Photo: Scott Willis Photography
Whether in life, or the music industry, Connie Collingsworth and Travis Blakenship, co-founders of La Honda Records, are not interested in the status quo. My introductions to both of them were unconventional.
For Collingsworth, it was on the General Jackson riverboat floating down the Cumberland River in Nashville. Instead of the same tired “nice-to-meet-you” scripts about work and family, we geeked out about historic cattle brands.
For Blankenship (moniker Rural Sultan), we spent our extended time together driving on the backroads of a 90,000-acre Colorado ranch, getting Colter Wall’s tour van stuck in the mud. These weren’t unusual first impressions. When Collingsworth and Blankenship call meetings with Grammy executives, it’s not in a generic, lavishly decorated 5-star hotel restaurant; it’s at the nearly century-old Brown’s Diner, a favorite of late music greats like John Prine and Elvis Presley.
When their artists come to Nashville, they don’t book a Hampton Inn; they book Hank Snow’s Rainbow Ranch. Their reverence for music and appreciation for the alternative dictates everything they do–including their hand-selected roster of artists: Colter Wall, Riddy Arman, Vincent Neil Emerson, The Local Honeys, and Bryce Lewis.
Today we met up in a log cabin 20 minutes East of downtown Nashville. The two of them sit like bookends in midcentury leather chairs. With his usual Carhartt overalls and steady gaze, Travis gives off the impression of intimidation, quickly dampened by his shirt with hearts and “Sultan & TayTay” airbrushed letters (a vacation memento with his fiance). Next to him, Connie wears smart horn-rimmed glasses and an Alice Cooper t-shirt she created, a reminder of the thousands of hours she’s spent in the design world.
We’ve met to discuss their personal histories, the creation of La Honda, their careful selection of artists, the recent joint venture with RCA Records, and the imminent release of Colter Wall’s Little Songs on July 14th.
By doing things their way since the start, the pair have slowly curated the La Honda Sound. It is a sound pursued not because of its commercial appeal but because of its personal appeal. For Collingsworth prioritizing projects they find value in takes precedence over strategic professional moves. “We don’t always do projects that are the best business moves. We do things because we want our name on it. We do it because we want it out in the world.”
In an ironic twist, that is exactly why they are successful.
Anna LoPinto: How did you two meet?
Travis: I was a long-time admirer of Connie’s art with Print Mafia. Her work brought me to live music. Then in 2015, I had the good fortune of meeting her and her wife, Stacey at a BBQ restaurant in Kentucky. Stacey bought me a banana pudding.
Connie: That was a life-changing banana pudding. (laughs)
Travis: It was.
Anna: Connie, what was your background with Print Mafia?
Connie: Print Mafia was a design company I co-created with my friend Jim Madison in 1997. At the time, we were both independently doing little weird art projects and decided to open a store in Bowling Green, Kentucky, called Barking Dog. We sold art books, collectibles, and music posters. We were also doing screen printing on our porches and had the idea to start making music posters in exchange for admission to concerts.
Anna: So free concert tickets were the initial motivation?
Connie: Yes. Then about that time, Frank Kozik put out his first art book. In the dedication, he explained how he started [making concert posters]. He’d give a venue 25 posters in exchange for selling 25 posters [and keeping the profits]. We thought, ‘hot damn,’ we should be making money from this! So we did.
We ended up having a career for almost 22 years. We went all over the country, sold art all over the world, and our work is in books and nice galleries. With time we worked with Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Tool, Kiss, The White Stripes, Interpol, Lucinda Williams, and all sorts of folks. Even now, I’ll walk into a convenience store, and there will be an air freshener with a Kiss graphic I designed.
Anna: When did Colter Wall come into the picture?
Connie: In 2015, I started making merch for Colter. In those early days, he used a portion of the profits to help offset the cost of tour. In 2016 I started my own merch and art direction company, Ridin’ High Productions.
Anna: Travis, were you an English professor before your time with Colter and La Honda?
Travis: Yes. I taught English classes at Indiana University Southeast and a community college in Louisville. The first time I canceled a class was to see Colter play a show at Skyville in Nashville. At one point, Colter said to me, ‘There’s this job called being a tour manager. Do you want it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but I learned along the way. Then I realized around 2016, alright, I’m not a teacher anymore.
Anna: I imagine you were the coolest teacher.
Travis: I don’t know if I was a cool teacher, but I wasn’t an easy teacher.
Anna: What did it look like to go from teaching to being a tour manager?
Connie: I think what people don’t realize is that he gave up safety and security. As well as insurance, including a steady paycheck with raises and incentives.
