The Charger Blog

University of New Haven Ethnomusicologist Reflects on Experiences Developing Own Record Label

Free Dirt Records, co-founded by Erica Haskell, associate professor and chair of the University’s Division of Performing Arts, has been receiving a lot of attention in the national press.

December 5, 2018

By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer

Image of Erica Haskell
Erica Haskell, Ph.D.

When it came time to choose a name for their record label, Erica Haskell, associate professor and chair of the University of New Haven’s Division of Performing Arts (music and theater departments), and her co-founder mulled over countless ideas, landing on Free Dirt Records.

“Dirt is underrated,” they explain on the label’s website. “Without it beneath us, we wouldn't be able to move forward. For us, growth isn't possible without an understanding of our roots and a clear and ethical sense of purpose.”

Rachel Baiman alumn art
Rachel Baiman album art, courtesy of Free Dirt Records

Launched in 2006, Free Dirt Records is getting lots of notice in the national press these days. One of their acts, singer and songwriter Rachel Baiman, was named one of “10 Country Artists You Need to Know” by Rolling Stone and profiled in The Independent Weekly and in NPR’s Songs We Love.

Folksingers Anna & Elizabeth took the stage last month at Carnegie Hall, and the label’s release of “Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969” of previously unreleased music by seminal bluegrass artists Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard has garnered much praise and was featured on NPR’s Fresh Air this fall. Over the summer, former coal miner and Old Regular Baptist singer Frank Newsome was interviewed about his Free Dirt Records-produced album “Gone Away With A Friend.”

“We are good at noticing artists with unique sounds and a high level of sincerity,” she says. “Authenticity is important.”

Haskell joined the University in 2012 after completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Graz in Austria. An ethnomusicologist who has done groundbreaking research on the music of post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, she also researches refugee music and has created courses including the “Politics of Music,” “Illegality in Music and Theater” and “American Roots Music.”

She likes what her blend of experiences in academia and the music industry show her students – that it’s possible to do many things. “It’s powerful to be able to speak to the students from a position of experience versus having only studied something from afar,” she says. “I met the co-founder of Free Dirt Records, John Smith, when I was our students’ age doing an internship at Smithsonian Folkways Records. So I know how important experience in the industry can be for them.”

“Watching our department grow and deliver a meaningful and useful curriculum inspires me."Erica Haskell

She’s energized by the artists she works with, just as she is by her students and colleagues. “Our students arrive to our program with so many inspiring ideas about the impact they can have on the industry,” she says. “I feel very passionate about our students and helping them to achieve their dreams.”

She notes that University of New Haven alumni are in graduate school in music industry at NYU and sound recording at the University of Rochester, and a number are working in Nashville as a result of the connections they made through the University’s study away program there. Current student bands she’s worked with, such as Crystal Clear and On the Fritz, actively perform and record in the area.

“Watching our department grow and deliver a meaningful and useful curriculum inspires me,” she says. “We have an impressive faculty who, together, offer a multifaceted view of the world of music to our students.”

“It’s powerful to be able to speak to the students from a position of experience versus having only studied something from afar.”Erica Haskell

Equally stimulating is the opportunity to share the experiences – and many successes – from her own label in her classes.

"It's a really wonderful thing to find that after so many years the label is finally getting attention, I believe, it deserves,” she says.