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Soul Searchers 

Atlanta's Dust-to-Digital Records unearths the origins of blues legend John Fahey

THE VOICE OF THE TURTLES: John Fahey and friends, 1970 - COURTESY DUST-TO-DIGITAL RECORDS

For the past eight years, Steven "Lance" Ledbetter has spent his days divided. The man behind Dust-to-Digital Records, the Atlanta-based archival label he runs with his wife, April, Ledbetter has dedicated thousands of hours to researching, conceptualizing and lavishly repackaging long-forgotten music. The music that he's given new life in the modern world can't easily be labeled. Gospel recordings pulled from old shellac 78 rpm records from the early 20th century, 78s from as far away as Thailand and South Africa, and even primitive Old South field recordings have all found a home under Dust-to-Digital's wings. Each release takes shape as an extravagant doorway into an obscure pocket of the past, with pain-staking attention paid to every detail while embracing the music's spirit. Each one is its own unique work of art.

But since 2007, everything Ledbetter has touched has come together in the shadow of his most ambitious project to date. After unearthing a late-night basement recording session made in Maryland that took place more than a half-century ago, Ledbetter has spent the past four years paying reverence to the first, unheard recordings of acoustic blues icon John Fahey — a new chapter in what many considered a sealed legacy, dubbed Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You.

The five-disc set presents Fahey in his nascent form, following him over an eight-year arc when he came into his own as a musician. Its release can be seen as the culmination of everything Dust-to-Digital has sought to achieve, the prize relic from Ledbetter's archaeological dig for music's hidden treasures, put on display for a small but wildly appreciative audience. There is risk, though, in spending so much time polishing one stone. True, given Dust-to-Digital's sterling reputation, the likelihood is that Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You will be a triumph that casts new light on Fahey's roots. But given its admitted rawness — Fahey himself suggested the songs be released after he was dead — it could come to be seen instead as chronicling only his embarrassing first steps.

Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You is Dust-to-Digital's first release by an artist that already has a fan base, while moving into the arena of artist-retrospective, moving beyond thematic compilations; a clear evolutionary step forward. It will be met, then, with raised expectations. How then will Your Past — and the various other releases that Ledbetter has channeled his passions into with Dust-to-Digital — leave a mark on the world? Perhaps the more pertinent question: Does it matter? Or is unearthing such a rare thing itself reward enough? "Music is a continuum that constantly feeds off of itself," Ledbetter says. "Dust-to-Digital's role is to save the music that we deem important, and inject it into the present to not only show its relevance, but to save it from being forgotten."

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