In 1978 on a 1,600-acre farm in rural Washington, Don Emerson Sr., one of a long line of builders, loggers and sawmill workers whose livelihood was earned in the timber surrounding them, noticed that two of his teenage sons, Joe and Donnie, had taken a liking to music.
He’d see them doing their chores while listening to radio from Spokane 70 miles to the southeast and encouraged them as they began writing and playing their own music. They even went into a studio to make a record but were disappointed with the experience. So when the brothers came to their pragmatic father and said they’d like to try again, he gave them a straight answer.
“I commented that I wasn’t going to support them unless they’d done something that you could market — do an album or something like that,” says Don Sr., now in his early 80s, on the phone from that same farm. “I didn’t want to see them just playing the bars and doing that stuff only. I wanted to see something done that was tangible.”
Donnie, then 17, and Joe, then 19, agreed, and the father set to work on something remarkably — some would say extravagantly — tangible. On an empty plot of the family farm, he built a state-of-the-art $100,000 recording studio. And in that studio, the boys recorded the newly reissued “Dreamin’ Wild,” a naive but utterly beguiling private-press 1979 rock curio that at its best, reveals the young songwriter of the two, Donnie, learning to express his inner feelings via the mix of rock, soul, R&B, country and funk music he and his older brother/drummer Joe heard on the radio.
And then … a profound silence. The couple of thousand vinyl copies languished in boxes in the basement. That is, until this year. Thirty-three years later, the record has just been reissued by the respected Light in the Attic records, and the best song on it, “Baby,” has already become an unlikely summer 2012 underground hit. The music website Pitchfork just scored the album 8.0 on a scale of 10. L.A. avant rock singer Ariel Pink has released his version of the song, a collaboration with L.A. funk revivalist Dam-Funk, as the first single on his forthcoming album.
The story is starting to spread. Who were these two feathered-hair teenagers who on the cover are wearing white, jumbo-collared polyester Vegas-era Elvis Presley jumpsuits? Is this real? At least one blogger speculated, because of the way they were posed on the cover, that the two were conjoined twins.
Donnie and Joe Emerson’s experience is part of a bigger narrative that Light in the Attic, with offices in Seattle and Los Angeles, has been telling for the last decade. By focusing its beam in the dust-gathered corners of music, the label is uncovering and telling remarkable musical stories, and the Emersons’ is one of its most compelling — no small feat for a company that has released essential recordings by, among others, Kris Kristofferson, Karen Dalton, Lee Hazlewood and Rodriguez.
The last, in fact, is the subject of the new documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” which will be released in Los Angeles and New York on July 27, by Sony Pictures Classics and tells the story of a singer who released music in the 1960s to little notice in the U.S. but whose two early albums became important and acclaimed in South Africa and Australia and have been reissued by Light in the Attic, which will also be releasing the album’s soundtrack via Sony Legacy.
The Emerson story is much smaller than Rodriguez’s but no less engaging, and it’s one that Donnie, Joe and Don Sr. have been telling a lot lately.
The youngsters had shown promise on their instruments, recalls Don Sr. Donnie, especially, had a knack for composing songs at an early age. When Donnie’s high school music teacher echoed this enthusiasm, he, the father, and a few neighborhood friends started building the studio. The teacher, Gary Toleffsen, understood recording studios and helped as an informal advisor.
Don recalls Toleffsen coming to the farm with gear in tow: “He’d come out and say, ‘You oughta have this, you oughta have that,’ and then he’d hand it to Donnie — and then he’d have to learn it. Donnie was learning all this time, running the equipment, doing the recording. It was amazing.”
Donnie and Joe experimented after school and chores were finished for the day. Because of their remote locale — five hours east of Seattle, 70 miles from Spokane — they had no access to record stores, so they relied on what they heard on the tractor radio as their inspiration.
“The thing is, you have one station, you got six different styles of music played on one station,” says Donnie, interviewed with Joe by phone from Spokane. “You have Motown, you have soul, you have funk, you have classical music, country.” He cites music by Bruce Springsteen, Kool & the Gang, Brothers Johnson, Kris Kristofferson and others as influences. “It’s all mixed up.”
It’s an accurate description of “Dreamin’ Wild,” an album whose eight songs feel like a time capsule found buried on a distant island. The album has no sense of the rock world outside of the farm: There’s not a hint of punk rock on it, even though the Sex Pistols and Ramones had shifted the conversation a few years before it was made. Any notion that disco is in the cultural conversation on the coasts is absent. Rather, the raw honesty of soft rock, funk and the singer-songwriter sounds of the decade reign supreme.
