This week the Nashville Film Festival takes place presenting some of the best in independent films, short form programs and documentaries. Being in Music City, of course there is some focus on music in film.
One of those music documentaries is Big Old Goofy World: The Story of Oh Boy Records, a look into the 40 year history of one of the most beloved independent labels in Nashville founded by one of the most beloved musicians John Prine. Directors Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard talked about the process of making the documentary and the inspiration Prine had on independent music.
Marquis Munson: I want to start by saying you guys are musicians in your own right. But your team has also worked on some documentaries and music videos for The Killers, Jason Isbell, John Prine, just to name a few. When did you guys get the idea to dive deep into the history of Old Boy Records?
Joshua Britt: We worked with John for years. He was one of our first artists we worked for and one of our favorites. I was a giant John Prine fan growing up, I played all songs with my family. We were already deep in the John Prine world. Oh Boy Records, they’re just one of the coolest labels around. They gave us access to all these old archival hard drives with footage of John and just crazy stuff that we got to use for the film. We worked with Oh Boy and we wanted to tell this great story of what they did with independent music and created a new world for artists like us because we were independent artists as well.
MM: It had to be hard because when they give you this footage, obviously there’s a lot of it. This is a under an hour documentary. So it had to be really hard to determine the stuff you were going to use for this documentary.
JB: We had hours of footage of watching them eat catfish at a restaurant for like an hour [Laughs]. We were just like, ‘Is there anything cool here?’ It just felt like we were there by the end.
MM: How did your music making backgrounds and admiration for John Prine shape your approach to this documentary?
Neilson Hubbard: Well, I think just us getting involved in music videos at all. When we first started, I was producing a record for Josh’s band. With a couple of people, we ended up making this band. We actually did our first documentary called Soundtrack to a Ghost Story, which we made a record in a Haunted house and we just filmed it like idiots. Thinking that would be a good idea. That’s how it really started, it was just from music. I think we edit based off music, we think musically. So I think a lot of the things we’ve worked on, obviously music videos, but even our documentary stuff it always has a musical component to it. I think that’s just how we feel emotionally is through music because that’s our background. So it worked that way with this one perfectly because John’s the greatest, one of the greatest ever. And we had access to all that music, which was awesome.
JB: John Prine and Oh Boy Records, just as a whole, is an incredibly fun subject. What we learned from John is no matter what you’re doing or how serious you think your job is, just have fun with it. Be nice, enjoy people, and enjoy the things you do. So everything about this documentary is made like that, and that’s what inspired our music videos as well. As we’ve gone, we’ve made some wild music videos. We spent most of our time with John just trying to make him laugh with our music videos, and that was our favorite feeling in the world. I think the sentiment of this film is hoping he’s up in heaven laughing at some of the stuff we were able to put in there.
MM: John Prine was so beloved by so many people crossing generations and has worked with so many people. Even when I talk to you guys, when you mention the name John Prine, it’s like an immediate smile from people who knew him and was able to be around him and work with them. So how did you guys determine which voices to include in this documentary?
NH: Well, the ones that we talk to us [Laughs].
JB: The ones we can find [Laughs].
NH: Honestly, John was not there so we couldn’t talk to him. Even though we had footage of when we had worked in interviews. Al Bunetta wasn’t there, who was his longtime partner in business. But Al was like this voice from the grave in this weird way. He had taken all this footage with a camcorder all during the early parts of the label. It’s actually amazing. Him and his father had worked on a TV show when he was a kid. So it’s like he had the eye and that stuff worked, It was really cool.
JB: It doesn’t feel like home footage. It feels like cinematic [Laughs]. With the home footage camera.
NH: Then sadly, we lost Dan Einstein, who actually ended up becoming the voice of the first half of this documentary. He was really the main piece that we needed. I think when they wanted to do this originally, they were just like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a couple of weeks, can you just throw some stuff together’ and were like, ‘Well, we’ll try to do something.’ It ended up being the backbone of like, ‘Okay, this is what we will do now,’ and none of that was released. But we needed that one voice that could be the voice of authority and that was Dan because he was there. It was heartbreaking that we lost him. So those three main people were gone.
MM: I’m glad that you mention those three, because I think when you look at the history of Oh Boy Records, Al, Jon and Dan were the dream team to start this label. Each person brought something different. Al had history managing artists. Dan was a talented producer for singer/ songwriters. John, the established artists. Doing this documentary, what did you learn about the relationship between those three?
NH: It’s like a family, and families are complicated [Laughs]. You love working for something that is connected and believe in it like a family. But that also has its own hardship and I think that was evident that you learn it wasn’t all roses. But also you see the love and care of why they did it and that’s what’s beautiful. They believed in something.
