In Memoriam: Infinity Cat Recordings

Only youth affords the intestinal fortitude to name a band Diarrhea Planet. “I just hate that word,” says Robert Ellis Orrall, the long-in-the-tooth cofounder of said band’s label, Infinity Cat Recordings. “I asked them, ‘Can’t you just be called Die Planet?’ Then I went to see them play, and they just blew my head off. I love those kids.”

You can learn a lot from the younger generation. A key takeaway for Orrall: Money isn’t everything. For more than 20 years, the Massachusetts transplant was humming along quite nicely in Nashville as a major-label artist and country songwriter-for-hire. It started in 1980, when he was signed to RCA as a solo act, releasing four albums and scoring his first top-40 hit with 1983’s “I Couldn’t Say No,” a duet with Carlene Carter. Seven year’s later, he had his first number-one country single, Shenandoah’s “Next To You, Next To Me,” signing with RCA Nashville in 1991 and settling in as an EMI staff writer. Through the ’90s, he collaborated on a flood of country hits for the likes of Reba McEntire, Eddie Rabbit, Ricky Skaggs, Michael Peterson, Lorrie Morgan, Mindy McCready and many others.

“I’ve written songs with hundreds of people,” says Orrall. “I always ask a lot of questions, so I know enough about them to write a song from where they want to come from at that moment in their lives.”

Orrall was bitten by the indie bug in 2002, when his two sons, Jake and Jamin, formed their own band. With their help, he established Infinity Cat in a modest house in downtown Nashville. “It was a safe place for a bunch of young adults, artists and fans to run wild,” says Orrall. “I was 30 years older than everyone else, watching it all happen, getting swept up in the energy and music.”

Over almost 20 years, the much-loved label pumped out 125 releases by Diarrhea Planet, Daddy Issues, Be Your Own Pet, Jake and Jamin’s JEFF The Brotherhood, Cake Bake Betty and many other underground acts. The new JEFF The Brotherhood seven-inch, “Garbage Man,” is the label’s finale.

“My sons are on their 13th release, and they’ve already done way more touring than I’ve ever done,” says Orrall. “They always get, ‘Your dad’s a famous songwriter, what did you learn from him?’ And they know enough to say, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ I haven’t written a song with them to this day. I’ve never really figured out their process.”

As Orrall continued his role in the Nashville music machine, Infinity Cat kept him grounded in the small-scale reality of the industry for most acts. “It was a place where it was all about young indie bands,” he says. “No one had anything. Sometimes they couldn’t even play—and they learned to play.”

With Infinity Cat taking on a life of its own, Orrall continued his inroads into the youth movement on a totally different scale. He wrote “Ultimate” for Lindsay Lohan, the end-title track for the 2003 film Freaky Friday. Most notably, he was an early champion of Taylor Swift, arranging the showcase at the Bluebird Cafe that led to her signing. He went on to co-produce her self-titled 2005 debut.

“The first time I wrote with Taylor, she said she wanted to write an Avril Lavigne country song, which shows you how pop she was right from the get-go,” says Orrall. “And that’s how ‘I’m Only Me When I’m With You’ came about. She was 13, but she was really direct. I remember (fellow songwriter) Angelo (Petraglia) threw out a line, and it was pretty trite. And she said, ‘I’d never say that.’ Shot down by a 13-year-old.”

In 2012, in honor of the label’s 10th anniversary, Nashville designated July 20 “Infinity Records Day.” That same year, Billboard named the imprint number 10 on its list of the top-50 independent labels. More recently, this past August saw the release of 467 Surf And Gun Club, a tribute to the Infinity Cat house that reunites Orrall with former bandmates and collaborators, including Bill Lloyd and drummer/producer Tom Hambridge.

“Every single song was written about the house on 467 Humphreys St., where you could grab a BB gun off the wall and fire away at the tin cans out back,” says Orrall. “There was meat on the grill, beers on ice and surfing videos on the TV. We were lucky to have it while it lasted.”