About a year ago, I reviewed Jon Hartley Fox's King of the Queen City, an entertaining book about one of the great mid-20th Century independent record empires, King Records. Shortly thereafter, while searching online for further information about related indie label Starday for a pair of record reviews, I stumbled on the fact that a book had finally been written to document the tale of that label.
The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built, issued in January by the University Press of Mississippi, puts between covers some background on one of the primary outlets that kept newly recorded traditional country and bluegrass music on store shelves during the late '50s and early '60s, a period when the major labels largely shifted the genre's commercial prospects in a more pop direction. The book was written by Nathan D. Gibson, a graduate student at Indiana University who is also a performing musician with his band Nate Gibson and the Gashouse Gang.
Compared to Fox's well-researched tome, which was written long after most of the participants in the King empire had passed on, Gibson has a leg up right off the bat: His book's byline includes the subtitle "with Don Pierce." Pierce was an owner for much of the Starday label's time actively recording new music, and The Starday Story also serves as a mini-biography of his life.
Starday initially listed Beaumont, Texas, on its labels, and was founded by jukebox operator/record distributor/talent scout "Pappy" Daily and former Lefty Frizzell manager Jack Starnes, who at the time had just gained a nice settlement in an acrimonious ending of his contract with Frizzell. Don Pierce got involved after the first few releases, when a contact between he and Daily resulted in Pierce joining as a third partner in time to incorporate the label. Pierce -- who had recently received a settlement of his own while ejecting from a job with Four Star Records -- initially set up the label's operations in Hollywood, though the material issued on Starday continued to come primarily from Texas discoveries by Starnes and Daily.
Within a couple years the truculent Starnes was bought out. Daily would also go his own way by early 1958, after the collapse of a short-lived and unique co-releasing deal with Mercury Records. Pierce and Daily essentially split Starday's previous assets down the middle, with Daily holding on to George Jones' contract and management, and Pierce continuing to record many now-legendary traditional artists, while also astutely cherry-picking the best of the existing publishing rights. Shortly before the split, Starday had relocated to Nashville suburb of Madison, where Pierce continued running the label as sole owner for about the next decade before negotiating a package deal that transferred both Starday and the King empire (whose owner, Syd Nathan, had died) to a Tennessee broadcasting company.
Gibson does a great job of packing an enormous amount of information into a compact book; the narrative portion runs 170 pages and manages to give a sketch of how Pierce and company hustled to keep the label growing, along with anecdotes about many of the artists which they recorded. Another 70 pages contains a discography of Starday and Nashville subsidiary singles and albums. Also included in this discography are releases through the label's extensive custom pressing operation, the listing of which is a monumental task in itself due to the difficulty in identifying many of these records without actually seeing a copy in person.
Compiling such a treasure trove of information and keeping it short means that the reader coming in with questions about Starday will possibly not find the answers in Gibson's book. In my case, those questions are likely far too specific for a general audience. However, some seemingly basic info is also missing. One example is that the label's home base of Madison, Tenn., is only mentioned in passing; since Madison is now actually a part of Nashville proper, whether that minor fact actually makes any difference is extremely debatable. Tantalizingly, Gibson also mentions several times that Pierce was concurrently running the Hollywood record label but doesn't delve into that label's primarily non-country offerings, which included a national release of a Madison, Wis., garage classic by Robin and the Three Hoods. Again, though, who else other than myself will be reading this book and want to know how that came about?
One quibble is slightly less minor: Pierce's involvement in writing the book (and eventual friendship with Gibson) means that at times it becomes an apologia for his business dealings. While an anecdote early in the narrative derides the Four Star label's practices in paying the artists, Pierce's habit of taking writing/arranging and publishing credit for traditional tunes as "William York" is quickly dismissed (after some critical comments from Roni Stoneman) with "Although Pierce certainly had his fair share of critics...."
Ultimately, The Starday Story does a great job of balancing the more technical aspects of the label's day to day life with anecdotes about the artists who were its lifeblood, and will leave the reader with a burning desire to hear more of the music! For that reason alone it should be required reading for any fan of traditional country and bluegrass.