Roundabout Music Company: Brings the World to Whitesburg (And Whitesburg to the World)

by Kentucky For Kentucky |

“It was some Captain Planet shit for sure. Power in numbers. When we all came together there was no reason we couldn’t or shouldn’t do it.”

That’s Matt Carter–the Earth, if you will, in this 90s cartoon analogy–explaining the genesis of what’s quickly become a cultural touchstone in the Letcher County town of Whitesburg, Kentucky: Roundabout Music Company.
His fellow Planeteers–Josh May, Jonathan Hootman and Ben Spangler–rep the Fire, Wind and Water. And when their abilities combine what you get is a superhero business that’s equal parts record shop, instrument exchange, music venue and community gathering space.


“It definitely made it a lot less intimidating because everyone brings a different skillset,” says Hootman. “We all keep full-time careers outside the record store. I don’t think we’d be able to do that in a larger city, which is part of what we like so much about being in business here. We don’t have to choose between our passions.”

For Hootman, those other passions include yoga and biology. May, Carter and Spangler are Director of Marketing & Sales at Appalshop, Director of Programming at WMMT-FM (Appalshop) and Director of the Appalachian Media Institute (Appalshop) respectively.

Notice a theme?

“Appalshop’s obviously made a huge contribution to the economy here,” says Spangler.

But it’s deeper than that.

“15 years ago they get this building and they basically let young people do what they want there. And what we did was have shows. It created a pretty strong music scene here. Particularly punk music. That’s how most of us met. That’s how I met my wife. That’s how Josh met his girlfriend. Fast forward to now when these people are adults and you’re starting to see a huge influx of these people who were involved in that time and moment who were impacted so deeply by it that they now want to come back to this area and they want to contribute. You definitely can’t ignore Appalshop’s place in all this. They gave young people like us a space. And in rural areas like this space is like gold.”

Roundabout Music Company is building on that tradition. In addition to selling tons of hard-to-find new and used vinyl, instruments and supplies, they’re starting a series of monthly in-store performances. Now, travelling musicians can come to town, do an interview and get some airplay on WMMT, hit the stage that night at Summit City Lounge and do an in-store performance at Roundabout the following afternoon to sell some albums.



It’s a system that makes Whitesburg a worthwhile stop for any artist and one that Louisville-based roots supergroup Nellie Pearl recently took full advantage of on their East Kentucky Escapade tour, attracting visitors from throughout the region.

“One thing that’s different about us is that we draw from such a large geographic area,” says May. “People drive from multiple counties away because with supplies, instruments, records and shows we’re kind of at the intersection of people who make music and people who appreciate it. Everybody can come together here.”

That’s because their closest “competition” is outside of a 100-mile radius.

 

“We thought there was a market for this kind of thing,” says Hootman. “But we all love music and we love vinyl. So we definitely had on rose-colored glasses. We didn’t do market research and all that. We just really wanted there to be a record store here. You’ve just got to ignore the static, these New York Times articles and stuff that make it sound like this is an impossible and unbearable place to live. I live here and it’s awesome.”

“Yeah,” adds Spangler, “when you live in a rural area like this you just have have to be a creator. If your interests fall outside the norm then you have to make ways to indulge them.”

Carter shares the same DIY attitude. “We don’t sit around and wait for other people to do cool stuff. We do it ourselves. It’s been awesome to have a direct hand in creating reasons for other people to want to stay here.”

“The most amazing thing has been being able to say yes to people for a change. To everyone. Yes, we’ll put your artwork in the store. Yes, we’ll put your album in the store. Anything. Just giving people a chance for once is awesome.”

What May likes most is seeing people walk through the door that the guys have never met before in their lives, parents looking for instruments or lessons for their kids who now have a way to explore their interests in their hometown.

“Vinyl is pretty en vogue right now,” he says, “but it had lost a lot of its flavor for a generation or two. So it’s also really cool to see people in their 60s take a shine to the shop since there hasn’t been a record store around here since they were teenagers.”

It makes them think of the not-too-distant past when they were teenagers themselves, when they were renegade kid DJs broadcasting “Ska, Punk & Other Junk” to the head of every holler and the top of every mountain, weird Kentucky young’ns wearing holes in their pant knees digging through flea market record crates and getting their first frequency-modulated taste of the wild side via 88.7 or a death metal show in some forgotten garage.

“Sometimes I feel like there’s too much to do,” says Hootman. “But other times I can’t believe how much we’ve done.”

 

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Whitesburg native Kevin Howard will be performing at Roundabout Music Company on Saturday, February 21.

 

For more information, like Roudabout Music Company on Facebook or follow them on Instagram @RoundaboutMusicKy.

Story by Coleman Larkin

 

Happy Birthday was invented by the Hill sisters in Louisville, Kentucky.

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