Donnie, 51, has been a professional musician all of his life. He performs in and around Spokane both with his wife and as part of an instrumental rock band. Still as introspective as he was at 17, he says he believes that the freedom his family gave him is the reason why the album has been retrieved from history’s dustbin.
“We were removed from the world, but yet we were creating a timeline that was endless,” he says before warning that his explanation might “sound like voodoo hoodoo.” “What happened out there on the farm was an open-mindedness beyond what I can explain. My father and mother had this farm that was the landscape of a gift of being able to express your emotion without anybody interrupting. And all I can say is that there’s something to be said for having that tranquillity vibe and being totally connected — and not being connected — to the world.”
The first time Matt Sullivan, co-owner of Light in the Attic, heard an original copy of “Dreamin’ Wild,” it confused him, and once he secured his own copy, its charm only grew. “I would listen to it and think, ‘I really like this album. Am I crazy? I really love this record,’” said Sullivan, sitting in Light in the Attic’s East Hollywood office.
Founded in Seattle in 2002, the label has put out dozens of classic albums, most from the late ‘60s and ‘70s, unheralded or unknown at the time of release and hitting that sweet spot where folk, rock, funk, country and soul commingle. The label’s first releases were a two-volume set of rap forefathers the Last Poets, and in the intervening decade it has become one of the most acclaimed reissue labels at a time in which fans of all ages are chasing not only the best new sounds but increasingly treating obscure old music with equal enthusiasm. Digital music tips these days land in inboxes, on social media and in mixes without time-stamps, and as a result, whether a track was recorded in ’09 or ’79 is less important than whether it’s hot or not.
It’s one reason that, despite the nearly 35 years since the record came out, by the time Sullivan tracked down the Emersons to talk about re-releasing the record, the family had already been negotiating with other prominent independent labels, including the respected Indiana imprint Secretly Canadian, home to Grammy-winning folk rocker Bon Iver.
In 2008, a collector bought a vinyl copy on display for $5 at a Spokane antique store. That collector, Jack Fleischer, started telling people about it, they told others, and soon “Baby,” a smooth, sweet soul number sung by Donnie, had made its way online. Says Joe Emerson: “And literally, about two weeks later I get these calls from … Secretly Canadian, saying, ‘Look, we want to sign you guys, and we want to do it right away.’” Ultimately, says Joe, they went with Light in the Attic, in part because of the label’s set of early Kris Kristofferson recordings. It didn’t hurt that Light in the Attic’s most prominent release, the soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated film “Winter’s Bone,” was receiving international acclaim.
Donnie sees something bigger at work. “It’s almost as if Matt and Light in the Attic were supposed to come into our lives — we were suspended in time — to evolve together,” he says. “It’s really strange, because Matt’s emotions are very strong in his conversations. His passion and tenacity, and his love for music and archiving the history, is just amazing.”
That description is apt. Last year, the label put out 22 recordings, including gems by country duo the Louvin Brothers and Stax Records instrumentalist Packy Axton, nearly double the total in 2010, and the label is on course to release two dozen this year. Each year of the last 10 has seen more releases than the previous period. In addition to “Dreamin’ Wild,” this year the label begins to release archival recordings from producer Lee Hazlewood as part of an expansive series of the late artist’s LHI Records imprint. It will culminate in a Spring 2013 box set of recordings culled from 400 hours of Hazlewood’s meticulously kept master tapes, which offer a glimpse into the mind of an underappreciated renegade.
Joe Emerson, for his part, is just happy that another underappreciated renegade — his brother Donnie — is receiving attention, even if it doesn’t surprise him. “We’re all creative in our family,” he says from the home where he still lives, about 50 yards from where the studio stands, on land where he and his father work in a metal shop. Over the years, the farm’s land has been whittled to 65 acres to fund various creative endeavors — one of which is a barn transformed into a 300-capacity venue, replete with ticket booth, a professional stage and lighting gear. It’s seldom used for its designed purpose.
“I built this house here over a girl I fell in love with,” Joe says of another project, his home, by way of comparison. “Donnie says, ‘Well, I’ve never built anything.’ I say, ‘Donnie, you build songs and put so much love into creating those songs together.’ I looked at the beauty of songs like I look at this house. I see all the little imperfections, the dry wall’s cracking here and there. But you look at the overall beauty of the creativity, and that’s a work of art. That’s how I see Donnie and his music. It’s just a beautiful art piece.”