Ken Irwin

A lot of people in the recent years call bluegrass “the real country music”…

Interview with Ken Irwin, founder of Rounder Records and Sierra Hull, renowned mandolin player

© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly

In a hotel lobby on 28th of September I had a brief chat with Ken Irwin and Sierra Hull. Here is what they shared:

Ken, what are the music genres in the Rounder catalogue?

Ken: Well we started with old time music and bluegrass, then blues, Cajun and zydeco, folk. We have done people like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alison Krauss (when she was starting out in bluegrass).

Sierra: She (Alison Krauss) has a unique style. It is acoustic, but it has a mass appeal. It is accepted in the country, folk or Americana fields. You can describe it only as “Alison Krauss style”.

What do you like about bluegrass music, why do you think people are in it?

Ken: The quality of the music! It is real, it has soul. A lot of people in the recent years call bluegrass “the real country music”. What used to be country has gotten so far away, sounding like pop or 80s rock. Bluegrass has integrity. People that you see are the same whether you see them onstage or offstage.

Sierra: I like the community that the music is very much passed down, the tradition of jamming and coming to IBMA…. You meet people you have never met before, and you play with them for hours. The community is unlike any other genre. Bluegrass is a very tight net.

Is bluegrass music going to grow or disappear? What is your prediction?

Ken: Depends on your definition of bluegrass. It will continue to grow and expand, in terms of its audience and the parameters. The music that Sierra does is different from what Bill Monroe makes. Music that the Steeldrivers play is very different from Alison’s. It’s nice to see bluegrass instruments appearing in other genres. Bluegrass will always have a traditional segment to it, but it will also continue to expand and reach new audiences.



Sierra: Bluegrass will be around for many many more years. No doubt about it. Fewer bands sound like Flatt and Scruggs or the Stanleys. We learn from them, but we put our own influence. We don’t live in the time period they did. People aren’t growing up in little log cabins in the lane anymore.

Ken, how did you become a record label owner? What is your background?

I didn’t have any other musical talents (laughs). I have a Masters in special education working with emotionally disturbed children. The psychological aspect of it helps me with my work now.

Who are the other Rounder guys?

Bill Nolan, his background is political science and Marianne Levi. Her background is German and European history.

Where are you from originally?

New York City. I moved to Boston to study.

How did you discover bluegrass?

At the university we listened to a lot of the folk revival music. Also bluegrass – Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe. There was a club called “Club 47”, they had Clarence Ashley, with a very young Doc Watson. We saw many of the folk progressive bands, also Flat and Scruggs. a lot of music went up there…

Ok, I’m releasing you now. Good luck!

Lilly Drumeva