PITTSBURGH — The Beale Street Visitors Center in Memphis, Tenn., sells a T-shirt that reads: "No black. No white. Just blues."
It's a sentiment Richard Nevins, owner of the Yazoo record label, might appreciate. The New Jersey native with an obsession for the early music of America's mountains, valleys, and backwoods says he believes those bygone sounds shouldn't be divided along racial lines.
Yazoo, he says, releases obscure recordings "that fit within the framework of rural American music. Not black, not white, but rural."
Says Mr. Nevins: "The differentiation of American music is rural and uptown. They're two totally different ways of playing music. The rural [was] very seat-of-the-pants: Nobody read music. Nobody tempered their performances. They just let it all fly.
"Uptown, things are more tempered and under control, and more boring, more refined," he says. "Less rough edges, not rough-hewn. That's the real difference in bodies of music in America."
Nevins has strong opinions about rural vs. uptown, as well as the definition of blues, but for him it's more than a topic for idle debate. It's his passion. Nothing excites him more than unearthing a rare 78-r.p.m. recording of a little-known banjo band, a Delta back-porch picker, a real singing cowboy from the '20s or '30s, or better yet, talking with someone else who gets just as juiced about the music as he does.
Nevins has taken it upon himself to preserve as much of this often poorly recorded musical history as he can and disseminate it to anyone who will listen. He took over the label in 1987 from two friends, who had started it 20 years earlier to reissue early blues and jazz recordings.
It's not exactly a profit-making endeavor: A Yazoo release might sell 2,000 to 3,000 copies (available at yazoo.com). Nevins says he doesn't break even most of the time. Ask him whether that's an issue, and he replies, "No. Not if you're nuts."
But, in a way, Yazoo is a charitable endeavor.
"I think it's a calling," Nevins explains. "I very deeply believe that. I sacrifice a lot of myself, a lot of my own time and energy ... because I love the music."
Nevins can afford to baby his love because he also runs a profit-making record and video label, Shanachie Entertainment. But one has nothing to do with the other, he insists.
Yazoo, named after a county in the Mississippi Delta region, isn't about marketing artists and making names for them. "There's no great sociological meaning to this," he demurs. "These original recordings are almost totally inaccessible to the general public. They're extremely rare. And even if you have them, they're very hard to play and get the music out of the scratchy old records. So the CDs serve the purpose of letting people hear the stuff....
"One could embellish the story more than that, but that's about the whole story," he says. "It's fueled by the enthusiasm and passion of collectors like myself, who love the stuff and [are] just saying, 'Hey, listen to this.' And that's it. I think it's the greatest music of all time. I'm a minority, I'm sure."
There are no Robert Johnson tracks on Yazoo, or Jimmie Rodgers, Nevins notes (though the latter appears in video form). Their work is already available, he explains. "Yazoo is all the rest of the folks, which is 99 percent of what went on."
The list includes Charlie Patton, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willy McTell, Blind Joe Reynolds, and a variety of other artists many people haven't heard of, either on solo releases or on blues, country, Americana, gospel, folk, jazz, world, and even klezmer compilations.
"Robert Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers are monumental figures, both of them. And they both deserve all the acclaim and praise that they get," he says of the men considered the fathers of blues and country, respectively.
"But there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people who recorded in the '20s and '30s, many of whom were just as good as both of them."
Those artists aren't as well-known because their entire recorded output may have been only two or three records, Nevins says.
Their music is so compelling, he notes, because it's wild and free of convention.
"That's a frontier impulse," he says. "All frontier people are wild. And black or white people all around the countryside were really frontier people.... The reason that American music has all this stuff in spades is because this is a frontier culture. It's only in this century, really in the last 60 or 70 years, the frontier has started to dissipate and everything got formalized and structured.
"... That's what Yazoo's about," he continues. "It shows this frontier approach to music, which is very, very exciting."