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This Entrepreneur and Activist is the Most Accomplished Man You’ve Never Heard of

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Jim Musselman once received a 3 a.m. phone call from Chrysler chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca. “You win,” Iacocca told Musselman, before telling him to back off.

Decades ago, Musselman was instrumental in getting automakers to install airbags in their cars, to the point where he compelled even the stubborn Iacocca to reverse his stance. A part of legendary consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s presidential campaigns, Musselman also worked for peace in Northern Ireland and collaborated with Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. He’s also a Grammy winner—and for the past 24 years, he has owned and operated a West Chester-based record label that’s released hundreds of albums. “I’ve been on the right side of history,” says Musselman.

In the process, he’s worked with several musician activists—most notably Pete Seeger, whose impact was legendary. “So many times, I’ve taken positions that led to everybody getting on me,” he says. “But I’ve told my daughter (Justine) that everybody will eventually climb out onto the branch with me.”

Looking to spend more time with Justine, Musselman started Appleseed Records in 1996. It ended a somewhat nomadic chapter in his life, during which he traveled around the United States with Nader fighting for airbags. It’s a cause he adopted after close friend Peter Vaesel died in a car accident in 1980, a death airbags likely would’ve prevented. For two years in Michigan, he battled General Motors when the auto giant was threatening to close plants in towns if they wouldn’t grant unreasonable tax abatements. Hence his connection to Moore, whose 1989 directorial debut, Roger and Me, focused on the devastating impact on Flint, Mich., when the auto giant pulled out of his hometown.

While pushing for airbags, Musselman also ran into Bob Woodward, the ace Washington Post reporter who broke the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein. Woodward urged him to listen to the infamous Nixon tapes. When he did, Musselman heard Iacocca tell the former president, “Airbags work, but the cost will kill us.”

“I was getting celebrities to go to Chrysler headquarters to protest—I had Sissy Spacek, Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray and Robert Redford,” Musselman says. “[Iacocca] did change his mind. I give him credit for that.”

Musselman plays no instrument, and he can’t read a note of music. But he is a prime motivator who leads by example, and Appleseed’s output has always been tailored to his political and social perspective. Seeger, Tom Paxton and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn are all singer/songwriters who champion the underdog. “Appleseed uses music as a bridge—and also to help the artists,” Musselman says. “I consider them ‘wisdom keepers’ who still need to be heard.”

Sixties folk legend Tom Rush hadn’t released any original music in 35 years when Musselman reconnected him with noted Nashville producer Jim Rooney. Their paths had previously crossed back in the 1960s at the legendary Club 47 (now Club Passim) coffeehouse in Cambridge, Mass., but they hadn’t been in contact for decades. Rooney went on to produce Rush’s 2009 Appleseed project, What I Know. Nine years later, Rush delivered Voices for Appleseed.

At age 79, Rush is touring again and experiencing a career renaissance. “I appreciate Jim’s encouraging me to get back into the studio and write some new songs for this new chapter,” says Rush. “He loves the music—that’s so refreshing in this time.”

Musselman’s love of music goes back to his days as an undergrad at Villanova University, when he’d head to Ardmore regularly to score vinyl at Sam Goody, Mads Records and Plastic Fantastic. He saw Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and many others at Bryn Mawr’s old Main Point coffeehouse, which was something of a ground zero for his love of music.

These days, Musselman wants Appleseed to be a platform for his artists—and perhaps even a way to make some money—in a fragmented industry. “I fear for the fate of young artists,” he says. “I don’t see how there can be a viable way for them to survive. People listen to music on Spotify and YouTube. I don’t see how musicians can survive in the future.”

One musician who isn’t struggling these days is the Boss, who recorded some of Seeger’s classic songs for Appleseed. “He said no to me twice,” recalls Musselman of Springsteen’s initial reluctance.

Thanks to some prodding from his manager, Jon Landau, Springsteen recorded a track for the 1998 Appleseed compilation Pete Seeger, Where Have All the Flowers Gone. Several other Springsteen contributions to Appleseed releases followed, including three with Seeger himself. That eventually led to the Grammy-winning 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions on the Sony Legacy label, along with American and European tours.

Landau lauds Musselman’s energy and commitment. “We can always have a dialogue with Jim because of his total integrity. We can count on anything he says,” says Landau. “Jim’s activism generally takes a different form than the way Bruce approaches his own work. But there are many times where our approaches overlap, and we’re always happy to follow Jim’s actions and be helpful when we can.”

Today, those actions continue to focus on the causes—and the artists—Musselman champions. “It’s all about following the passions,” he says.

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