Travis: I was in it. It was a career for me. But then I was like, huh, I like how this guy sings. (laughs) But truthfully, I always considered myself a storyteller, and I thought, well, I can keep being a teacher and tell that story–or I can go on this awesome life-living adventure and tell that story later.
Connie: I gave up security ending Print Mafia, and Travis gave up security leaving his teaching career, but to both of us, it was worth it. I’m telling visual stories. It was intriguing to go all in and say: I want to help show what these songs look like–to create a visual look to an artist’s career. I became obsessed with it.
Anna: When did it come to the point where you decided to start the La Honda record label?
Travis: I started managing Vincent Neil Emerson, but before I did, I asked Colter about it, and he said, ‘If you’re not managing that guy, you’re making a mistake.’ We were trying to find a home for Fried Chicken & Evil Women but weren’t finding the right fit. So I thought, let’s create our own space and put that record out. Once Connie heard I was planning to put out the Vincent record, she asked me, ‘Do you want to start a label?’
Anna: I need more details. (laughs)
Connie: It was 2019. After an Ian Noe Nashville album release, we went for a drink. Which for me means drinking a Coke. I’ve always been interested in a record label, [and I told Travis] let’s make our own. I know parts of it from the Colter records. Travis knows parts of it, and I’m sure what we didn’t know we could figure out. We’re both smart, and we aren’t scared to ask people for information.
Anna: And you both have a history of doing things that are unconventional and having success with it. In those early days, how did you divide the tasks?
Connie: From the start, I knew I could do the art side and manufacturing part of it, and Travis had the digital experience and the connections I don’t have or care to have. (laughs) It was just one record at the time, and we had no idea there would be other records.
Anna: Really? You thought it might be a one-and-done?
Connie: We started by printing and financing 500 CDs. Then, we thought we’d sell those to sell 500 vinyls. From the start, we knew that if we were going to put out records, we would put out vinyl. But we also knew CDs were quick and easy and cheap. Any money we made, we’d put back in. There wasn’t any talk of like–what else are we going to do and what does this mean? And who does what, and who are we going to partner with? The only thing we said half-joking was, who knows, maybe a big company will want to partner with us someday. (laughs)
Anna: When did you decide you wanted to grow it?
Connie: It wasn’t really up to us.
Travis: I was with Colter, meeting with an A&R (artists and repertoire) rep from a label and one of the executives. We were sitting around the table, and the A&R fella goes, ‘Colter have you thought about where you want your new record to be?’ And Colter said, ‘Yeah, Travis and Connie have a label, La Honda Records. It’s going to be on that.’ I had no idea Colter was even considering that.
Connie: Travis texted me, ‘Connie! I think Colter just said the next record might be on La Honda records.’ I was like, ‘huh?!’ (laughs)
Travis: When Colter said that it took me aback. The two of us sitting there with these executives from a record label, with him to say that, and in my mind, I immediately thought, ‘yeah, La Honda Records is a real fuckin record label now.’
Anna: I didn’t realize you had started it before Colter was a part of it.
Connie: We never would’ve asked him. We would never go, ‘Hey, will you put your record on our label?’
Anna: Well, I think that’s why you have a good relationship. He’s going to do what resonates with him and knows what he wants or doesn’t want.
A guiding principle of La Honda is not to promote a specific genre of music but ‘what is good.’ Can you expand on that?
Travis: I think there’s a spirit of music that exists in some sounds and doesn’t exist in other sounds. And to truly make a good record, you have to let that spirit resonate within the recording. That happens when people aren’t trying to write songs. It’s what comes to them naturally, the things they’re born with. That’s Colter Wall, that’s Vincent Neil Emerson, that’s Riddy Arman. These are songs that are so emotive they have to exist. The people who are singing them have to sing them. To me, that’s what makes music good.
Connie: And it wasn’t planned, but we have a roster of storytellers. They’re telling different stories, but they resonate with many of the same people. I think they identify with the authenticity, the sense of adventure or freedom.
Anna: La Honda has a distinctive sound. It’s not the formulaic bullshit of red solo cups, a pick-up truck, and this generic wash of country music songwriting. A lot of your artists have a strong sense of place. From Colter and Vincent to Riddy and The Local Honeys, and now Bryce Lewis. Is that intentional?
Connie: I’m sure there’s something that we were drawn to. Yeah, it’s things that we like, things that resonate with us.
Anna: Speaking of that sense of place that extends to the label’s name, La Honda. What’s the story behind that?