JB: The simplicity of the concept let’s just have fun. The fact they came out with the Christmas single first is the most John Prine thing you could do. If you’re going to go out on your own and I’m going to go beat the industry and start with “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Seeing that concept of we’re a family, we’re friends, just having fun, mail order business, what seems like ridiculous concepts and watching that grow through the music industry.
The Napster period when everybody’s stealing music, like how did Oh Boy work then? Going through the modern era is like, how does Oh Boy work now? Even now it’s really important to them to just have fun. They’re doing a thing in a couple of weeks for You Got Gold, they’re having a White Castle lunch . It’s a charity event and it’s a beautiful event but they’re choosing to do it at White Castle, which I love [Laughs]. But just things like that they’ve always done and they still do that’s just different. It’s not like normal music industry world, it’s family and it’s fun. I feel like I’m part of the family.
MM: I’m glad you guys mentioned the word family because when you watch the trailer of the documentary, that’s what you guys showcase is that this is a family business. Did you feel like it was important to also highlight that to add to the story of Oh Boy Records?
NH: I think it’s massively important because it’s like what they are. I think they all take pride in that, it’s always felt like family. You run a business that way so that the people that you’re fighting with next to you are your brother and sister. Like Josh said they’ve kept that spirit always, even now. And the other part of that family is the fans. I think that’s where John was a trendsetter on that early on, which is what Jason Isbell and so many people are doing now where they own their own label and then get it distributed. So its like they’re keeping their relationship with the fans. I think modern music is moving in that way. That’s part of the family, the relationship with the fans and what he give them.
JB: One thing about John is if you’re around him for a day, he makes you feel like you’re part of his family. He treats you like you’re in his family, even if you’re a stranger and that’s the beauty of it. The person leading the march on the family business was like that.
MM: As we mentioned earlier with this documentary, it features some unseen footage, some untold stories. So without giving too much away from the film, was there a favorite story that you guys discovered doing this documentary?
NH: There’s couple of them on there. One of the scenes featured in the trailer, John singing Big Ole Goofy World, that’s my favorite moment. Al’s filming in their office and they’re listening to Big Old Goofy World. They’re all sitting around and there’s just just this moment of singing. John’s singing along and Al does like the original selfie with a camcorder, and when John sings the part it’s a big ole goofy world, Al turns the camera to himself and says ‘Yes it is.’
JB: That’s probably my favorite moment.
NH: When we found it, we were losing our minds. It was like you dug up some treasure where you got led into this world and you got to watch this thing, then put it in the film. It’s so beautiful and so raw, its like peeking behind the curtain of something.
JB: There’s a lot of that in the film. This sort of peek behind the curtain that I love to find on those hard drives.
NH: I think the best thing is not even in the film. There’s a thing that Al was filming in Los Angeles and they were in the studio. We we’re looking at like was like ‘I think that’s Smokey Robinson?’ We’re looking at it and they’re with this hair metal band and he’s on the couch listening Girls, Girls, Girls. So it’s Motley Crew and Smokey Robinson hanging out [Laughs]. Doesn’t really work in the film, but it’s amazing.
JB: It’s home footage and they’re all just hanging out outside, around motorcycles, it’s just wild stuff like that.
MM: Oh, we definitely have to get a sequel of this documentary. Just so I can see that footage alone.
JB: Yeah, it’s like outtakes. [Laughs]
MM: Oh Boy. Records is so important to independent music locally here in Nashville and also just internationally for all the things that John Prine was able to do. How do you guys see the Oh Boy’s label model influenced the rest of Nashville, especially other indie labels and artists over the last 40 years?
JB: The independent thing we talked about with Isbell and this freedom to be yourself and put out your own thing. John Prine was not a fancy person. When I saw him, he always wore his black shirt and black jeans and one time he put on a fancy jacket on top of it, that’s his version of fancy. It’s easy to be inspired by that part of him for any independent artist. It’s like a template of how to be nice, how to be good, how to connect with people and not just be on your own.
Even if you’re a loner like me, you find an accepting world at Oh Boy. You can get on the phone and call them. When they were at the place, people would just stop by Oh Boy Records. They would send letters to John and that’s one of my favorite things in the film, just how many letters people would send. We get to go through this huge box of letters in the process, and we kept them. It’s just people writing letters to John like, ‘Hey, inspired me to start my own car wash.’ Pretty life changing things that songs inspired. He’s just such an inspirational person and what an artist can do for normal people because came across as such a normal and relatable guy I think to everyone, and the label does too.