If it's a hit, Country Music Heritage has probably got it covered

Over the last four decades, a stubborn, curious Silver Lake music company called CMH has found a niche in the ever-competitive record business. 

CMH stands for Country Music Heritage, but many of its projects in 2016 have little to do with picking or twanging.

Instead, while most labels patiently await an artist’s would-be masterpiece, CMH earns a lot of its income pumping out record after record based on other’s successes. The company scours the charts for hot songs and then records instrumental adaptations of them.

Ignored by some music snobs as cheesy profiteers of the creative music business, CMH’s output mostly exists outside the purview of the Billboard pop charts, but it couldn’t survive without them.  

CMH was born as a Los Angeles bluegrass label — a partnership between a German emigre, Martin Haerle, and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. The latter wrote the hit “Dueling Banjos,” and the former was so obsessed with country and western music while listening to American Armed Forces Radio in Stuttgart after World War II that he moved to Nashville.

David Haerle inherited the company after his dad died during a hike in Griffith Park in 1990, and he has since transformed the business into a collection of musical lines called CMH Label Group that meet unsung needs in the music industry. Among the brands: Rockabye Baby!, Pickin’ On and Vitamin Records, which houses the quasi-classical works of the Vitamin String Quartet.

On a recent afternoon at a studio just south of Leimert Park, four string players of the Vitamin String Quartet did a first-run through an arrangement. Today’s assignment? Radiohead’s “True Love Waits.” 

In 2014, the Vitamin String Quartet — a rotating collective of players — sold out the Troubadour  even though the group itself is anonymous. Haerle was dumbfounded:  “People were lining up to see the Vitamin String Quartet. And I know that sounds rather basic, but they were up at the front of the stage cheering and singing along.”

The Vitamin String Quartet has turned contemporary pop into instrumental string works for the last 17 years — consider it an updated take on elevator music of yore. Sneak in its version of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” onto your Auntie Gwyneth’s cocktail party playlist, for example, and the irony might fly right past her.

The company’s Rockabye Baby! imprint produces gentle instrumental recordings for infants and was introduced for parents who hate “kids’ music” but don’t want to expose their daughter to Queens of the Stone Age’s blistering “Better Living Through Chemistry” just yet. 

The Pickin’ On brand, which injected much-needed profits into the business at a crucial moment, has fiddled with bluegrass in a similar fashion, recording tight instrumental renditions of music originally released by dozens of acts including the Beatles, Taylor Swift, Beck, the Cure and Wilco. 

CMH pays its bills through the numerous instrumental brands and an array of studio albums from legacy acts including Kool Keith, Wanda Jackson and Violent Femmes. Its heavy metal imprint Dwell has issued records by bands such as Behemoth, Stormcrow and Hail Hornet. Business overall is down about 55% since its peak a decade ago, but it remains profitable because of creative diversification.

It does so with about two dozen employees, including longtime CMH exec Lisa Roth, who happens to be rock singer David Lee Roth’s sister.

Like the Blue Man Group or Menudo, Vitamin Records’ Vitamin String Quartet is a brand first and foremost, and since its creation it has issued hundreds of recordings. Earlier this month its version of another Radiohead song, “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” played during a key scene in HBO’s hit series “Westworld.”

In the second floor loft space overlooking South Los Angeles, the Quartet working out “True Love Waits” included four string players — cellist Derek Stein; violinist Rachel Grace; bassist Thomas Lea, and violinist Hiro Goto — whose session work has appeared on projects by artists including Britney Spears, Usher, Harry Partch, Josh Groban, Juanes and Yo-Yo Ma.

Sitting in a semi-circle, the quartet moved through the parts for the Radiohead song under the guidance of longtime Vitamin String Quartet arranger and conductor Jim McMillen. He’s responsible for notating and arranging Vitamin String Quartet’s versions, which it sells commercially as sheet music. 

The professorial McMillen can extrapolate in great detail on the ways in which superstar rock band 21 Pilots’ music is more sophisticated that it might first appear, and he can compare it with hits from decades before. 

Also wandering the room was Leo Flynn II, who flies in from New Jersey about once a month for sessions. A Berklee School of Music grad, Flynn oversees the Vitamin String Quartet brand and, along with a few others, produces and arranges recent Rockabye titles.

Flynn and his peers love debating the merits of would-be projects. The central concern? “Would this be exciting to hear this done on strings?” Flynn said. 

The strings that birthed CMH were twangier. 

After emigrating to Nashville in the early 1960s, Martin Haerle quickly scored a job at Starday Records, whose roster over the years included Willie Nelson, George Jones and Minnie Pearl. Most famously, Starday issued singing trucker Red Sovine’s on-the-road anthem, “Teddy Bear.”

Country music was his dad’s obsession, Haerle said at his office in Silver Lake, and he stood out amid the Tennesseans. “He’s got this encyclopedic knowledge of American country music, he has a German accent. He was very charming — and he knew his stuff.”

Martin Haerle and the family eventually moved west. He founded CMH in 1975 and worked at the label over the next 15 years. In 1990, he had a heart attack during a hike with his son. David ran for help, but it was too late. 

Then a rising 24-year-old talent agent at ICM, David inherited a bluegrass label with  two employees located in the middle of hipster central and, for reasons only known to him, quit ICM for CMH. He set about trying to make money as a California label selling mostly bluegrass music. A stack of bills and an overdrawn checking account welcomed him.

In the vaults, though, was a catalog of classic bluegrass and country music waiting to be exploited, and the son set about reissuing CMH records from its old roster, including music by Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass, the Osborne Brothers, Grandpa Jones and Merle Travis. Within a few years, things started turning around enough that Haerle and his then-wife were able to buy a new car. Two decades later, Haerle still drives it.

The notion of reinterpreting popular music for different genres was initiated when CMH mined its catalog for a themed collection called “Pickin’ on the Movies.” “Pickin’ on the Beatles” followed, as did a similar tribute to the Eagles. The brand blew up when Deadheads fell for “Pickin’ on the Grateful Dead.” The company’s best sellers have been able to reach the high five figures.

A concept was born.

It was Lisa Roth’s idea to tap into the baby market, and the Rockabye imprint just celebrated its 10th anniversary with a party mix of infantilized versions of Daft Punk, Michael Jackson and LCD Soundsystem songs. An offshoot imprint called “Hushabye Baby” adds gentle twang into the mix.

Roth pitched Rockabye Baby! to Haerle as a music series for babies, she said during a recent conversation at CMH’s offices. “Something with a little irony or humor. Something I’d be excited to give as a gift.”

The series has fun with the notion of kids’ music, coupling playful melodies with wink-wink irony. Who knows, maybe an infant’s favorite track will be a Rockabye Baby rendition of the Smith’s “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”

“That's the fun part,” said Roth. “We put out Eminem, which was something I wanted. I mean, the guy is reviled by some people, but to me he is the ultimate example of irony.”

Without having to worry about lyrics, it doesn’t matter that Eminem’s “Stan” involves a kidnapping.

Among the other bonuses of the business model, said Haerle, is that a different sort of creativity is at play, one that’s not reliant on the whims of rock stars.

In-house designers make the CD jackets, playful insert booklets, LP covers and an infant clothing line, and in-house producers oversee the creation of the music.

Plus, added Haerle with a laugh, “there's not an artist to be upset with us that we’re not marketing their album correctly.” 

There’s a lot of terrible music out there. For tips on the stuff that’s not, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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