It always starts with a handshake. Maybe not a literal one, that can be tricky during a pandemic.
But each project Warren Parker presses via his Charlottesville-based label, WarHen Records, is built upon an informal agreement and a passion for helping new music into the world. “It’s always been this grassroots, easy handshake, honor code-type of thing,” Parker says. “So far, it’s been pretty successful on those fronts.”
As of this March, WarHen will have been operating for 10 years with that mindset – aiming to give artists in Central Virginia and beyond a transparent way to get their albums in the hands of listeners, and to give listeners a more personal connection to that music.
Looking back on the last decade, he describes feeling “fiercely proud.”
“As a collector and appreciator of music, it feels really important to have added to the quote-unquote American musical canon,” he says.
Even before he ran a label, Parker was busy boosting musical signals. He worked at Charlottesville’s Jefferson Theater for seven years, from the venue’s grand reopening in 2009 until the spring of 2016. Before that, for seven of the eight semesters he attended Guilford College in Greensboro, he was a DJ for the school’s radio station, WQFS. He’s lent his production management expertise to nearby festivals, crewed Hiss Golden Messenger tours and driven a van full of Amos Lee’s gear and merch. If a job involves staging or slinging music, there’s a good chance he’s held it.
Since 2012, when he began slinging albums that bear the WarHen logo, Parker has released more than 50 titles ranging from hushed Americana to lush Afrobeat. While Charlottesville music is central to that history, Richmond has also been well represented throughout WarHen’s run.
“The Richmond scene is just electric,” he says. “There’s so much cool stuff happening there.”
In early 2020, the innovative Richmond-based electronic outfit Opin decided to forge ahead with releasing new material, despite the uncertainty of the pandemic’s onset. The band found a willing and encouraging partner in Warren Parker.
”Things were progressively getting worse,” vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Landis Wine remembers, “and [Parker] was really supportive, optimistic and very direct.”
The execution for an album release can often drift from an original shared vision, but Wine found Parker’s approach to be refreshingly grounded – especially crucial when so much was up in the air. “It was nice to talk to somebody who seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about the music,” Wine says, “and also an honest person, and a realist about how things worked.”
Parker remembers that when he first started the label he wanted to keep things very simple as far as what he could provide: “Okay, this is what I can provide. This is how I can set this up financially. If this sounds good, then let’s make something cool.’”
“It’s always been, basically, a 50-50 sort of thing,” says Richmond-based Americana singer-songwriter Justin Black, who performs as Saw Black and has a handful of WarHen releases to his name. “We split the cost of the records, we split the records. It makes pressing vinyl that much more affordable for an independent artist.”
Black describes an empowering blend of independence and support: “If I want to hire a publicist, if I want to push in certain ways, he’s super-stoked on that. But he doesn’t require me to start a TikTok or something, or require me to have a certain number of pre-sales before he’ll press [an album].”
“It’s this really casual, no-pressure, mutually beneficial situation,” Black adds.
“It almost goes a little bit further than a business deal or a record contract,” Parker says. “It’s maybe a little bit more organic and human.”
Simplicity is key. WarHen steers clear of the murky world of streaming, ceding to artists the strategy and spoils of publishing to services like Spotify and Apple Music. WarHen also travels light in terms of its web presence. There’s no website – just social media for getting the word out and the streamlined Bandcamp platform for selling downloads and physical media.
His routines for pressing and shipping vinyl are similarly straightforward. He’s among the oldest customers of Blue Sprocket Pressing in Harrisonburg; the first Dogwood Tales album, “Too Hard to Tell,” was among the first projects Blue Sprocket completed after firing up their equipment in 2018 – fitting, given that the band is based in Harrisonburg.
WarHen hasn’t experienced the crippling manufacturing delays currently plaguing the industry. “I hear these horror stories [from] people like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to get my record until 2023,’ or ‘It’s a year turnaround.’ But it hasn’t been that bad for me.”
He has, however, felt the widely reported postal pains as a vinyl consumer. “I’m convinced that the Jersey City USPS hub has the sickest record collection in all of America, because stuff always gets stuck there.”
Living so close to Blue Sprocket means he can drive to pick up freshly minted albums, reducing costs and avoiding shipping snags that would otherwise impact listeners. Despite having unboxed dozens of pressings, Parker’s joy upon seeing the turntable-ready fruits of his labor hasn’t waned. “When you open that box for the first time and see the jacket and the artwork and everything, it’s awesome,” he confirms.
He takes great care to pass that joy along. WarHen orders are packaged by Parker himself, and each contains a hand-written thank-you note.
“It’s as close as you can get without it being an actual in-person transaction,” he describes. “There’s a sense of calm knowing I got the email that confirmed the order, I pulled the record off the shelf, I put it in the box, I printed off the label and I put it in the mail. There’s no middle man there.”
There may not be a middle man, but Parker did start out with a business partner: co-founder Mike Hennigar, who was the “Hen” to Warren’s “War.” Hennigar’s involvement was short-lived, owing to an early realization that the label was unlikely to be a financial boon. “We weren’t going to be padding our wallets very much,” Parker admits.
