By Chris K. Davidson
Photos by Lindsey Culver
No matter how many times you have been to Huffstutler’s Hardware on Central Avenue, you might not know what’s across the street from it: the headquarters of one of Birmingham’s best and burgeoning record labels, sitting in an unassuming two-story building surrounded by auto repair shops.
In fact, the building used to be a car wash—but 15 years ago appealed to Cornelius Chapel Records label manager Wes McDonald when he was looking for a space that had a big room in it to record live bands. “We slowly made it into a studio,” Wes says. “It went up for sale, and the guy I was renting it from asked if I was interested. It’s such a great location. You’ve got a hardware store next door, auto body shops, the Village and you can walk to anywhere you need. And very little yard maintenance. It’s an older building, but it’s served us well.” Today label operations happen on the top floor and Ol’ Elegante Studio (run by Wes’s former bandmate, Les Nuby) occupy the bottom level.
Since it started in 2009, Cornelius Chapel has put out over 50 albums from artists in the South, the Midwest and the Northeast in digital, CD, cassette and vinyl formats. Elliott McPherson, the frontman for Alabama’s legendary garage punk rockers the Dexateens, founded it, but Wes took it over in 2016 after Cornelius Chapel put out his former band Vulture Whale’s final album Aluminium. “I sold a business that I was in and offered to help. I eventually I was running the label on a day-to-day basis, then I became a partner in the label with those two guys [McPherson and label partner Scott Zuppardo]. Then we started trying in earnest to make it more of a legitimate label that was more active.” Wes’s solo project Terry Ohms has released several albums on Cornelius Chapel too.
Cornelius Chapel’s roster features an array of bands and songwriters that run the gamut from Americana (Will Stewart, Caleb Caudle, Sarah Lee Langford and Austin Lucas) to psychedelic and experimental (People Years, Terry Ohms) to shoegaze and alternative (The Dirty Clergy, Holiday Gunfire and Dree Leer). The label’s musically agnostic approach to genre seems to have served them well over the course of their history.
“We do put out a lot of different types and genres of music, but everything goes right back to the beginning,” says Scott, the label’s New Jersey-based partner since 2012 whose music journalism credentials have included stints at Magnet Magazine and No Depression. “It’s a feeling of desperately wanting to get something out. It comes out in whatever form whether it’s bebop, jazz, banjo music, punk rock, whatever it needs to be. It’s great to weave all of these styles together and make it our own tapestry. We’re not following any trend. We’re just trying to follow our hearts, and I hope that leads us to the right place. I know we’ll keep fighting for it.”
It’s that fighting spirit (and their tongue-in-cheek slogan of “We’ve Never Heard of You Either.”) that pushes Cornelius Chapel Records to get their artists heard in a business where it is increasingly more difficult to find success.
“There are just so many bands now releasing things all the time,” says Wes. “It’s such a crowded field and really oversaturated. On any one day, there are thousands of songs released; upwards of 25,000 songs are released on Spotify each day. The problem for getting noticed is to stand out from a huge crowd. A lot of times, it’s just luck when getting attention.”
Recent victories for the label include both The Dirty Clergy and Holiday Gunfire getting songs placed on SHOWTIME’s Shameless (Holiday Gunfire also had a song on Animal Kingdom with Ellen Barkin). They also received distribution through Symphonic Distribution and Amped Distribution (a subsidiary of Alliance Entertainment) as well as distribution in Europe through Proper Distribution. Even in the unstable atmosphere of COVID and tour cancellations, the label released several albums and EPs in 2020, including new releases from The Dirty Clergy, Les Nuby, People Years, Austin Lucas, Will Stewart, Terry Ohms, Jaco Witch’s Wall and Eleganza. They hope 2021 is even bigger.
“It’s definitely been a crazy year,” Scott says. “We were both concerned and we both have young families. I was in the thick of it in the beginning. I didn’t leave my house for a couple of months when it was first getting going. But whatever was going to happen, we knew that had to keep this going as a creative outlet for our artists. That’s ultimately why we do this in the first place.”
“I feel strongly about the artists that we have chosen to put forth to try and solidify themselves in the world,” Wes says. “We’ve been more successful at that than others. I really can’t tell you why. We try to find the diamonds in the rough, people who are writing and producing music that is the stuff they want to do, and not because they’re trying to appeal to anyone else or trying to fit the mold of something that sells. These are real artists with something to offer.”
A Cornelius Chapel Mixtape
- “The Times” by Austin Lucas
- “Southern Raphael” by Will Stewart
- “King of the Mountain” by Terry Ohms
- “Nuevan” by Holiday Gunfire
- “I Won’t Go” by Dree Leer
- “Trials” by The Dirty Clergy
- “Painted Lady” by Sarah Lee Langford
- “Not Really Surfing” by People Years
- “Teenage Hallelujah” by the Dexateens
- “Bluebird” by JACO
- “Never Falling Away” by Les Nuby