On Oct. 31, 2008, Ben Blackwell was standing outside Kansas City barbeque spot Arthur Bryant’s when he got a call from his uncle, Jack White.
“’Hey, I have this idea. Let’s start a label,’” Blackwell recalls White saying. “’All these White Stripes records, the rights are reverting back to the band. Let’s put them out on vinyl.’” Blackwell jumped in wholeheartedly — he packed up and made the move from Detroit to Nashville, where he, co-founder Ben Swank and White started Third Man Records.
Blackwell says before the move, his now-wife wanted to throw a going-away party but he wasn’t so sure. “When she asked me why, I said, ‘There’s a possibility we might be back in three months.’” Now, almost a decade later, TMR has become a globally recognized franchise complete with two storefronts (Nashville and Detroit), a brand-new pressing plant that opened in February, a label home to rising folksy country artists like Margo Price, Craig Brown and Lillie Mae, and much more. As a result of such constant momentum, Third Man Records was offered a month-long residency on Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio: Third Man Soundsystem.
“In its first couple years, most people thought about Third Man as a label that just put out Jack White’s records, which was largely true, but it wasn’t exclusively true,” says Blackwell. “We’re putting out artists that are getting traction who aren’t Jack White and also aren’t in the traditional rock ‘n’ roll wheelhouse that I think most people ascribe to us. [Third Man Soundsystem] opens us up for a deeper look, a recontextualization.”
Both Blackwell and Swank — one of White’s childhood friends from Detroit (“I liked Jack straight off. He was a really interesting person who wanted to talk about more than getting drunk,” he says) — who spearheaded the weekly show, appear on each episode (the first one aired May 4). Swank explains how Zane Lowe was “psyched” about the initial idea and that working with Beats 1 has been a “dream collaboration.” While White is still co-founder of competitor TIDAL — White will appear on Thursday night’s (May 11) episode — Swank says they discussed having a show on Apple and agreed it was a positive opportunity. “This is the kind of place where if you’re really inspired by something, Jack wants you to take the reins and make it happen,” he says.
Swank feels the radio show allows for himself and Blackwell to help pull back the curtain on the many things that happen at TMR, whether it’s past releases or upcoming projects. “I think there’s a public perception that we’re a fairly secretive bunch of people, that the world of Third Man Records is off-limits in some ways — some of that was by design in the early days, but some of it is just that we’re off the map here in Nashville compared to a lot of the industry on the coasts,” he offers. “Any time someone gives us an opportunity to let more people into this world, I welcome it.”
The first episode saw the Bens discuss some of their favorite records TMR has put out, like the 1985 album Texas Funeral from alt-country quartet Jon Wayne and a 7-inch titled A Glorious Dawn that takes parts of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series — featuring Stephen Hawking — and puts it to ambient beats composed by John Boswell (White later used this fitting record to make history by being the first vinyl launched into space). In the remaining three episodes, Swank shares that they will revisit more of their archives and also discuss the Blue Series project (songs recorded and produced by White at Third Man Studios in Nashville) and its accompanying book The Blue Series: The Story Behind the Color — released as a Record Store Day exclusive — as well as the upcoming production and release of American Epic, a series that explores the roots of music in America and around the world,that TMR partnered with Sony and PBS on.
As evidenced by the endless variety of projects TMR churns out — Swank says the label releases an average of a record a week — Blackwell admits, “There’s no clear-cut way anything works around here; the vision is what guides everything. Jack didn’t set up myself and Swank and say, ‘OK, run the company.’ No, he’s really involved, and that shows. His passion and his attention to detail shines through on everything we do.”
Third Man Soundsystem airs each Thursday in the month of May at 10 p.m. ET.