The Label Makers: Big Turnip Records

Big Turnip Records’ turnip-headed mascot.

The Label Makers spotlights independent record labels from across so-called Canada. This month’s featured label is Dartmouth’s Big Turnip Records.

Yes, Dylan Jewers, co-founder of the Dartmouth-based folk, country, and blues-focused label, Big Turnip Records, loves turnips. But that’s not what the label’s name is about.

In the middle of recording the compilation Big Turnips Vol. 1 (Folk, Country & Blues From Atlantic Canada and Beyond), which features 11 artists, including Mama’s Broke, BASIL, and Mike T. Kerr, Jewers was at a loss as to what to call the label’s inaugural release. That is until he and Kerr were downtown doing a show together, and Kerr saw a sign — literally. 

“There’s a very famous Nova Scotian journalist, and then he became a politician and public figure, from the mid-1800s whose name was Joseph Howe. There’s a park in downtown Dartmouth in his honour that has an iron podium with a placard on the front with a cartoon of him and a quote,” Jewers explains. “The quote, in reference to succeeding in Nova Scotia, is: ‘You don’t need a big field to raise a big turnip.’”

Big Turnip Records is a big turnip in the sense that it’s a substantial project and a product of the rich ecosystem of roots musicians from the past and present. The label began with a compilation album helmed by Jewers and Stephen McIntosh. The recording for what would become Big Turnips Vol. 1 (released in early 2019) started in 2017 at the studios in the Halifax Public Library

“The impetus [for Vol. 1] was that I was surrounded by all of these people who are very talented, but they’re not really doing much. In the Maritimes, and I imagine in Newfoundland too, there are so many talented artists in general, not just musicians, but they don’t treat it like a career. They don’t treat it like they need to be doing it for an audience or for money; it’s just a thing that they do,” says Jewers.

“I’ve always been more interested in performance, and I like showing things off, and if I think that someone wrote a great song, I want everybody to hear that great song. So I just tried to kick my friends in the ass a bit, I guess.”

A couple of months after Vol. 1 was released, Jewers connected with the Helen Creighton Folklore Society (as Jewers describes, Creighton is “the most prolific Canadian folklorist of all-time.”) and he started working out of the studio in Evergreen House, a now heritage home where Creighton once lived. Eventually, he began recording the tracks for a second compilation, a collection released in late 2019 that celebrates more diverse styles of folk music entitled Big Turnips Vol. 2: Traditionals & Standards From Scotland, England, Ireland, Iran, Ghana, America & Atlantic Canada.

Jewers always had a passion for music history. As a teenager, he got really into music from the ‘20s and ‘30s through listening to artists like Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival, who were often inspired by traditional American, Irish, and English songs. Nirvana’s cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” as heard on MTV Unplugged in New York, also had a huge impact on Jewers. Later through friends and musicians like Mama’s Broke Amy Lou Keeler, he was introduced to more and more artists and recordings from the past. 

“I’ve always liked old stuff, and there’s something about the rough-edged quality of those records that I’ve always really liked,” Jewers says. “Before I started getting super into the old music from America, I was just fascinated with blues and folk songs where you hear recycled lines and recycled melodies – I almost looked at it as puzzle pieces. As the years go on, I’ve gotten more and more into it. Now I’m trying to focus a little more on getting local Maritime songs that are somewhat unknown into the forefront and trying to pair them with contemporary players who I think could do a good job with them.”

Big Turnip’s primary goal is to preserve and perform folk, blues, roots, and traditional music primarily from Atlantic Canada. Artists are not formally signed to the label, and often Jewers views an artist’s interest in working with Big Turnip as a big favour to him. In addition to the two compilations, the label has also released Folk Songs & Broadside Ballads From The Helen Creighton Collection, performed by Blue Lobelia, tracks from swampy-blues artist Keith Hallett and country band The Ordeals, and an LP by folk/country artist BASIL. Earlier this year, they released a single from singer-songwriter Callum Gaudet and a bluesy/country EP from BASIL & The Red​-​Bellied Pikes. 

Jewers, who is now the sole owner/operator of Big Turnip Records, has also expanded to concert and events promotion (Big Turnip will present Leif Vollbekk at Christ Church in Dartmouth on November 5th.) Through that work, Jewers has been able to record some of the artists he books, including Vancouver-based country singer Petunia, who will release two tracks via the label soon.

“Every agreement that I’ve had with people has been different. We discuss it, and I’m happy to do whatever works for the person – it’s all just handshake deals,” Jewers explains. “Everyone knows that no one is getting rich off of any of this shit, but it’s not really about that. It really is a labour of love and a passion project. I just want to help where I can.” 

“I’m probably going to keep doing this until I’m dead,” he adds. “If the records can pay for themselves, the artists can make money, and I’m not broke, then I can do this forever.”

While Big Turnips Vol. 3 is still a couple of years away, Jewers says that he would love for at least half of the songs to be sung not in English and will engage more with artists from the Chinese, Lebanese, Greek, Indian, Pakistani, and Iranian communities who all have deep roots in Nova Scotia. Jewers has also been busy putting together another collection of recordings from the Helen Creighton archives. His pursuit of getting great songs heard feels unwavering. 

“Throughout this country, in every corner, there’s always going to be cool songs being sung and great players,” says Jewers. “One of the things that I’ve always felt that Canadian musicians excelled at is musicianship. I think there have really been some remarkable and innovative musicians in this country. I’ve been lucky to meet and be friends with some of the best guitar players and fiddlers and bass players and singers that I’ve ever heard. I just want to help and be around and do whatever I can to facilitate. If there’s something that I can do to help them, then I’m happy to.”

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