By Dan DeLuca
Inquirer Music Critic
Back in 1989, when Neil Drucker released the first album by a jangly pop band called Flight of Mavis on cassette and LP, he was a Northeast Philadelphia record store owner with no ambition to start his own independent record label.
"There was no plan," says Drucker, whose career doing what he never intended is documented on the new three-CD, 50-song Record Cellar: Town and Country, 1989-2006 (***).
The collection brings to life a significant chapter of Philadelphia indie-music history through the songs of much-loved acts such as the Rolling Hayseeds, John Train, Frog Holler, the Low Road, and Flight of Mavis and its later incarnation, Buzz Zeemer.
Its release - which Drucker says is the label's last - will be celebrated with a show at the Tin Angel on Saturday, with four Town and Country songwriters - Darren Schlappich of Frog Holler, Richard Kaufmann (of the Hayseeds and, now, Foxycontin), Jon Houlon (of John Train), and Steve Yutzy-Burkey - joined by multi-instrumentalist Mike Brenner of the Low Road and Slo-Mo. "It's a funny thing," recalls Drucker, 52. He says Pat Feeny, then his partner, now the owner of Main Street Music in Manayunk, "always said we started the label so we could have the record in our collection."
The record in question was Flight of Mavis' self-titled debut, whose infectious "On My Mind" is included on Town and Country. It became the first of 21 full-length discs that Drucker would release on the Record Cellar label, which took its name from his Bustleton Avenue shop, which closed in 1996.
The album was the work of three guys who grew up down the street from one another in Horsham - bass player Dave McElroy, drummer Ken Buono, and singer-guitarist and melodious tunesmith Frank Brown. Together, they'd make the drive to the Cellar (the store once was in one, but had by then moved above ground) to hang out and buy Replacements and NRBQ records.
"We really wanted him to like it," remembers Brown, who handed over a tape made by the trio. The band was in step with the Byrds-influenced guitar-pop of R.E.M., and diametrically opposed to that decade's glossy sound identified with marquee 1980s Philadelphia acts like the Hooters. "Neil was the guy who knew about all the cool bands."
Drucker liked it, all right. "We started playing it, and we couldn't stop playing it. The pull was so strong that we couldn't resist. It was just something we believed in."
That divining principle guided Drucker, a music-head raised on Neil Young and John Prine and Elvis Costello. Drucker opened his first store on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough in the '70s and called it Geezer's Record Shop, after the nickname of Villanova basketball great Howard Porter, Drucker's favorite player.
Flight of Mavis was immediately greeted by critical praise (The Inquirer said that the album glowed "with honest love for the whole wide world of rock 'n' roll") and modest success. The album sold 5,000 copies, and the band had a string of gigs opening for Sinead O'Connor. But Drucker was reticent to go all-in, partly "because I saw how many good bands don't succeed."
Even so, "sometimes I would get a tape" from a band, says Drucker, who lives in Bala Cynwyd and earns a living selling CDs and LPs at record shows like the Allentown Music Fair in March. And sometimes, he would hear "songs that I couldn't deny."
He was smitten by the songs of Gerry McGoldrick, the songwriter behind Napalm Sunday, Emily Valentine and Solid for Sixty. And those of Kaufmann, the savvy pop songsmith and former leader of the storied '80s Philly punk band Electric Love Muffin, who co-fronted the Hayseeds. Drucker says his goal "was to have a good local label for Philadelphia artists that deserved a larger audience, like Twin/Tone in Minnesota and Sub Pop in Seattle." "There's always been this incredible independent music scene in Philadelphia, going all the way back to doo-wop in the '50s," says Bruce Warren, the music director at WXPN-FM (88.5), where Record Cellar acts like Buzz Zeemer and the Hayseeds have found themselves in heavy rotation. "After the Hooters in the '80s, these bands were more organic, and less produced, and they put out good records. And Neil was the guy who pulled it all together."
Nobody got rich, and most everybody kept his day job. Town and Country, which consists of two 20-song discs of previously released material, plus a third with 10 new songs, can cause a listener to wonder how it was that the Gin Blossoms, say, managed to score Top 10 hits, while equally catchy tunes like Buzz Zeemer's "This Town" never found a mainstream audience.
Or how sticks-in-the-mud like Son Volt achieved a national profile, while the more sprightly and multifaceted Hayseeds, who were alt-country before alt-country was cool, couldn't break out nationally.
The biggest Cellar seller was the first Flight of Mavis record, and a typical label performance was Frog Holler's, whose three releases sold a combined 10,000 copies.
Blame it on the unforgiving music business, but don't expect anybody involved with the Record Cellar to be too bummed about it.
"I can't say that any record that Neil put out was ever all that fashionable," says Houlon, 38, who works as a lawyer for the Philadelphia Department of Human Services as well as leading John Train. "All of us came by this music honestly." He credits Drucker for the collection's consistent catchiness: "His ears really tend to pop sounds and melody."
"You always think if you had some stupid piece of luck and had a hit, it would have been great," says Brown, 41, of Buzz Zeemer, who teaches second grade at Independence Charter School in Center City. "But people said nice things about us, and we had fun. That's enough."
Drucker says he'll keep the Record Cellar catalog in print, but can't operate the label successfully "with the resources I was willing to put in. I just couldn't sell enough to keep it going." He admits, though, that if, say, Buzz Zeemer, which recently re-formed for a reunion show, were to record a new CD, releasing it "would be difficult to resist."
With Town and Country, he's ready to close the book on the Record Cellar chapter of Philadelphia indie-music history with pride. "I was always the one saying, 'If we can put out a good record, let's do it.' I know the value that records can have for people, because I know how much it meant to me.
"People came out to see these bands play, and they sang along to the songs and listened to the messages in the songs. And for me to be a part of that is a very rewarding thing."
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