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On October 15, 1958, at around 3 o'clock in the morning, Joe Bussard heard a knock on his front door. It was a chilly Wednesday morning in Frederick, Md. Outside stood a shivering and blurry-eyed John Fahey, a friend who'd come all the way from the Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park, about an hour away. He was an unassuming young man, dressed in plain clothes. "He may have had a bottle of something with him," Bussard says with a wry laugh.
Fahey was 19 years old, a few years younger than Bussard, but the two had spent countless hours together, lost in the grooves of shellac 78 records, wrapping their heads around the jazz, blues and hillbilly music that defined America leading up to the second World War. But Fahey hadn't come all this way in the witching hour just to listen to more records; he was ready to record one himself. Although he'd been playing guitar since he was 15, Fahey hadn't worked up the nerve to sit down in front of a microphone until now.
Bussard was the sort of flannel-clad character that could have been plucked from any Norman Rockwell painting. He was known as an ornery country music fanatic, and owner of Fonotone Records, a homespun label he'd started a few years earlier in '56; and he owned a record cutter that he kept in the basement. It was there, in his makeshift studio, where he set up a single microphone, plugged it into a reel-to-reel tape machine and pressed the record button. The deep black spools of tape yawned to life, and Fahey's nervous hand strummed with the confidence of a windup music box on its last leg. "Franklin Blues," "Smoketown Strut" and "Steel Guitar Rag" were among the handful of "sides" that he recorded in that basement between 3 and 5 a.m., and it was only the beginning. Between 1958 and 1965 he continued recording with Bussard, taking his first steps toward musical greatness.
It's hard to imagine today, but in 1958 the pre-war blues they'd been quietly digesting on those old 78s embodied the most obscure music that anyone could then dig up. The humid, Delta blues grit that he heard in the grooves of records by artists with names like Curley Weaver, Barbecue Bob and Charley Patton greatly eclipsed his naked attempts at re-creating their mood and atmosphere. But over time he got better, experimenting with odd guitar pieces and hymns, eventually adding his own instrumental takes on the blues standards of the '20s and '30s.
A decade later, Fahey would be signed to the formidable folk imprint Vanguard, rubbing elbows with Joan Baez, all the while nurturing like-minded, experimental acoustic blues players such as Robbie Basho, Bukka White and Leo Kottke with his Takoma Records. Fahey would go on exploring pre-war blues, hillbilly music, ragtime and eventually Indian raga, giving rise to a following of fanatical record collectors and musical devotees. Eventually, he even won a Grammy in '98 for his contributions to the liner notes to Revenant's Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 1-3 — a label that Fahey co-owned with Austin, Texas, lawyer Dean Blackwood.
Outside of the few 78s of Fahey recordings that Bussard made for people who mail ordered through Fonotone's catalogue, no one has heard them. And since Bussard didn't keep track of what he sold, no one knows how many copies of these records were even made. Ask Bussard and he'll chuckle, "Boy I'll tell ya, we sold a lot of 'em!" But coming from the guy who cut each record by hand, "a lot of 'em" could mean anywhere between six and 600 records.
As Fahey's presence grew, the Fonotone sessions he'd recorded so long ago faded into obscurity. For nearly 50 years the tapes sat in Bussard's basement, enduring mildew and dense clouds of cigar smoke. In time, the recordings could have easily been forgotten, but when Ledbetter ran across the tapes while transferring Fonotone's masters to a digital format in '06, he knew that he'd found something special in the basement. "I thought, 'For a lot of Fahey fans, hearing these recordings is like life and death!'" Ledbetter says. "I knew it was big, and we made a verbal agreement right then and there to come back to it later on."
Unearthing musical holy grails such as these has been the driving force behind Ledbetter and April's ambitions with Dust-to-Digital since the label was conceived. What began as a hobby for Ledbetter grew into an obsession, and ultimately an industry institution recognized around the world for its dedication to giving long-forgotten music the royal treatment. Such goliath collections as 2003's Goodbye, Babylon early gospel music compilation, the Fonotone cigar box ('06), and Art Rosenbaum's Grammy-winning Art of Field Recording: Volume I ('08) are all the fruits of Ledbetter's fascination with musical archaeology.
Unlike similar labels such as Mississippi Records and the Numero Group who use recognizable branding to denote their releases, Dust-to-Digital's offerings are singular to the subject. The only thing tying each one to the next is grandiose presentation. Ledbetter isn't prone to blather on with self-congratulatory talk. The work speaks for itself, and his passion is obvious in the meticulous attention to detail that goes into each release.
Establishing such a strong presence in an era when physical media has become an outdated concept speaks volumes to the label's vision and aesthetic. The extravagant presentation defies the disposable protocols of digital music as each release materializes as the kind of must-have box set that is displayed on people's mantels, and has an uncanny knack for filling musical voids that many didn't know existed until laying their eyes and ears on the product. Each release also defies easy listening, as the sheer volume and scope of each one can be daunting to the uninitiated.
While Dust-to-Digital — and its vinyl counterpart, Parlortone Records — began as an outlet for Ledbetter's excitement over digging up and presenting musical treasures that cannot be found in record stores, the label has expanded beyond just Ledbetter's pet project to become a conduit for kindred spirits who have dedicated their lives to preserving these obscure chapters of music gone by.
Both Lance and April are unassuming in their ways. They're intellectual without pretense, and their encyclopedic knowledge of old-time American music can be intimidating. However, both of them exude a classic Southern charm — they smile and shrug off such flattery. But Ledbetter's relaxed tone comes to an abrupt halt when discussing the quality of Dust-to-Digital's releases. "I personally will not sign off on anything until it's ready, and it makes people crazy to work with me," Ledbetter says without a hint of irony as he leans back in his chair and looks over the thick, magnifying lenses of his glasses. "If we're not getting laser-point execution on every aspect of what we're doing, I can get a little pissy."
come on man you know you got a bromance. you probably still rock that OutKast…
Yes, 14 is the correct answer. I'll pass your info along to the group's manager,…
That was January of 2007, and they are 21 now, so I'm guessing 14?