Corporate lawyer by day, indie music mini-mogul by night, Dean Blackwood leads a double life. And he's loving every minute of it.
Under the cool fluorescent hum bathing the legal department at Dell’s Round Rock campus, Dean Blackwood speaks to me in hushed tones. The room is library quiet, as muted as the dark rat-maze of endless cubicles. Blackwood’s space is untouched by clutter, not a stray pen or Post-it note in sight. As one of 45 attorneys at the computer giant, his credentials are exemplary: a bachelor’s degree from Cornell, a law degree from Harvard. He seems the consummate white-collar professional, but outside these windowless walls, Blackwood leads a secret life.You know the stereotype. They are obsessive and quixotic, and nothing stands in the way of their goal. The weight of their acquisitions is directly disproportionate to their vaporous shell of a life. They’re collectors, and God help you if you get between them and whatever they want.
For many collectors, it’s music. Unlike Italian Renaissance art or, I don’t know, thimbles, music is easy to appreciate. There’s the moment that hooks you, the way a string bends or a trumpet glides. First you need to hear it over and over, then you seek more, and soon you have to have . . . everything. This fanaticism comes in two forms: rare-record collectors and those who just want the tunes. Blackwood says he’s the latter, though he does have a shelf of 78’s he handles as if they were pages of the original Declaration of Independence. The distinction is an important one, if only to this peculiar subset of humanity. Since marriage forced me to, uh, reevaluate my vinyl habit, I’ve graduated from the plague to pneumonia. I don’t show up at your garage sale at six in the morning looking for Paramount 78’s, but make no mistake: The want is still there. And I’m not alone. We walk among you.
Music exists only in real time, and owning a lot of it entails a compulsive need to share it with others. Anyone who has music-afflicted friends has suffered as they hauled out the albums like so many vacation slides. Blackwood’s “unhealthy” obsession, as he calls it, has taken this to extremes. Maybe you’ve never heard of his label, Revenant Records, or any of the music it distributes. It’s a label designed primarily for people like him. The label finds and in some cases records musical treasures, and for those on the hunt, Revenant is a dream come true.
Blackwood, now 31, got the music bug early. As a kid in Arlington, he’d sit stone-faced by the radio until “My Cherie Amour” played one more time. His tastes quickly expanded beyond Stevie Wonder. Soon there was Sub Pop’s alternative rock and, somewhere along the way, a fetish for 78’s, the dense slabs of vinyl that Blackwood would find at his great-grandparents’ home. In 1994, while tending to the pragmatic at Harvard Law School, Blackwood’s perverse side had him spending a “ridiculous” amount of money launching a 78 label, Perfect, in a CD age. And that, after a chance reading of a magazine article, would lead him to John Fahey’s door.
Fahey. That cranky, record-collecting guitar genius who had all but dropped off the map. Having refused to be typecast as some sort of folkie, he appeared to have fallen on hard times, living in an Oregon weekly-rate hotel with little to show for his accomplishments. It was a ruse. “Fahey loved to appear to be down and out,” says Bill Belmont, who brought Fahey’s Takoma label (which the guitarist founded and recorded for) to its current owners, Fantasy Records. Mitchell Greenhill collected Fahey’s publishing income and kept the musician on an allowance—at his own request. “We were holding money for him that he did not want,” he says. “John said he would do bad things with the money, like buy CDs and take women out to dinner.”
“Everybody thinks I have a big record collection, but I don’t,” Fahey told me when I interviewed him in 1999. Most of his prizes were sold to others. With his former neighbor, Barry Hansen, a.k.a. record nut Dr. Demento, Fahey would canvas black neighborhoods searching for pre-war Delta blues 78’s. Another Fahey friend, Joe Bussard, who houses 25,000 78’s in his basement, likens the discovery of a rare record to “finding a diamond.” He isn’t kidding. As I spoke with him, FedEx arrived to pick up two 78’s he was loaning to Revenant. He insured them for $10,000.
For someone with such a retro outlook, Blackwood’s offer to release Fahey’s music on 78 didn’t strike him as unusual. The two bonded over their sense of humor and, as Blackwood says, their “mutual hatred of Jerry Garcia.” Even after he abandoned his 78 venture, Blackwood helped book shows for Fahey. In 1996 Fahey’s father died and left him an inheritance of around $50,000. “I was blowing it,” said Fahey. “So I gave it to Dean and said, ‘Start a record label.'” Revenant Records was born, dedicated to what Blackwood likes to call raw musics: uncompromising work of all genres that is not aimed at the commercial marketplace. Not the first label to appeal exclusively to music obsessives, Revenant is for the fan whose curiosity runs deep. Singing cowboy Jenks “Tex” Carman, rock minimalist Jim O’Rourke, and rockabilly wailer Charlie Feathers are among a small roster that has succeeded in cross-pollination where so many others have failed. Revenant’s initial releases of jazz adventurists Derek Bailey and Cecil Taylor, along with O’Rourke, brought in a younger, hipper class of fanatic hungry for outside artists, yet the label has gone on to interest the same group in such stalwarts as the Stanley Brothers. Had Blackwood and Fahey started with the Stanleys’ mournful bluegrass, it’s unlikely they would have later had that audience snapping up Captain Beefheart box sets. But this was a happy accident—not some brilliant marketing scheme on Blackwood’s part.
And it was Blackwood. Just like he had done at Takoma, Fahey became an absentee owner. Fahey admitted as much when we spoke. He professed not to know or care much about some of the artists on his own label: “It doesn’t mean very much, because I hardly like anything.” Yet, as Blackwood is fond of saying, Fahey’s “fingerprints are all over everything we do.”
But by 1999 Revenant had reached a perilous state. Partly because expectations were so low, Revenant had maintained at least the illusion of success. Yet despite moderate sales with Feathers and the Stanleys and a great compilation of pre-war music titled American Primitive, Blackwood was amassing a lot of personal debt. It didn’t help that their most ambitious project to date, a five-CD box set of mostly unreleased Captain Beefheart material, was proving an arduous task. Still, the box became a hit and sold more than 20,000 copies, remarkable for a pricey set of obscure material from a fringe artist. It would erase the label’s debt and enable Blackwood to put all of Revenant’s titles back into circulation. In 2000 Revenant followed with another big success, the compiled but never released fourth volume of Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music. Yet just as things looked their brightest, fate stepped in.
Fahey, already in poor health, complained of chest pains this past February, and doctors confirmed the worst. He underwent a sextuple bypass, and his body began to shut down. Two days later, just shy of his sixty-second birthday, John Fahey was dead.
Work at the label has carried on. Blackwood has come to view Fahey’s passing with a combination of sorrow, wistfulness, and responsibility. A walk-in closet off Blackwood’s bedroom in his South Austin home functions as the Revenant warehouse, with the office in a nearby spare room. Unlike his cubicle at Dell, papers and artwork are strewn everywhere, and the office is lined with hundreds of CDs, records, and books. Since everything for Revenant must be done in Blackwood’s free time, he has accepted the glacial pace of one major release a year. A seven-CD set by blues guitarist Charley Patton is set for October, and several other projects planned with Fahey remain in the works, including recordings from Fahey himself. Yet without his friend, Blackwood frets about “getting off track.” It seems unlikely. Blackwood is running the business for pleasure, and he knows what he likes. Leaning back in a beanbag chair with his eyes nearly closed, as we listen to Fahey’s guitar wash from the stereo, he smiles: “I’d like to think I’m going to get it right from here on out.”