Cutting Class

Tri-C makes the grade with some of the region's sharpest recordings.

Hillbilly Idol: One of the many fine local bands on - Crooked River Groove.
Hillbilly Idol: One of the many fine local bands on Crooked River Groove.

As we stroll through Cuyahoga Community College's posh recording suites with Tommy Wiggins on a sunny Thursday morning, we're not sure what's more remarkable: an accredited-college record label or a professional musician who wakes up before noon.

"Musicians actually show up for nine o'clock classes, which is cool," says the singer-guitarist-instructor, before catching himself with a chuckle. "Well, about 90 percent."

The musicians are part of Tri-C's Recording Arts and Technology program, a series of courses about creating and marketing records through the school's own label, RAT Records. Later this month, RAT will drop its first release, Crooked River Groove Vol. 1 & 2, a solid two-disc cross section of Cleveland music that would be a notable achievement for any studio, let alone one helmed by students.

"We have a motto: We make stuff that you listen to," says Wiggins, a 30-year veteran of the industry who serves as RAT's program director.

The music on Crooked River Groove is culled from a series of live performances taped for Tri-C's Crooked River Groove television show, which airs locally on Adelphia and Cox cable. Disc one, called "The Rockin' Side," features music by the likes of Uptown Sinclair, the JiMiller Band, Mike Farley, and Wiggins himself. Disc two, "The Unplugged Side," opens with a pair of tracks by Alex Bevan and includes area blues stars like Cletus Black and the Walkin' Cane Band. With expert recording and mixing throughout, the discs boast a number of songs -- including Hillbilly Idol's rollicking "Straight to My Heart" and Carlos Jones's buoyant "Full of Vibe" -- that improve upon the bands' original recorded versions.

"I want to build a catalog that's worth something," explains Wiggins, who recruited the 20-plus artists who appear on Crooked River Groove. "We're actually going to sign acts who couldn't afford to record elsewhere, but who are really good and musically talented." Wiggins expects to have three or four releases on the market by year's end, with as many as six slated for 2004.

Launched by Wiggins in the fall of 2001, Tri-C's RAT remains the only recording-arts associate-degree program in Ohio. The heart of the operation is the lavish, 3,000-square-foot studio, complete with a state-of-the-art editing room and a beautiful recording suite, with polished wood floors and a baby grand piano. Built in 2000, the studio is one of the finest facilities in the area.

The RAT program's 48 students range from recent high school graduates to thirtysomething rockers seeking formal training. The course load is rigorous, and each student's final project is to record and produce a CD, with a minimum of 100 hours of studio time. "We have to turn it in as something you would buy at the store; it has to have a nice cover and insert, stuff like that," explains Matt Jankowski, a young Parma Heights native in his third semester of the program. "You see the final product, and you're like wow." (True to Jankowski's words, Groove's look is on par with its sound: Its cover is an alluring montage of musicians and studio equipment, intercut with a scene from Cleveland's waterfront.)

The upcoming release of RAT's first album will be heralded with a party at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including performances by half a dozen bands that appear on the album. Crooked River Groove will be available at area record stores; all proceeds from sales of the album go back to the RAT program.

"I think it's a really good concept," says Mike Farley, whose song "3,000 Miles" appears on the album. "It gives the music scene here -- which tends to be very negative, if you talk to 90 percent of the musicians -- more credibility. It gives everyone another avenue for exposure."

RAT also gives artists the chance to work in an environment not driven solely by sales.

"I think it's making musicians more aware that art is the most important thing, and it's OK to sell a few thousand copies and stay true to the music," Wiggins says.

Hey, maybe Tommy Mottola should drop by.