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By Tom Murphy
Tony Furtado is on the road again. He has been since early April, when he and his new touring band -- which includes locals Erin Thorin on bass and Marc Dalio on drums -- hit the highway in support of Furtado's new self-titled release. Life in the back of a van is nothing new to the Boulder-based string player, who has averaged 200 shows per year since the tender age of twenty. But there is something new about the road on this voyage out. Furtado is now officially an independent artist, free of a twelve-year affiliation with Rounder Records, with whom he released six recordings. And that's just fine with him.
Officially, Furtado's contract with the label was fulfilled last year with the release of Tony Furtado & Dirk Powell, a collaborative effort that paired the banjoist/slide guitarist with the Cajun master. When it came time to return to the negotiating table, Furtado decided the time had come to move on. And though less experienced players might question the sanity of an increasingly well-known artist walking away from what appeared to be a mutually beneficial recording contract, Furtado is vehement in his feelings that record labels often cause more harm than good when it comes to fostering artistic growth.
"In some ways I blame them, and in some ways I don't," he says of Rounder. "They are the biggest independent label in the country, and they're working with thousands of artists. I can understand how it's difficult, or impossible, to keep track of what everyone is doing. But it seemed like there are times when they're happy to just sell five to ten thousand copies of a record, and the artist knows it could do better. I can remember twelve different times when I ran out of Roll My Blues Away when I was on the road -- and I'd call the label to get more, and they'd be out of them, too. It was like, shouldn't somebody be watching over this kind of thing? Or I'd roll into a town and there'd be no CDs in any of the stores, no ads placed in any of the papers. They'd tell me that my promotional budget was tapped after only three weeks on the road."
Furtado has long -- and publicly -- lamented what he feels is a pigeonholed status as a bluegrass artist. Most recently, his thoughts on the matter were made clear when he was again nominated in the Country/Bluegrass category of the Westword Music Showcase last month; in a questionnaire each nominated artist was asked to fill out in advance of the showcase, Furtado praised other acts in the category, including the Yonder Mountain String Band, and asked readers not to vote for him. Though being praised as one of the area's best artists in any category may seem like a good problem to some, in Furtado's case, it's a point well taken. Tony Furtado Band, which features Celtic and Scottish sounds as well as Appalachian-flavored traditionals and even cameos by blues vocalist Kelly Joe Phelpsand the renowned soprano saxophonist Paul McCandless (formerly of Oregon, a band that lays claim to the "world jazz" title), is about as close to traditional bluegrass as Blink 182 is to hardcore punk. Furtado says that as he moved away from more traditional string-band stylings of his early releases, even his Rounder associates had a hard time keeping up with his evolving oeuvre.
"It got to the point where, as I moved into a different kind of field, it became difficult to garner the right support for what I was doing," he says. "It seemed like the only way I could get them [Rounder people] to come to a show was to go to Boston, where the label is, and play there. Maybe two or three of them would show up. Afterwards, they'd come up to me like, Wow, you're playing steel guitar now?' I'd be like, Yeah. Haven't you listened to the record?' I just felt like they never had enough of a staff -- not enough publicists, not enough people just doing quality control or maintenance -- and too many artists."
Produced by Cookie Marenco and released on the Belmont, California-based indie label Cojema Music , Tony Furtado Bandfinds the artist returning to a more grassroots musical approach -- and to the business of music. Currently, the CD is available only at shows and in the mom-and-pop record shops Furtado and his bandmates visit along the way. Eventually, he, Marenco and the Cojema people hope to secure a more national distribution. In the meantime, he'll continue touring and hope the word-of-mouth practice still works.
"It is difficult, but it feels good to be connected more closely to everything that's going on," he says. "People kind of think that if you get signed to a label, everything will be taken care of, that you'll have money and make money, but that's not the reality. You have to work just as hard as you always did -- sometimes harder -- and you keep learning about the little ways that artists are ignored or exploited by their labels."