997)
Along with Whiskeytown's Faithless Street and Six String Drag's High Hat, Rocks stands as one of the big three records when it comes to mid-'90s Triangle alt-country. Fans had to wait for this delayed release, and, by the time it hit the streets, we'd already been drinking and singing along with the songs for what felt like years: the honky-tonking "Lonesome Teardrops" and "If You Talk to My Baby"; the crackling cover of Phil Lee's "If I Was King"; "Paper Doll World" and the title track, the two best John Hiatt songs that he never wrote; and, of course, "Hey Sheriff," which defines "sinister" in six minutes of rock.