Burnin’ the blues

The infatuation started about 25 years ago when an insistent friend promised, “You’re really going to like this, trust me.” And even though Mike Boulan thought blues “was about some old guy sitting on a porch,” he let himself be dragged to the Royal Oak Music Theatre where Alvin Lee’s rendition of “Blues in C” changed his life.

Fast-forward and the same Boulan is running No Cover Records, the only metro Detroit record label — and probably the only label anywhere — dedicated solely to the preservation of Detroit blues. In 11 years, he’s released 55 recordings — 30 of those during the past two years. He’s released discs by Bobby Murray, the Billy Davis Rhythm Machine, Little Junior Cannaday, John Sinclair, Johnnie Bassett, Jeff Grand, and the team of Jimmy McCarty and Willie D. Warren. For the first seven years Boulan had to work outside jobs to pay the bills and to get everything up to speed; he’s worked in construction and for a time had a rug installation business. But for the last four years, the label has been a full-time endeavor. He doesn’t expect to get rich doing this, but as a blues singer might put it, he’d like to keep on keepin’ on.

Given the precarious condition of Michigan’s economy, coupled with the equally precarious position of today’s Detroit blues scene, this isn’t the easiest time to be trying to make a living from Detroit blues. When Boulan first started the label, the live blues scene was jumping in the Motor City. No more.

But none of this dissuades Boulan, now in his mid-40s, who grins when he recalls making his first blues recording with a handheld recorder.

After witnessing James Glass perform a fiery set at one of the annual indoor blues festivals put on by the late Famous Coachman, Boulan suggested recording. With his very modest equipment, he showed up with at a subsequent gig of Glass and his Get to Gettin’ Band, capturing the proceedings for posterity. The tapes sat around for years and later he put them out as Get This, the premiere No Cover release. Glass’ Fender Stratocaster doesn’t come across all that clearly, though it’s easy to hear flashes of brilliance. But it was an admirable starting point.

Since that time, quite a bit has changed. Listening to an advance copy of Motor City Josh’s upcoming release, Made in Detroit, the hard-earned years of experience and determination are glaringly apparent. The sound quality is clear, the songs are tight and driving, and the song selection demonstrates Josh’s well-known and formidable talent as singer, songwriter and guitarist.

Josh is Boulan’s biggest seller by far.

“At least three of the top releases are his,” Boulan says, adding that Josh has sold more than 30,000 CDs during their nine-year collaboration.

Although Boulan’s Straight Ahead recording studio is still located in the basement of his Oak Park home where it has always been, it has come a long way from the early days. For one thing, there’s twice as much space since Boulan and his dad (a licensed electrician) undertook a refurbishing project and doubled the usable space.

“The discs are burned and printed here, the artwork is printed here, we stuff the CDs ourselves, we shrink wrap ’em, everything. Right here in house,” he says. “That opened it up so I didn’t need to press a thousand CDs to release a CD anymore. Now we can make a hundred and start selling them, and if something goes wrong we don’t press any more. And it relaxes the time and effort to make the CD downstairs. I’m the engineer. We’ve got time, and I can engineer the project once it’s done. We can do all the artwork. I’ve got a digital camera, I know how to manipulate the photos, do the graphics. Or someone else can take the photos and I can scan ’em in.

“I invested over $5,000 in this manufacturing setup. I told myself that in order for this to work, and in order for me not to lose my ass, I’ve got to release a CD a month for the next two years.”

But because he does everything himself — with the occasional assistance of his mother and his girlfriend — Boulan also runs into distribution problems. Although he sells CDs on his Web site (nocover.net), Boulan says the most effective distribution right now is at the live shows of the artists themselves, where enthusiastic audiences respond to strong performances by opening their wallets.

“I think the problem is we got to get the artists to where people can hear them,” he said.

Boulan has been working on that aspect as well.

Last summer marked the 10th anniversary of Heatstock, an outdoor blues festival started by Boulan and Tim Baldwin, a friend, in the small Michigan town of Fostoria. The festival began with four bands playing for an audience of 150 on a friend’s outdoor deck. Last summer, Heatstock was held on an 11-acre spread over two nights and hosted an overflow crowd of nearly 800 folks. Saginaw native Larry McCray, one of Michigan’s blues superstars, was the headline act.

One way or another, Boulan is determined to make this thing work.

“Many, many people say that this music is for all time, and I believe them,” he says with the conviction of someone who has found a new religion.

Maybe he has.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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