Connie: I watched this series called The Sixties by CNN. It’s all about counterculture–LSD acid tests, Ken Kesey, Beatniks, The Grateful Dead, all that stuff. They said the phrase, ‘Ken Kesey at his home in La Honda, California.’ I thought that was a cool word. I looked up the town and discovered the beat poets, Neil Young, and Hunter S. Thompson had all lived there. Like I do, I became obsessed. I tried to work that name into various projects for years, so when the label came up, it fit.
Anna: Almost like a Laurel Canyon.
Connie: Yeah. It’s kind of this mythic place. Off the beaten path with experimentation going on. Writers are drawn to it, musicians are drawn to it, and activists are drawn to it. I like what this town represents.
Anna: What’s a music experience you’ll never forget?
Connie: My parents were avid music fans, and we saw everybody when I was a little girl. We saw Jerry Reed, Vern Gosdin, Statler Brothers, and Johnny Cash. We even saw a no-show George Jones; he came out drunk, sang two songs, and left. My first concert was Waylon Jennings and Jessie Colter with Hank Junior opening. I was so little, sitting on the floor, and I remember asking my mom, ‘What’s that smell?’ It was obviously weed, but she said, ‘It’s strawberry incense.’ (laughs)
Anna: Independent of music, what works of art have had a profound effect on you?
Travis: What I’ve studied mostly in my life is poetry; the most apt thing for me to say would be poems. I really started to understand myself when I read Frank Stanford. He wrote in a way that seemed unlike any other poem I ever read in my whole life. His tone felt similar to me. That will always stand out as something that changed my perspective on what was possible.
Anna: What advice would you give someone who wanted to pitch to La Honda?
Connie: Don’t pitch. (laughs)
Travis: It’s accurate. You have to tell someone who you are but don’t sell yourself.
Connie: We get a lot of submissions. We have folks who will email us and write four or five paragraphs telling me who they are and what their music is. If I listen to your music, I should know who you are. I would rather they’d just go here’s an album I’ve been working on and let us listen to it. Otherwise, they’ve already predetermined what I think about. And if it isn’t what they say, what’re we supposed to do about it? Let the music speak for itself.
Anna: That’s great advice.
Connie: If Riddy [Arman] had sent us “Spirits, Angels, or Lies” and told us what it was, it would have been less effective when we heard it on Western as Fuck.
Travis: Everybody who submits something [who we don’t move forward with], we’re missing out. Everybody’s got something special about them. You have to have something special about you to create a record or make an album, or put a song out. It’s all art.
Anna: For newer artists, or even artists in general, trying to get some momentum, what advice would you give them?
Connie: Just make stuff. That’s been my motto my entire life since I started doing creative stuff, is keep making, keep doing, and everything evolves. Something is going to strike somehow somewhere. It might not be a record deal, but you’re doing something.
Travis: Expectation is an odd thing–especially when you make art. I think a lot of people want a result, but there is no result from making art except for communicating this message or communicating whatever the song means. Songs are important, and lyrics matter–but if you get mad about somebody not liking something you made, it just wasn’t for them.
Anna: What is your new joint venture with RCA Records?
Travis: To me, RCA was like, we dig what you all do. We don’t want to get in the way of it, but we want to help you out. We find music we like, and if it aligns with RCA, they help with distribution.
Connie: They recognized what we were doing and liked it enough to want to be in business with us. We keep doing what we do, and with RCA, we get a bigger push for some projects. We also get larger distribution that allows us to amplify these voices on our roster and seek out new artists to work with, knowing we have this increased reach. But it’s business as usual as far as creative control and decision-making in regards to our vision of this label. The first joint release is Colter Wall’s, Little Songs.
(John Fleckenstein from RCA Records contacted Saddle Mountain Post to say: We’re thrilled to be partnering with La Honda Records and Colter Wall. With his distinct point of view and sound, Colter is a one-of-a-kind talent with an incredible artistic vision. We look forward to what the future holds in working with him and La Honda co-founders Travis and Connie.)
Anna: Travis, as someone who spends much of their life with Colter Wall, what is one of your favorite moments together?
Travis: You know, I’ve seen more Colter Wall shows than anyone else on this earth other than Colter Wall. I’ve seen him play quite a few amazing places and heard his sound through each of his years. I’ve probably spent more time with him than any other human. It’s a lot to pick from, but I’ll always remember when the tide was turning when he was singing Blue Yodel Number 8. He was yodeling on stage and fucking nailing it. People were losing their minds.
That was a good moment. I love this music. It’s significant, and I think it deserves its place in the history of country music.