Raven Records Celebrates Its 30th Anniversary

Raven Records, Central Street, Knoxville, June 2012

Raven Records, Central Street, Knoxville, June 2012

We’re in the middle of a musical whirlwind in Knoxville. Big Ears ended just twelve days ago, Rhythm n Blooms starts today and there are always great local, regional and national artists playing all around town. Knoxville musical culture has a long and fine tradition, much of it connected to musicians who came from the area or are otherwise connected to the city. Some of the heritage comes from radio shows and stations as well as television shows: think Mid-Day-Merry go round , Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour, WNOX, WDVX, WUTK and the Blue Plate Special. The tradition has also been aided by fine writers like Wayne Bledsoe and Steve Wildsmith, as well as publications devoted to the music scene, like Blank Newspaper.

Raven Records and Rarities is another institution which has played a large role in supporting the love of music in our city. Jay Nations founded Raven Records in 1985 and is now set to celebrate its thirtieth birthday.  I must have discovered Raven very soon after it opened. I still remember some of my “find” there like Dylan’s “Electric Lunch” promo album and Rita Marley’s “Harambe.” I bought and sold vinyl in the little shop, fed my addiction and often heard something on the stereo system I’d never heard before.

Jack "Tater" Stiles sells a classic Mott the Hoople disc to Sara "Ravenite" Washington, Raven Records, Record Store Day, Knoxville, April 2014

Jack “Tater” Stiles sells a classic Mott the Hoople disc to Sara “Ravenite” Washington, Raven Records, Record Store Day, Knoxville, April 2014

John "Johnny T" Tilson, Jay "Bird Dog" Nation and Sara Washington, Raven Records, Record Store Day, Knoxville, April 2014

John “Johnny T” Tilson, Jay “Bird Dog” Nation and Sara Washington, Raven Records, Record Store Day, Knoxville, April 2014

But the road from there to here wasn’t always a straight one. The musical universe has shifted dramatically in those decades. I sat down for lunch at Empire Deli (and had one of the best chicken salad sandwiches I’ve ever had) with Jay to talk about the journey. It took some very surprising turns.

He told me the first location was in a little building next to Crouch Florist on Cumberland. After a brief stay there, he was given a thirty day notice that the building was to be destroyed. Not a great start for a small business. He learned that a vintage clothing store was moving out of a small space off of Cumberland in a basement of sorts. While I loved going there and feeling like I was ducking into something secret – although often with a crowd of others who may have felt the same way – Jay didn’t love it. He laughed remembering that he used to call it “the armpit.”

CDs had begun to take over the market and they required more space for display, so he took the space behind Kinkos on the strip and operated there while maintaining the basement just a few feet away. That proved untenable and he moved the whole operation across Cumberland into a strip of storefronts. During his three years there, Jay opened a west Knoxville outlet that didn’t go well and begun the process of computerizing his inventory. CDs, with their much smaller profit margins continued to grow and vinyl sales shrank. When this location opened 70% of the floor space was vinyl. By the time it closed only 15% remained vinyl.

Jay Nations at Raven Records, Central Street, Happy Holler, Knoxville

Jay Nations at Raven Records, Central Street, Happy Holler, Knoxville

In 1994 he liquidated the collection and it appeared to be the end for the business. He sold ads for Metro Pulse for 3 1/2 years, but the viynl called out to him once more. A former employee offered to sell Jay his collection, he bought it, took the collection to Asheville for a record show and was back in business. For the next twelve years he sold online via ebay and Amazon, record shows and booths in consignment stores.

In record collecting part of the addiction is the hope that the next record will be the big find you’ve waited for. After meeting some industry people at a record store Jay was offered a chance to look at and bid on a collection. Located in a 5 story brown stone in New York City, he found the collection of David Gahr, the famed photographer of hundreds of renowned musicians from Janis Joplin to blues great Muddy Waters, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Jay Nations with the Original Raven Records Sign, Empire Deli, Knoxville, April 2015

Jay Nations with the Original Raven Records Sign, Empire Deli, Knoxville, April 2015

 

The collection spanned every room in the entire home – including bathrooms and came to a total of 19,000 albums, many sealed and promotional issues. To secure the collection required multiple trips to the city, a moving crew and a crew to box and prepare them for shipping. He ultimately recovered his money three times over, selling on sealed original copy of the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Mainstreet” for $300.

He also traveled internationally to participate in record shows. He did three in England and in 1993, participated in the only international record show ever to be held in Japan. He took five boxes of records and spent five days in Tokyo for the show held in the Tokyo Tower for a crowd of 5,000 participants.

In 2011, with the announcement of the Henley Bridge closure, he decided it was time for another change. He had records in five different locations, two of which were south of the river and decided to consolidate three. He called his friend Jack Stiles who had four storage units full of movies, movie paraphernalia, sound tracks and action figures. Jack was ready for a change, as well. Together they opened Raven Records and Rarities first at 5704 Kingston Pike in 2012 and a year later moved to 1200 N. Central St. in the heart of Happy Holler just as the area’s resurgence began to take hold.

So, the 30th anniversary of the original incarnation of the store seems an appropriate time to celebrate and that’s just what they are doing. Wednesday night, April 15 will be Raven Movie Night at Relix Theater showing four movies of regional interest, with the proceeds going to support WUTK. Thursday, April 16 is Raven Band Party night featuring Todd Steed, Tina Tarmac and the Burns, and Itchy and the Hater Tots. Many of the band members are former employees of Raven Records. Friday is 80’s rollback day with specials throughout the store and Saturday is Record Store Day with special products such as a colored White Stripes issue and other promotions.

Jay Nations with the Original Raven Records Sign, Empire Deli, Knoxville, April 2015

Jay Nations with the Original Raven Records Sign, Empire Deli, Knoxville, April 2015

Lest you think I’m over-estimating Jay and Raven Record’s impact on our local music scene, consider his current competitors. First, we have more record stores in Knoxville now than at any time the last three decades, at least. And each and everyone of his competitors is someone who started out as  a customer at Raven Records. That’s right, the owners of Lost and Found, Basement Records, Wild Honey and the Disc Exchange, learned the business from Jay.

So come out and celebrate if you’ve been a part of that story, if you appreciate what Jay and Raven’s Records have done for the city or if you just want to have a good time. It will be a great celebration. If you’ve never checked out Raven Records and Rarities, get to know them as they start the next thirty years of their journey.

Comments

  1. I’ll always remember the time I walked up to the counter at the Cumberland store with a copy of a Steve Jones solo album. Todd Steed was working the cash register and told me that if I thought it was going to sound like Jones’s old band the Sex Pistols, I would be disappointed. I ended up not buying it. It was that kind of place.

    • There’s a blast from the past. I had Jones’s solo album, but I was glad it didn’t sound like the Sex Pistols. Don’t know what ever happened to that thing.

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