The golden years of D.C. blues—those that spawned the likes of Danny Gatton, the Nighthawks, and Archie Edwards—have long since passed, but the nation’s capital continues to maintain a thriving and influential blues scene—due largely to David Earl’s Severn, Md.–based record label, Severn Records.
Earl, a 37-year-old College Park native, was exposed to blues as a child by his father, a former University of Maryland physics professor. “My dad had a huge collection of 45s of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and others,” he recalls. Earl learned to play guitar at a young age and immersed himself in blues and roots music. (“I still love those old Stax recordings,” he beams.) After stints at Hofstra and Salisbury State Universities, Earl played in numerous bands around the country.
Fast-forward to 1996, when Earl was regularly doing national tours as a guitarist with such blues legends as Lou Pride and Big Jack Johnson. Weary of the rigors of life on the road, Earl retired from touring to fulfill a lifelong dream: After constructing a recording studio in the basement of his Crownsville home and office space above a nearby liquor store, he launched Severn Records.
“I just wanted to be home more,” Earl explains. “I wanted to create a label that maintained the integrity of the blues as I knew it, with no compromises. Having alcohol in such close proximity to the recording studio was just a fortunate coincidence that everyone enjoyed.”
In 1998, Severn released its first album, I’m Still Swingin’, by D.C.’s Big Joe and the Dynaflows. Since then, Earl’s studio and label have produced albums ranging from the swing of locals the J Street Jumpers to Pride’s Chicago soul to the jazz of Maryland native Benjie Poreki and his WPG Trio. Along the way, Earl has developed a reputation as a sought-after producer.
“I’ve loved everything he’s recorded for me,” remarks Pride. “[Earl] produces this music so well because he has always been around and played this music.” Poreki echoes this sentiment: “David is dedicated to creating rootsy music in a rootsy fashion that is true to the genre of classic soul and blues.”
With such praise has come a measure of commercial success. Severn released eight albums in 2004 at its new home, a small brick house near Baltimore/Washington International Airport containing both the label’s offices and studio—again in the basement. Plus, songstress Nora Jean Bruso’s album Going Back to Mississippi recently garnered Severn its first W.C. Handy Award nomination—the Grammy of the blues world.
These accolades notwithstanding, marketing contemporary D.C. and Maryland blues comes with challenges: Slow album sales and a dearth of live performance spaces have taken their toll on the scene. “[Blues] labels just can’t afford to issue as many records annually as they used to,” Scott Barretta, a writer for Mississippi-based Living Blues magazine, points out. “Blues…hasn’t been a lucrative genre.”
Accordingly, Severn is presently only a three-person operation: Earl handles the creative end of projects, and fellow Marylanders Steve Cyphers and Laura Price hold down the business side of things. “Usually, you think of Clarksdale, Memphis, and Chicago when you mention blues labels,” says Cyphers. “But we’re carving a niche right here in Maryland.”
“For me, it’s about the music,” Earl says. “I won’t even release an album of my own material, because it doesn’t meet Severn’s standards.”—Michael Kabran