Windham Hill pioneers snub 'new age' label
January 17, 2000
Web posted at: 3:18 p.m. EST (2018 GMT)
From Brooke Alexander
CNN WorldBeat Correspondent
(CNN) -- Windham Hill Records is the label behind more artists on the new age charts than any other. The company was created by Will Ackerman, who signed the legendary George Winston. Together, they were pioneers of a new musical age. But they both reject the term "new age music."
"I've always been sort of resentful of the term 'new age,'" Ackerman says. "I mean, I've been around for a long time before they started pinning that thing on me, and I was never very comfortable with the term in general."
And Winston, who was nominated for a Grammy this year in the best new age album category for his latest release, "Plains," calls himself a "rural folk piano" player.
"The 'new age' term really isn't accurate for what I do, just like jazz wasn't accurate," Winston says. "It's really ... folk piano, it's folky and simple."
Yet artists in the new age music category have a large and devoted audience. Why quibble with terminology? Ackerman says it detracts from his musicians.
"I guess part of what I don't like about 'new age,'" he says, "is that it bespeaks a whole lifestyle orientation that really has nothing to do with the musicians of Windham Hill. Nor were we selling anything beyond music. I mean, we weren't selling a lifestyle. We weren't, you know, selling crystals. This was about music and music only.
"The 'new age' term bothers me in that it became sort of a cynical marketing thing on the part of the major labels. They wanted to cash in on what Windham Hill and a few other labels were doing, and so subsumed it into new age."
'You have to put things somewhere'
But Winston says he can understand retailers' determination to force the classification upon him.
"If you're going to (sell in) record stores, you have to put things somewhere. I guess maybe there's not a lot of folk pianists, and I probably sound more like new age than I sound like speed metal."
Ackerman, who stepped down as CEO of Windham Hill in 1984, got a Grammy nomination for his 1998 album, "Sound of Wind Driven Rain." Both he and Winston are top-selling artists on Windham Hill.
Winston first approached Ackerman in 1979 as a fan of Ackerman's early records. Ackerman recalls sitting in the pianist's kitchen, where he says Winston "played some of the best slide guitar" he'd ever heard. "And right then and there I said, 'You're doing a record, you're on the label.'"
But there's a reason Winston isn't known today for strumming the strings.
"I was crashing at his place," Ackerman says, "and I remember putting a sleeping bag out on the couch and he said the fateful words, 'Do you mind if I play the piano a little bit while you're going to sleep?' No, I don't mind. And I woke up in the morning, I said, 'George, what was that stuff you were playing?' He said, 'That's more of my music.' And I said, 'I think we're going to do a piano album first.'"
Nonetheless, slide guitar remains close to Winston's heart. To record his slide guitar compositions, he founded Dancing Cat Records.
"As far as what George does, he's just the most honest musician I've ever known in my life," Ackerman says. "He means every note of what he plays. He invests himself emotionally in what he does and he's a damn fine player."
Winston says he's still working to build on his abilities -- "primarily, these days, by studying Henry Butler. He's the great jazz and rhythm and blues pianist from New Orleans, and he's been my main teacher for about the last 15 years, and I'll be studying him for decades to come. I'm just now starting to scratch the surface."