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Dead Reckoners are alive and well, on their own

By Joel Bernstein, March 1997

The Dead Reckoning label is both an interesting experiment and a symbol of the artistic bankruptcy of today's music industry. Formed by five talented artists with no place in today's major label world of "Platinum or Bust" (Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch, Mike Henderson, Tammy Rogers and Harry Stinson), it was originally conceived as a way to get each artist's music into the world without commercial pressures.

But while it has served that purpose, it has evolved into something more. As much for financial reasons as any other, the "Dead Reckoners" began to spend part of their time touring together, serving as each other's back-up band. They've evolved into, if not actually a "group," than at least an identifiable brand of compatible artists.

This experience is celebrated on the label's latest album release, "A Night Of Reckoning," in which all five members (even Stinson, a self-described creative "back door man") take turns in the spotlight.

They're an interesting mix. Kane has a bluegrass/acoustic background. Henderson is a blues-oriented guitarist. Welch is a classic singer-songwriter whose songs have been done by Trisha Yearwood and Ricky Skaggs, among others. Rogers is a versatile fiddler who displayed an Emmylou Harris-ish vocal style on her second album. Stinson is a jack-of-all-trades who seems to show up on every not-blatantly-commercial album made in Nashville these days.

"We'd like to establish," says Kieran Kane from the label's Nashville office, "that if it's on Dead Reckoning you can be reasonably assured it's something good. There are labels that have that kind of name recognition."

All have had their experience with commercial Nashville.

In fact, it was a mere three years ago Kane was promoting a new album on Atlantic. Henderson had just released the superb "Country Music Made Me Do It" on RCA.

Major labels were slow to catch on that radio had shut and locked the window of opportunity that had briefly existed for getting interesting sounds onto the airwaves. Locked into sales requirements only reached through massive radio exposure, the labels finally retreated into a conservatism equal to radio's, leaving creative artists out in the cold.

Of the five, it is Kane (who went to college at Boston's Suffolk University) who has the most experience with the Nashville power structure.

While the other four have never been record sellers, Kane has actually been a mainstream country success on two different occasions.

From 1981-84, one of the previous dark ages of country radio, Kane scored six Top 30 solo hits on Elektra, the biggest being "You're The Best" and "It's Who You Love."

That stint ended when new label head Jim Ed Norman insisted on bringing more pop-styled production to Kane's records, and he chose instead to take a hike.

While hardly anyone seems to remember Kane's early solo hits, many recall his next career.

In 1986, during what can now be fondly recalled as a Golden Age of country radio, he worked up some demos in his home studio with songwriting partner Jamie O'Hara that became full-fledged records.

The O'Kanes burst onto the scene with six consecutive Top Ten singles, including the Number One "Can't Stop My Heart From Loving You." Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. Country radio retreated into its shell, and The O'Kanes, their female counterparts Sweethearts Of The Rodeo and other interesting artists like Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett simply disappeared from the airwaves almost overnight.

Stinson has had his own tastes of stardom. Growing up in Nashville, he was in a high school rock band with Dottie West's son. West "took pity on us," says Stinson, and took the boys on the road with her. (Stinson playing rhythm guitar instead of his usual drums).

In 1974, Stinson became an emergency fill-in drumming on some dates with the hot band America. This landed him in California, in a group called Silver (which also included future Grateful Dead member Brent Mydland). Silver had a hit single called "Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang" which Stinson says kept anyone from taking them seriously.

After years working with rock artists like Al Stewart and Peter Frampton, Stinson returned to Nashville to visit his family in 1985. One thing led to another and he wound up working on a Jimmy Buffett album From there, he joined Steve Earle's band, just signed to MCA. After a year and a half with Earle, "it got too crazy, and I parted ways with him."

Then came the seeds of Dead Reckoning. "I've always been attracted to great songwriters," says Stinson, "I knew Kevin Welch. When I left Steve, I put my energy into helping him (Welch). Mike Henderson came on board." (He had been in a blues band on Curb called The Snakes.).Welch and The Overtones (including Henderson and Stinson) signed to Warners.

On the second album, "Kevin decided he was going to stand up for me," and Stinson got a deserved co-producing credit - his first of many.

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