The blue agave haze did nothing to dissipate the smoky cilantro hanging in the air. In fact the two were obviously made for each other. In early March of 1996 the early evening was still in Cabo San Lucas. Dinner was winding down on day two of a five-day company outing. Four sixty-ish Mariachi musicians looking like they were cast in Hollywood with outfits of black, red and blazing orange, moved from table to table playing the same songs requested by “Yahn-kee” tourists night after night after night. The seating arrangements were random, but I was a little pissy because I wasn’t seated exactly where I wanted to be. Other than Tom Kimmel, who I’d recently been boring to death about my new obsession with alternative-country music, there wasn’t anyone at the table I was really close to. I made the best of it with the usual chitchat, but I just didn’t want to be there.
In an effort to move closer to where I wanted to be, I got up and made some excuse about going to say hello to a guy and his wife two tables over. I paused to let the Mariachi band pass. They had just finished “Guadalajara” at our table and were moving to another where it inevitably would be requested again. Poor bastards. To them, “Guadalajara” must have been like “Freebird.” They’d rather eat at Taco Bell than play it, but every night some clown would always request it. “Hey Leo, ask ‘em if they know any Son Volt” bellowed Tom, followed by a hearty laugh and a full body shake only possible from man of his size. Suddenly I heard, “you know Son Volt?” Tar Hut Records was beginning to take shape. Dave Klug was a Sales weasel, who on a good day was the spitting image of Elvis Presley…
The rest of my social time that trip was spent talking with my new pal Dave about music. Well, I mostly listened because Dave was a freakin walking history of rock music. I raved and raved with a shit-eatin’ grin about bands like the Backsliders and Jason and the Scorchers. One night we were at an open air restaurant and Dave was talkin’ music while eating a fish that still had its head. It was as if no one else was there. Just us talking about music. I glanced to my right and smiled. One of our senior management team was sitting at the head of the table and being forced to listen to this rant of “Obscure Music 101.” Neil was looking at us like we were Martians discussing fusion propulsion. I’d been listening long enough to know Dave lived for music with the same need as he drew breath. Finally, I had to spill it. “Hey, a buddy of mine and I are starting a label. You wanna join us?” “Fuck yeah, man.” Just like that, Tar Hut Records had a Chicago office.
The uh, roots of Tar Hut Records go back to the early 90’s when a summer intern named Jeff Copetas would occasionally meander by my NEC cubicle and leave me CD’s to spin. I’d usually pick the more commercially familiar bands like Nirvana, but more so he’d give me very obscure stuff to listen to, insisting, “you gotta check this stuff out.” Most of it was not very accessible to me and I’d usually take them but not listen past the first track or two. I was raised on radio and never ventured far from it, with the one exception being a fascination with the music of Berlin Airlift, an 80’s indie band from Boston. I bought both their records on vinyl and saw them a few times locally. Other than that, I happily consumed the radio and MTV driven crap for the masses. Then, in the summer of 1995, Jeff handed me a CD with a band name that just told me I wouldn’t like it… Uncle Tupelo.