Nevertheless, the name WarHen stuck, Parker and Hennigar remained friends and Parker calls Hennigar a “long-time supporter.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Parker places relationships at the forefront when asked about what’s stuck with him during the label’s first 10 years.
“I’ve made a lot of really wonderful friendships,” he says. “I’ve met a lot of people, and it’s just been a very beneficial thing to my life in general.”
“It’s one of these examples of how important having a community and a network of like-minded people is when you’re making art,” says Justin Black, who was encouraged to join the label’s roster by a prior WarHen signee, and who has successfully encouraged others to sign on since.
“What’s really cool is growing with these people,” Black says. “It’s growing in this way that realistic, and it’s manageable, and it’s real.”
Parker plans to keep that momentum going this year with a busy slate of new releases, archival drops and special shows grouped under the “WARHEN/TEN” banner. In the meantime, take a deep dive into the history of WarHen Records below, with seven particularly pivotal albums chosen by Parker himself.
Seven Pivotal Albums from WarHen Records’ First 10 Years
Sarah White & the Pearls – “Married Life” b/w “I.L.Y.” (2012)
Sarah White lays claim to the WH001 serial number as WarHen Records’ first official release. White contributed another single to WarHen’s “No Cover Covers” series in 2020.
Parker: “The first one – Sarah White’s seven-inch. That was probably the ultimate, because that was the one that started it all.”
Wrinkle Neck Mules – “I Never Thought It Would Go This Far” (2015)
Richmond roots-rock band Wrinkle Neck Mules was among WarHen’s first multi-release artists. This 13-song, two-disc set was pressed to orange marble wax and is now highly sought after by collectors.
Parker: “It’s funny, the title of that record now resonates on a much deeper wavelength than it did back then. I hadn’t even really thought about that until now. That one seemed like a big deal. Two LPs, big gatefold packaging.”
Saw Black “Water Tower” (2018)
Richmonder Saw Black has a handful of titles in WarHen’s catalog, including a Christmas album and a 2019 Tom Petty tribute LP he made with Sarah White. “Water Tower” marked his WarHen debut.
Parker: “The Saw Black ‘Water Tower’ album hits pretty hard. I like that one a lot, and it came at a really cool moment. He sent the album to me right before I left for that Amos Lee tour. I ended up listening to it all the time in the van. For a month, I probably listened to it every single day. The tour ended in Mississippi, [and] I ended up driving all the way [back home] by myself. I probably listened to [“Water Tower”] 10 times on that trip on repeat. That one resonated really deeply.”
Beltway Recording Company – “Outer Sounds From The Inner Loop” (2018)
Billed as a compilation of dusty favorites from a bygone Washington, D.C. record label, the album was actually a stunning, single-handed demonstration of Brandcenter grad Taylor Grant Bauley’s mastery of genre and era.
Parker: “That was a fun joke to play. I think we definitely tricked some people. And ultimately, that snowballed into a really, really special friendship with [Taylor] Grant Bauley. I love him. I think he’s a hilarious person, and crazy creative. His brain works in such a unique way, and it blows me away every time I see something that he made, or some music that he made. It’s like, “Damn, this dude is on a whole other level.” He’s the one who designed the current WarHen logo, and he designed the WARHEN/TEN logo as well.
Butcher Brown – “AfroKuti: A Tribute To Fela” (2019)
Richmond quintet Butcher Brown flexed their versatility on this four-song tribute to Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, with appearances by percussionist Brevan Hampden, trombonist Reginald Chapman and saxophonists David Hood and Kevin Simpson.
Parker: “That one is a high watermark. I think any label would feel that way. That record to me is the ultimate vibe. It’s so masterfully done, it’s super-tasteful, it sounds great, it’s funky as hell. That record is phenomenal. I don’t want to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway: It might be my favorite that I’ve put out, ever. It brings me a ton of joy. All of them do – everything I’ve done holds a special place – but that one is undeniable.
Dogwood Tales – “Closest Thing to Heaven” (2020)
Dogwood Tales hail from Harrisonburg, spinning yearning and indelible country songs. “Closest Thing to Heaven” was their second full-length record to be released by WarHen.
Parker: “Both the Dogwood Tales records, especially“Closest Thing to Heaven.” That one really seemed to take off. I think that’s a really special band. They have some kind of oomph to them, some kind of “it” factor that just hits me, man. It just does. It’s so tastefully done. They’re not really reinventing the wheel, but they are really, really good at something that’s been done before. It doesn’t sound played out or anything. It still sounds original, and I think those records all sound really good. Plus, they’re just a killer live band, too. That first one, “Too Hard to Tell,” was special, but really the next one, “Closest Thing to Heaven,” seemed to go a little further. That seemed to have a broader reach somehow.
The Branchettes – “Stay Prayed Up” (2021)
A co-release with Phil Cook’s new Spiritual Helpline label, “Stay Prayed Up” is the first live album from long-running Johnston County, North Carolina gospel group, The Branchettes.
Parker: The Spiritual Helpline collaboration – The Branchettes – is a special one. That one’s kind of funny too, because those records were sitting in my basement for like a year and a half before we even announced it. I had to bite my tongue for so long on that, so that feels celebratory for the simple fact that it had been around but nobody knew about it. It felt extra cool to let people know about that.