Brave Combo

Joe Cripps and Barrett Martin ride a Fast Horse to record-label utopia

Joe Cripps sits on the porch of his house near Argyle, a sweaty glass of Maker's Mark at his feet, a pile of dusty 45s by his side. It's early evening in early May and the sun is setting on the home he shares with his girlfriend Ashley, their dogs B.J. and Cornbread (who is lying like a welcome mat near the front steps) and a mountain of percussion instruments. He has everything from the standard-issue drum kit just outside the kitchen to much more exotic fare picked up during his trips to Cuba and Brazil and elsewhere in search of a good beat, the kind of stuff you wouldn't normally find at the nearest Brook Mays.

Just across his yard is The Echo Lab, the recording studio owned and operated by Matt Pence (Cripps' frequent racquetball partner), Dave Willingham and Matt Barnhart, and behind the house is a few hundred acres of fertile floodplain, the kind of pristine country you only find in travel magazines and picture postcards. Other than a few houses on the property, there's nothing much else around, just tree-lined gravel roads and snapshot-quality views. It's a nice setup, the former Brave Combo percussionist says, sipping his Maker's, close enough to the comforts of Dallas and Denton yet far enough away to ignore them.

At the moment, though, he's most interested in the short stack of CD-Rs on the cluttered table in front of him, nondescript and barely labeled. The discs contain rough mixes of the forthcoming album from 74-year-old Delta blues great CeDell Davis, culled from recording sessions in November and January, the latter featuring a backup band including R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. The record, produced by Cripps, is set to hit shelves August 20, and it's the result of three years of trips he's made to Davis' Pine Bluff, Arkansas, home, convincing Davis to let him record his songs, scaring up gigs for him, whatever Davis wanted and whatever it took. (See "Pine Bluffing" below.) To him, the release date looks like the tape across the finish line at the end of a marathon.

Betting on a Fast Horse: Barrett Martin, Matt Pence, Peter Buck, Joe Cripps and Thomas Jones during the CeDell Davis recording  session in January at Dan's Bar
Judy Walgren
Betting on a Fast Horse: Barrett Martin, Matt Pence, Peter Buck, Joe Cripps and Thomas Jones during the CeDell Davis recording session in January at Dan's Bar
CeDell Davis at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios with two of his anonymous sidemen, Barrett Martin and Peter Buck
Judy Walgren
CeDell Davis at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios with two of his anonymous sidemen, Barrett Martin and Peter Buck

But that's not the only reason Cripps is excited about the album, although it's probably more than enough. When Davis' record finally makes its way into record stores, it will bear the logo of Fast Horse Recordings, the label Cripps has started with Barrett Martin, erstwhile drummer for the Screaming Trees, among many other groups he's lent his percussion skills. (Like Cripps, maybe even more so, Martin collects instruments from around the world--Brazilian atabaque, Cuban bata, Garibuna and Ghanian drums, Gamelan instruments and so on.) Working with Davis allowed Cripps to bring to life an album that only existed in his head, afforded him the opportunity to help people discover an overlooked legend who was beginning to feel like his little secret. But his partnership with Martin and Fast Horse gives Cripps a chance to have a much bigger impact.

Not that Martin and Cripps intend for Fast Horse to become another independent label that looks and sounds like an under-funded version of the Big Five. Rather, they take their cues from Luaka Bop (former Talking Heads head David Byrne's vanity imprint) and Stax/Volt, which was as much a family as it was a label; Cripps, in fact, has occasionally called Al Bell, Stax's former chairman of the board, for advice. Fast Horse Recordings is, or soon will be, an eclectic home--emphasis on both words--for musicians, among them Tuatara and Wayward Shamans (whose records, Cinemathique and Alchemy, respectively, both including Cripps and Martin, just came out), as well as Davis and Brazilian singer Mylene Nunes. And that's just the beginning.

"We both had a lot of other stuff going on, both together and apart," Cripps says. "And we needed a place to do them, needed a place to put them out. We've come from very different places; I've been indie all the way along, and he's been major-label guy. And he got really sick of the major-label thing, of being kind of held hostage: 'Yeah, you can make another record.' Or, 'No, you can't.' Or, 'You made another one, but we're not putting it out,' or whatever."

"We just kind of started talking, like, you know, the kind of music that we're doing here with the Shamans--and also, I had the Tuatara record ready to go, and we weren't really finding anybody that was interested in that--and I just kind of said, 'You know, we ought to just start our own label, just put this stuff out and then just see where it goes from there,'" Martin says on the phone from his home in Taos, New Mexico, where he recently relocated after living in Seattle most of his adult life. "Didn't really have a long-term plan; I just wanted to get the records out, you know? I just thought, 'Man, this is what everybody's doing.'

"There's really a revolution going on in the music business, just because of the ineptitude and greediness of the major labels," he continues. "Everybody that's got a brain is just starting their own label and doing it on their own. In fact, a lot of people that I know that were smart people that knew about music left their major-label positions to start their own labels. I mean, the best and brightest have already kind of left. What's left is just a shell of this collapsing infrastructure."

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