Fort Worth has shaped the larger world of music in many ways — to name a few, the spontaneous fusion of jazz with country-style fiddling in 1929 to create an idiom called Western swing; the triumph of pianist Van Cliburn in 1958 at the Tchaikowsky Competition in Moscow; and the emergence of such defining jazz-and-rock titans as Ornette Coleman, King Curtis Ousley, Ray Sharpe, and Cornell Dupree from the South Side’s music-savvy I.M. Terrell High School.
A comparable legacy rests with a purposeful store called Record Town — 64 years as a source of innumerable collections and immeasurable inspirations to new generations of music-making talent. Three of those uninterrupted years have passed since 2018 under a new ownership that represents a practical continuation of what the Bruton family of Fort Worth had accomplished with Record Town, beginning with the opening in 1957.
“We had known the time would come when Record Town might fade away,” new co-owner Thomas B. Reynolds, a ranchman and property developer, said in a recent visit. As a lifelong collector and working musician, Reynolds had observed manager Gerard Daily’s efforts to keep the doors open as the music industry-at-large shifted away from compact-disk recordings while seeing a renewed popular interest in long-playing records on vinyl platters.
The gradual retirement of co-founder Kathleen Bruton (1923-2020) had cost the store an overriding guidance while her son, T. Sumter Bruton III, acknowledged frankly, “I’m just going through the motions, anymore.”
The familiar address, 3025 S. University Drive, faced a property-rental hike, meanwhile, and Sumter III had begun pondering a shutdown and liquidation. Reynolds and a fellow enthusiast, Burleson-based manufacturer Bill Mecke, inquired about an outright purchase, including the Record Town trademark.
“We came to the same conclusion,” said Reynolds. “We said, ‘We’ve got to keep it going,’ out of respect for the Bruton family — as long as Gerard would come with the store. He knows the operation inside and out, and as the transitional manager, he’s got the old-school record-store knowledge and the newer web-catalogue expertise to augment the service and inventory-keeping that have given Record Town its reputation.”
Daily had discovered Record Town while enrolling at Texas Christian University in 1971 as a new arrival from San Antonio: “I noticed this record store, across the street, checked it out right away, and walked out with two jazz LPs I’d never have found in San Antonio,” he said. Daily’s involvement since the 2010s has been an incremental process — from part-time staffer, to product-ordering and general operations, to manager.
“It’s a library,” added Mecke. “That’s what has educated so many of us vinyl junkies and broadened the ways in which we appreciate music — a unifying force.”
The fresh address is 120 St. Louis Ave., a 1,000-square-feet space within a South Side office-and-storefront complex. The site also bears the symbolic street-name of T Bone Burnett, the composer-producer who traces his Grammy- and Oscar-winning career back to the influence that Record Town had worked upon him as a youngster. Heavily stocked with new and collectible vinyl LPs, the St. Louis site also boasts a museum-like “Wall of Fame” display for floor-to-ceiling photographs and posters covering the history of Fort Worth’s music-making scene.
Fort Worth-bred author and historian Joe Nick Patoski, of Austin, regards Record Town as “one of those unplanned institutions that tell the stories of our culture and our city, and the music that permeated both.”
“At their best,” added Patoski, “independent record shops functioned as community centers. Record Town, operated by Kathleen and Sumter Bruton (Jr.), filled that bill, and then some. The Bruton sons, Stephen and Sumter III, were some of the brightest, most influential musicians to emerge from Fort Worth in the late 20th century, along with their friend T-Bone Burnett, … who credits the store with his musical education.
“The process of transmitting musical knowledge continued through Sumter (Jr.)’s passing (in 1988) to the closing of the original location. Somewhere toward the end, young Sumter (III) would take a guitar off the wall and loan it to a young customer named Leon Bridges, who enjoyed picking some licks in the store,” said Patoski, referring to Bridges’ emergence in recent years as a hit-record artist in his own right.
Reynolds said many people raised this question about a relocation: “You’re keeping the sign, aren’t you?” The chronic inquiry concerned the rooftop neon fixture that Sumter Bruton, Jr., had commissioned in 1958 — a 50-50 investment with the RCA Victor record label, depicting Nipper, Victor’s trademark Jack Russell terrier, facing a gramophone. The answer was, “Yes.” The signage was moved for installation atop the St. Louis location shortly after the store’s relocation.
Mecke and Reynolds agree that the resurgence is more a labor-of-love commitment than some formula-bound business plan: “The objective,” said Reynolds, “is to be — to keep on being — that place where people come to look for the music that sustains them.”
Even so, strategy figures significantly in the development of a web catalogue to augment the in-store transactions. (The Bruton family had resisted computerization.) Vinyl records dominate the inventory of approximately 20,000 titles in all genres. As increasing numbers of enthusiasts rely on digital downloads as a source of recorded music, so has popular interest risen anew in vinyl platters for manually operated turntables — a medium once considered obsolete in light of the 1980s’ rise of the now-fading CD format.
A similarly ambitious development is an independent vinyl label, Record Town Records, which has launched a projected line of historic homegrown reissues with a remastering of Robert Ealey & the Five Careless Lovers: Live at the New Blue Bird Nite Club — an album produced in 1973 by T Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton (younger brother of Sumter III) at the landmark blues venue in Fort Worth’s Como neighborhood.
Added Joe Nick Patoski: “Perhaps the most amazing quality of Record Town is that it has somehow managed to convey that spirit of turning on people to good music at a new location under new ownership. Folks continue making pilgrimages to the record shop that tells Fort Worth’s stories and stories of American culture through music for good reason: It’s where it’s at.”
“The biggest thing for us is carrying on the legacy of Record Town,” Mecke said.
Editor’s note: This story was changed to reflect that Cornell Dupree is from the South Side’s music-savvy I.M. Terrell High School. His name and the school’s name were incorrectly reported.
(Michael H. Price, a habitué of Record Town since 1980 and author of 2018’s Fort Worth Jazz from the Top, has collaborated occasionally on music-making projects with (full disclosure) Sumter Bruton III and Tom Reynolds.)