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Old 09-08-2003, 02:36 PM
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Record Exec Lewis Still an Ardent Fan

Entertainment - Reuters

Record Exec Lewis Still an Ardent Fan
Sat Sep 6, 8:45 PM ET Add Entertainment - Reuters to My Yahoo!

By Wes Orshoski

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Two years ago, when Lost Highway sent critics advance copies of its first album by lauded singer/songwriter Ryan Adams (news), enclosed was a personal letter from label chief Luke Lewis.

In the letter, Lewis gushed about Adams, noting how much the singer reminded him of one his old friends, the late godfather of alt-country Gram Parsons (news). It was a unique gesture: Label heads rarely extend that sort of personal touch to an album's release.

In retrospect, it was indicative of the style with which Lewis has run the label. In its first two years, Lost Highway has not only become a home for alt-country in the major-label world, but it has also helped launch Lewis into his expanded role as chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville, which comprises Lost Highway, MCA Nashville and Mercury.

Under Lewis' watch at Mercury since 1992, Shania Twain (news) became an international star. His Lost Highway highlights include the massive "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, two sets from Lucinda Williams (news) and the latest Johnny Cash (news) album.

"Luke is one of the most visionary and enthusiastic people in the business today," says Ken Levitan, president of Nashville-based Vector Management and co-president of Combustion Music. Levitan recently signed longtime management client Lyle Lovett (news) to Lost Highway in a co-venture with Curb Records.

"Lost Highway and Shania Twain are undeniable evidence of Luke's talent and direction," Levitan says. "In all the years we've known each other, we've worked together on several projects, and I can say the only thing that never varies is the individualized approach he gives each one."

Q: What is your connection to Gram Parsons?

A: We went to a boarding school in Jacksonville, Fla., together for a couple of years. The Bolles School. We were there in the early '60s, and we were best friends there. He played folk music then, and then we both went up North to college. He went to Harvard for -- I don't know -- half a year, and he had a band up there called the Incredible Submarine Band that was sort of a predecessor to country rock, if you would. It was some kind of amalgamation of genres, sort of, which he was always prone to get into.

Q: Why did you start Lost Highway?

A: I was partially selfish. I wanted to make some records that were targeted at people with tastes like mine. I don't want to say it was a hobby, and I was just going to make records for myself that I liked. I really believed that my generation -- we're still active music consumers -- that people can make a living making music targeted at my generation. And also being a father, I'd love to think that the music that I like and that I make might appeal to my kids. That's a really primal kind of thing that all of us feel. You always like to connect with your parents, your kids, musically. It's sort of a magical way to hook up. I'm not going to make believe that I can play all the stuff on Lost Highway for my kids, but I think they understand the credibility of it.

Q: Lost Highway was intended to be a home for what type of music?

A: It wasn't meant to be alt-country, despite my connections with Gram and despite a bunch of the artists that we have. I guess if there was a guiding light, it was meant to be singer/songwriter-oriented artists that already had a base, either critical or sales base touring base. I think we've made one exception to that so far, with Tift Merritt (news), where we had the sense that she didn't really have a base. At any rate, that was sort of the criteria ... Ryan called it once "Jive Records with pain." I thought that was pretty good. That was two years ago, when Jive was really hot, with all that happy music.

Q: You've outlined your criteria for a Lost Highway artist. Can you give an example of someone who would not fit on the label?

A: It would be easier to say to you that the dream artists would be Neil Young (news), James Taylor (news), Van Morrison (news). I could go on, and I'm talking about heritage artists all of a sudden when I do that. If I were to go back, I think John Mayer (news) would have fit. I wish we would have signed the White Stripes, believe it or not. I think that one was brought up, actually. We were kind of aware of that before it happened.

There's a kid named Connor Oberst that is staunchly independent and makes brilliant music who I wish was on our label. We're about to put out a sampler, and he's on there. That sort of made me as proud as anything that's happened lately. That and Johnny Cash is happy with his record label. You don't know what that means coming from a guy who has been involved with a whole lot of them.

Q: Did you model Lost Highway after any particular label?

A: Shelter was probably the most prominent. I was a fan of Asylum and Island in early days. There's a lot of labels, because I was a music junkie, and I was prone to sort of look for that. And since then, I watched the success of niche genres, things like Windham Hill ... My favorite record label when I was a kid -- when I first figured out labels -- was Stax; that was the first one. But Shelter had Leon Russell (news), Freddie King, Tom Petty (news), J.J. Cale (news).

Those artists and those records -- Leon Russell and J.J. Cale probably had more influence on me than Parsons ever did. Those guys took me down the path with Joe Cocker (news) & the Mad Dogs. Enormous influence. I loved that music, and I loved that label. I would buy anything that said "Shelter." I tried to buy the logo and the name from EMI back when we started this label, but they, probably wisely, didn't want to part with it.

Q: I've always been struck by your passion for music. What was the most passion-based decision you've ever made, in terms of a particular album or artist?

A: When I did the "O Brother" deal, I thought it might have been reckless and done out of passion.

Q: Why? Was the deal that expensive?

A: No. It wasn't cheap, and it wasn't expensive -- if you make an assumption that any kind of record that you expect to work in the marketplace today is going to cost you a million bucks, by the time you record it and market it and all that stuff. A new country act, anything, if you're playing in the mainstream.

But the "O Brother" thing, I've got to confess sitting around going, "Are we going to sell the 200,000 we need to break even?" We sold 7 million. I wish I could sit around and say, "I saw that coming." There's no way. That felt like a risky move at the time. I was going to do it anyway. A couple people backed out before I got involved.

Q: Having gone through with it, what did you learn from the success of "O Brother?"

A: Trust your instincts.

Q: What would you say to those people who call it a fluke?

A: I'll play for flukes, as long as I instinctively believe they'll work. It's better than a craps table.


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