Rambling Ways: David Menconi’s New Book about Rounder Records

The longtime North Carolina music writer tells the history of an influential Americana music label in his new book, Oh, Didn’t They Ramble.
by David Menconi

Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton at the sales table for Rounder Records at the Bluegrass Unlimited Bluegrass Festival, Indian Springs, Maryland, June 1973.

In Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music, WALTER music columnist David Menconi tells the story of one of the most remarkable record companies in American music history.

Since 1970, Rounder Records has released thousands of albums of everything from bluegrass to the sleek 21st-century space-folk of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, helping to curate the Americana ouevre.

Before starting a label, Rounder’s three cofounders, Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton (later, Marian Leighton Levy), spent years traveling around the country, going to folk festivals including the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention in North Carolina.

This excerpt from Chapter Two traces one particularly memorable road trip that two of them took.

The summer of 1968 was when Irwin and Leighton took a road-trip adventure straight out of the pages of a Kerouac novel, one that happened more by accident than by design. A summer job fell through, leaving Irwin at loose ends, so he called Leighton with a proposition: Want to hitchhike across the country?

Why not?

It began in New York City, where they hired on to do a “drive-away” transport of a car to a buyer in Kansas, and that part of the trip went smoothly except for oppressive heat in a car with no air conditioning.

But things went south when they arrived in the town of Phillipsburg, Kansas, on a Friday after business hours.

The car’s buyer checked the trunk, discovered it was painted yellow, and realized he’d been sold a car with New York taxicab miles on it. Furious, he refused to take the car, which left Irwin and Leighton at loose ends for the weekend.

So they went for a swim in a lake and took in a baseball game with music afterward.

Come Monday, they sorted things out with the car and started hitchhiking to Denver, where they were taken in by a guy who seemed nice enough — until he turned out to be a drug dealer.

Fleeing a bust, they spent a night in the men’s room of a downtown Denver office building (which had at least just been cleaned, fortuitously). Then they raised some cash selling beer at a minor-league baseball game, making an advantage of their bedraggled appearance.

“Get your beer from the beard!” the unshaven Irwin hollered. The next day, they hopped a freight train in the downtown Denver railyard and set out for Salt Lake City, just like Woody Guthrie used to do.

But it wound up being the most miserable experience ever, with heat intense enough to boil the water in their canteen.

By the time they staggered off the train in Salt Lake City, their jar of peanut-butter provisions had melted enough to pour, and they were so depleted they could barely walk.

Their heavy luggage didn’t help, as Leighton had brought along several thick books to read (plus a hairdryer). That would be enough train-hopping for one lifetime.

“I’d always wondered what it would be like to ride on a freight train, and I found out — not very good,” Leighton Levy said with a laugh. “That trip felt like forever in both good and bad ways. I think Ken was interested in it more as sociology, to incorporate into some academic stuff he was doing.

I like more structure. So I did a lot of reading, and also some things I would not ordinarily do. Like getting on a freight train.”

From Salt Lake, they resumed hitchhiking west and made it all the way to San Francisco, staying with about 20 people in a crash-pad apartment where the only furniture were mattresses on the floor. Ever the avid reader, Leighton used that address to get a local library card and maintain her book habit.

They panhandled for money and went to protests and free concerts at Golden Gate Park. Money was always tight, so when they went down to the Newport Pop Festival with Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, their group entered by charging through an entrance en masse.

At the end of the summer, Irwin and Leighton took the long way home, hitchhiking down to Tijuana, Mexico. They spent a week with a family there, an amazing experience except for the hepatitis they both contracted (which they would not discover until returning home).

Then they picked up the “Main Street of America,” U.S. Route 66, and hitchhiked east to Nashville, taking in a Grand Ole Opry show at the Ryman Auditorium before turning north toward home. They made it just in time for the start of fall semester classes.

“We had all but one ride from truck drivers, who basically adopted us,” Irwin said. “They thought we were these starving little hippies, so they bought us meals, let us sleep in their trucks.

One of our final rides was from some servicemen who snuck us into Fort Dix, New Jersey, and let us spend a night in the barracks.”

Leighton spent all of 11 cents on that homeward journey, a doughnut for a dime and a stick of gum for a penny. Irwin, whose frugality later became the stuff of music-business legend, had set out on the trip with $20 hidden in his sock. He still had most of it when they got back. 

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.