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Diggin’ Beyond the Crates

The Numero Group has become the world's greatest reissue label by tirelessly chasing dead-ends, following every detour, and ringing doorbells at their own risk. DAVID PEISNER trails the label's founders through Louisiana as they sniff mold, rifle through trash, and maybe expose a few lost geniuses.

Some days it does, though. Back in 2008, Mickey Rouse was getting ready to throw out garbage bags full of master tapes he’d recorded at his Lowlands Recording Studio in Beaumont, Texas, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Rouse had hosted and played on sessions by a gaggle of aspiring artists trafficking in a distinctly Texan mix of rock, folk, country, and R&B. He pressed up a bunch of 45s, but nothing gained much traction outside the region. In 1974, he closed the studio and became an accountant. He’d since sold almost all the recording equipment, and those master tapes were the only tangible reminder of what he considered one of his life’s most painful failures.

“I’m looking at that pile of tapes thinking, ‘It’s time to let this stuff go,'” Rouse says. “The boxes had pretty much dissolved because they’d been wet as a result of a hurricane here in Beaumont. I had no recorder to play this stuff on, no way to identify what it was, so how do you justify keeping it? Numero showed up in town a couple weeks later.”

As Sevier remembers it, “Mickey was just like, ‘Here’s the stuff. Nobody’s ever talked to me about this shit in 40 years. I’ve got it all in the shed.”

Rouse says he was “incredulous” at Numero’s sudden appearance, and initially had mixed feelings about the project. “I had finally come to terms with the fact that something I really wanted to work so bad, so many years ago, that I had put such effort, time, and money into, didn’t work,” he says. “I was so discouraged, I didn’t play any musical instruments for years. But you have to learn to put those feelings aside in order to go on with life and find satisfaction and happiness in other areas. The fact that a chapter in my life that was closed was going to be re-opened was bittersweet for a while, but I got past that.”

It took close to a year for Numero just to sort through all the material, but the eventual result was Local Customs: Lone Star Lowlands, which came out in 2010. The album has been a moderate commercial success, at best — it’s sold roughly 3,000 copies, and two of the tunes were licensed by HBO’s Eastbound & Down — but to Rouse, its mere existence is a personal triumph. “They have done a far greater service to me than money ever would have,” he says. “I do not exaggerate when I say that I had recurring dreams about closing the studio for the last 30 years. When the Numero guys appeared on the scene, the dreams stopped.” Rouse, who is now retired, has also begun playing and recording music again.

Even when dealing with known commodities, successes come where you least expect them. Syl Johnson had a reasonably well-known (and well-sampled) catalog of songs from the ’60s like “Come on Sock It to Me” and “Different Strokes,” but he says that it was the obscurities that made his 2010 box set, The Complete Mythology, a success. “They pulled some shit out of the garbage can,” he says of Numero. “They came up with a bunch of copyrights that had never been on the market. I don’t know how they found them. I forgot I made them. But now I gotta do them [in concert] because the people are looking for them. I don’t even know the lyrics. It’s like a new beginning for me.”

Numero has, to this point, largely confined their archival work — regardless of genre — to a very specific period. “To me, the mid-’60s to the early ’80s was a supernova of creativity,” says Sevier. “That is a magical time frame when widespread recording technology became available, but there was still a barrier of entry. You had to invest money and time. You had to get other people involved. Those obstacles filtered out a lot of garbage. There are other cultural reasons involved, but by the mid-’70s, there’s probably nobody in the lower 48 United States who couldn’t drive within an hour to get to a recording studio. So there was this explosion of availability, but it was before it became so available that anybody could produce some cheap piece of crap.

“That is a moment we’ll never have again in the story of human creativity where it was unleashed but limited,” he continues. “Look at the Library of Congress’ copyright index. When you look at the number of songs submitted for copyright in the early ’50s, it’s a folio. By the ’70s, it’s two giant volumes. That’s kind of, in my mind, what I’m capturing.”