Dan Einstein, a Grammy winner who co-founded independent record labels with singer-songwriters John Prine and Steve Goodman, only to quit the business and open a restaurant that became an East Nashville community hub, died Saturday in Nashville at 61.
A cause of death was not given, but family members said he had been suffering from a prolonged illness. A GoFundMe had been set up last week, after Einstein was moved to Alive Hospice, and had raised $140,000 in six days.
Within the music industry, Goodman — an L.A. native who moved to Nashville — was best known for helping Prine establish Oh Boy Records and, before that, setting up Red Pajamas Records with Goodman, the esteemed folk singer. Both labels were formed in the ’80s at a time when it was considered risky and less than prestigious for artists who’d achieved notoriety with major labels in the past to release records on their own.
In his adopted Nashville, the focus of attention upon Einstein’s death was not so much his music industry background but on his proprietorship of an eatery that he and his wife Ellen opened in 2004 after he dropped out of the music business. Einstein’s obituary in the Tennessean was topped by a headline that described him as “beloved Sweet 16th Bakery owner” first, and as a “music industry veteran” secondarily.
Born and raised in Connecticut, Einstein’s family moved in 1978 to L.A., where he attended UCLA but dropped out after three years, already deep into booking acts at venues ranging from that university to Madame Wong’s and the Masque. He soon went to work for Al Bunetta Management, working out of the company’s Wilshire Blvd. office for a dozen-plus years, before he and the rest of the company transplanted to Tennessee in the early ’90s. That move marked an early milestone in the history of Nashville being known as a base for what would soon come to be known as the Americana movement and not just mainstream country.
Bunetta and Einstein started up Red Pajamas Records for Goodman in 1981 and Oh Boy for Prine in 1982, acts of considerable moxie in a pre-internet period when there was little infrastructure for distributors to take on independent labels of any kind, let alone artist-owned imprints.
“Nothing said ‘over’ then quite like not being on a major label — not even Rounder or Sugar Hill,” recalls Holly Gleason, a Nashville journalist and former executive who was an Einstein confidante for four decades. “It was a different world. No distributors would deal with an artist-owned/distributed label, so it was mail-order-only, plus sold at shows. Dan went to work trying to build that distribution network; a chain or distributor would come in on their own, and some indie record stores would get in the fold… I remember the day Tower Records agreed to carry their records. It was amazing. We went to Lucy’s El Adobe to celebrate.”
Prine was making a deliberate choice in going indie; Goodman, perhaps, had fewer options. “Dan built Red Pajamas because you can’t get a record deal for a guy who has leukemia,” Gleason points out. With Prine, she says, “John, seeing Stevie not dealing with record company people, decided he wanted in. Dan went, ‘Okay,’ and started building a label for a living artist with a future.”
Vindication came quickly — if partially posthumously for Goodman, who died in 1984. In the very first year that the Grammys introduced a contemporary folk category, 1986, the Red Pajamas and Oh Boy labels landed two of the five nominations. Prine’s “German Afternoons” was up for the prize, but the winner was “A Tribute to Steve Goodman,” which landed Einstein a Grammy award as the collection’s executive producer. The album had the late Goodman being saluted by Prine, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, John Hartford and other contemporaries.
Gleason remembers Einstein’s humble reaction upon learning that two records he was responsible for had been nominated in the category’s inaugural year: “Well, I guess this mean it’s working.”
That category also belonged to Goodman and Red Pajamas the following year, as “Unfinished Business,” a record Einstein produced that finished up what Goodman had been working on prior to his death, took the second contemporary folk Grammy.
The Oh Boy label would have to wait its turn to win, but Prine was nominated again repeatedly and won for the first of several times in 1991 for “The Missing Years.” That album saw Prine moving away from a purely acoustic base and going in a more rocking direction under the production of Heartbreaker Howie Epstein, with Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and others sitting in.
“When they moved the labels and management company to Nashville in the early ’90s, they sort of became a Ground Zero for roots music,” says Gleason. “Suddenly, Nashville was validated” for a hipper crowd that had previously considered Austin and L.A. its primary bases. When Americana happened, Dan was the young guy who helped anchor the movement.”
Einstein’s two decades with Oh Boy saw it taking on not just Prine product but signing artists including Kris Kristofferson, Todd Snider and Janis Ian, as well as establishing an Oh Boy Classics imprint that released vault material from Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. The Oh Boy label continued to be active after Einstein’s exit and, indeed, is putting out new releases even now, after Prine’s death.
Einstein continued to win awards after leaving the music business to open the Sweet 16th Bakery. The eatery’s signature breakfast favorite was named one of Food + Wine’s top 10 breakfast sandwiches in America. And Sweet 16th won the Nashville Scene’s award for best cupcake so many times that it was eventually retired from competition.
But more than anything, the bakery became renowned as a community hub in the Lockeland Springs area, after having opened at a time “when East Nashville was still more scary than hip,” says Gleason. “He pioneered the concept of creating something for his community, a place that gave back and gave refuge. He knew how small things changed lives, so he figured he and Ellen could create somewhere that offered that to people in a way anyone could partake.” He and the restaurant were, not least of all, known for their small kindnesses to children and dogs.
There was one last award to come: He and Ellen Einstein were named “East Nashvillians of the Year” by the publication the East Nashvillian in 2021, for their having provided free meals to local residents after the community was hit hard by the 2020 tornado. ““We had survived the tornado [of 1998] so we had the feeling we had to stake our claim and bring something back to the neighborhood,” he told the publication. “Seeing the goodness of people in the neighborhood and the way everybody came together. Our thing was to make a living, pay our bills, and give back to people who live around us.”
Funeral services will be private due to COVID, but a virtual celebration of his life will be held here Wednesday, A public in-person memorial is being planned for later in the year.