Highland resident working to grow record label in ’13

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published January 10, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 8, 2013 at 2:01 p.m.
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Highland resident Jeff Todd turned his love of blues music into a career managing artists when he founded Old Dog’s Records. This year, he plans to organize festivals around the country to bring his artists’ music to new audiences.

— If Jeff Todd hadn’t stopped in northeast Arkansas while hitchhiking from Florida to California in the ’70s, his record label would be in Kansas City right now.

Instead, the small Sharp County town of Highland is home to Old Dog’s Records, a blues-focused record label run by Todd and a small staff stationed across the country.

Leaving his home state of Florida five months ago, Todd plugged in the route to Kansas City on his GPS.

“It told me to come this way,” Todd said. “I looked at all the cedar, the deer, and I thought, ‘This might be the place for me to make a change in my life.’”

After spending a couple of days in Kansas City, Todd headed back to the Highland area, a place he remembered from his decades-old trip to California. A month later, he bought property there, and a few months after that, he made the move permanent.

“It’s just me and my puppy and the cat who came out of the woods,” Todd said.

Now, Todd is up by 6 or 7 a.m., catching up online with what may have happened on the West Coast after he went to bed. His label is working with around seven bands, including his own, and every day means posting on social-media networks and trying to pull in as many likes and listens as possible for the artists he’s trying to make mainstream.

Most of the artists and promoters Todd works with live hundreds of miles away, but cellphones and laptops make it possible for work to get done anywhere. Even in Highland.

“It’s relaxing here,” Todd said. “I can get ahold of anything I need to get ahold of. Our bands are all self-sufficient.”

Todd launched Old Dog’s Records after a few years of trying his hand at managing acts and playing out on his own. Todd’s enduring love for blues music started in the mid-’80s while he was working as a commercial fisherman in Florida.

“Everyone had a guitar on the boats,” Todd said. “One thing led to another, and I started writing songs.”

It was Jimmy Buffett that first caught Todd’s attention. He can still play nearly every Buffett song. From there, his tastes went more early Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and The Allman Brothers.

“It’s always been the blues for me,” Todd said. “I’ve seen a bit of life — marriage,

divorce, disappointment. And those experiences are how I started writing songs.”

Following a string of Florida hurricanes in 2004, Todd helped organize a relief concert, with money and canned food going to local shelters. With a successful concert under his belt, Todd quickly began managing acts under the name JTB promotions, while still performing on the side.

But after years of working to get his bands booked in small clubs and bars across the county, Todd discovered that it’s hard to get small bands in front of big crowds on tour. A band with a good following in Little Rock just won’t have the same impact in Oklahoma City, Todd explained.

“But all these bands want to tour,” Todd said. “It’s a sort of elevated status and part of a goal to have other people hear the music.”

So Todd came up with a new way to tour. Instead of trying to book Old Dog’s Records bands’ individual gigs, the whole group will be playing in a series of family-friendly music festivals this year.

“We’ll have blues, country, soft rock and folk rock,” Todd said. “We eventually want to do nine or 10 or 11 dates.”

Todd plans for the festivals to start in Tallahassee in early March, followed by dates in Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and, hopefully, his new home state of Arkansas. The festivals will aim for mid-sized towns and will be staged in public parks, where the shows are accessible to family crowds. He hopes the Old Dog’s Records Full Throttle Tour will draw fans at each stop, despite an economy that’s kept many sports and music fans from buying tickets.

“It’s the drive to keep the blues alive that makes me work this hard,” Todd said. “I love this end of the business and putting on these shows.”

To supplement his income, Todd works at his own sawmill, making custom wood furniture under the name Deep South Cypress & Cedar Creations. Now that he’s located in the middle of the U.S., shipping costs for his furniture are much more manageable. Now that he’s settled into Highland, Todd can’t imagine going back to any other life.

“I just didn’t want anymore of the problems that cities have,” Todd said. “There’s great scenery, people. It’s a simpler life. And when I’m ready to go do a show, I can just drive to Kansas City or Memphis or Little Rock and drive back. I just love it.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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