Wednesday, December 2, 2009

From Led Zeppelin to DJ Screw, Sundance Records keeps the beat going

Sundance, among the oldest record stores in Central Texas, is across from Texas State University.

By Patrick George

SAN MARCOS — Before there was hip-hop, before there was hair metal and grunge rock, before there was iTunes, there was Sundance.

Doubling as both a record store and a makeshift music history museum, Sundance Records — sandwiched between a Subway and other shops in a strip across from Texas State University — is among the oldest continually operating music stores in Central Texas.

While not quite as famous as Austin's Waterloo Records, it's older by a good five years and could give Waterloo a run for its money in terms of character. In the words of owner and founder Bobby Barnard, Sundance is a place where you can immerse yourself in music.

If the store has walls or ceilings, you can't see them. Nearly every inch — including the front door — is covered in album covers, posters, band fliers and newspaper clippings. It's a place where music and history intertwine, where a poster of Johnny Cash faces a Statesman front page story about the Gulf War and a doctored photo of President Lyndon Johnson rolling a joint.

Barnard also has a shrine to Jimi Hendrix, whom he met after sneaking into Hendrix's Dallas hotel room at age 14.

Then there's the "Door of Death" — obituaries on musicians and artists who have died. Over the years the door has expanded to cover the wall around it, and while it features a few big names like Selena and Jerry Garcia, it has many more articles on lesser-known musicians, including jazz drummer Elvin Jones — but not Michael Jackson. Barnard often culls the obits from the artists' home cities to make it more authentic, he said.

"Music is great because of nostalgic moments," Barnard said. "The stuff you like may not be good music, but it's special to you."

Barnard, 56, is tanned and athletic with shaggy silver hair. On a Tuesday, when the Sundance gets its biggest shipments of new music, he runs around the store at a frenetic pace, filing CDs in the right rows. He's gregarious, passionate and authoritative.

"It's got a lot of character, and they care about the music they're selling," said Kent Finlay, a longtime customer and owner of another San Marcos mainstay, the Cheatham Street Warehouse honky-tonk. "The great record stores are hard to find anymore, and Sundance is one of them," he said.

Heavy times

When Barnard got his start in the record store business, the music was heavy.

It was 1972 when he started working at Budget Tapes and Records in Denver. The poppy, rhythm and blues-inspired stylings of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were giving way to bands such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The advent of FM radio allowed for longer, higher-quality broadcasts of songs, not just short singles.

"The music got harder," Barnard said. "They said, 'Let's just turn up the music and power through the songs.' People were stoned out of their heads and just ate it up."

By the mid-1970s, record stores were booming just as hard, he said. "Fleetwood Mac and Elton John were selling gobs of records, and record sellers were driving Cadillacs."

Barnard grew up in Fort Worth, listening to the Elvis Presley and Beatles albums his older brother Gary would bring home. He frequented the mom and pop-owned Record Town not far from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. It was an old-school record store, he said, one that had listening booths and guitar lessons and was run by people involved in local bands.

Inspired by the store, which is still run by the Bruton family today, he decided to forgo college and learn the business the old-fashioned way.

He opened Sundance Records in 1977, naming it after a friend's Irish setter, on the San Marcos square near the county courthouse. In 1987, it moved to its current home at 202 University Drive. "This is where we always wanted to be," Barnard said.

The store sold stuff from up-and-coming Texas artists such as Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and George Strait, who was then a Texas State student. The store grew through the 1980s, adding employees as vinyl gave way to cassette tapes, which then gave way to CDs. The latter are the store's mainstay these days, but records are still sold in the back third of the store.

Vinyl has made something of a comeback among aficionados and DJs, Barnard said. "Vinyl is never going to be the driving force again, but it's said, 'I'm not going away.' "

As far as genre, the store is all about variety today: The D section includes Dick Dale, Daft Punk, Bo Diddley and the Dirty Projectors. But Barnard's bread and butter, surprisingly, is underground Houston hip-hop music — such as the "chopped and screwed" style of rap originated by the late DJ Screw. The slowed-down remixes of songs and mix tapes have proved hugely popular, selling as soon as they hit the shelves, he said.

Keeping the lights on

Barnard is candid about the troubles record stores and the music industry as a whole face today. The Cadillac days are over, and the rough economy isn't helping.

"It's been tight," Barnard said. "For us, (this year) was the great recession on top of a recession for the music business."

Sundance has had to diversify to stay afloat. Barnard sells T-shirts, posters, decals, concert DVDs, jewelry and smoking accessories to keep the lights on.

And then there's that whole generation of young music fans who have never set foot in a record store.

Because there aren't many record stores like the Sundance around anymore, rumors have persisted for several years that it might be closing down.

A Facebook group called "Save Sundance Records!" has more than 960 members, though Barnard says he has no plans to close.

"We've been here forever," he said. "We've built up a loyal group of customers who help us out."

Austin musician Freddie "Steady" Krc said he's been a customer at Sundance for more than 30 years.

"As much as I like the Internet for a lot of things, it bothers me that a lot of people don't know the experience of going into a record store and just finding something," Krc said. "You're missing out on the whole adventure."


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