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Basement Tapes

Fonotone box captures sounds of an era gone by



Most folks, even diehard record collectors, have never heard of Fonotone Records or its proprietor, the self-proclaimed king of record collecting, Joe Bussard. But for Lance Ledbetter, the creator of the Atlanta-based Dust-to-Digital -- a label dedicated to preserving long-forgotten American music -- Fonotone has served as the major driving force behind his musical passions.

Since the 2004 release of Goodbye, Babylon, a goliath compilation of gospel music spanning 1902-1960, Dust-to-Digital has been praised -- and even nominated for a few Grammys. Its most alluring recordings may never have been heard were it not for Ledbetter's efforts locating and transferring these antique songs from 78 rpm records onto CDs. Unearthing these recordings was no small chore. Enter Joe Bussard.

As a teenager in the 1950s, Bussard was obsessed with collecting records. By the age of 16, he had amassed thousands of 78s shelved in the basement of his parents' home in Frederick, Md. He was known for canvassing the Southeast, going door-to-door in search of old records. "I could look at a house and tell there were records inside," says Bussard. "I could smell them." These days his collection bulges with more than 25,000 titles and he is the subject of a recent documentary film, titled Desperate Man Blues.

In 1956, he began recording and pressing records of his friends playing in his parents' basement. Armed only with a microphone, a reel-to-reel recorder and a record cutter, he effectively assembled a studio and manufacturing facility in his basement.

Soon strangers began knocking on his door in hopes of cutting their own records. Even a weary John Fahey showed up on Bussard's doorstep, resulting in his first recording in 1959 as Blind Thomas. But the musicians, for the most part, were an extended circle of friends playing in different configurations. Bussard christened the groups on the spot with names like Bald Knob Chicken Snatchers, Tennessee Mess Arounders and Possum Holler Boys.

While researching for Goodbye, Babylon, Bussard's name continually appeared. A Google search churned up an article from the Washington City Paper, titled "Joe Bussard Parties Like Its 1929," which describes a man infatuated with old-time country music. He despises all forms of modern music and firmly believes that jazz died with Prohibition. Mention the Beatles and he explains that rock is a cancer that has destroyed every form of music, and he dismisses country music post-1955 as "Nash trash." "Country music was never meant to be mainstream music," he declares. "It's hillbilly music. When they stopped calling it that there were no more barns, hay or chickens, just ballrooms with crystal chandeliers."

If it weren't for Bussard's exploits, as well as a handful of his radio programs, including Country Classics on WREK-FM (91.1), the music may have disappeared forever.

Ledbetter estimates that 70 percent of Goodbye, Babylon is from Bussard's collection; which lead him to Fonotone's catalogue and Dust-to-Digital's next major endeavor.

The Fonotone compilation comes in a cigar box with photographs, a 160-page booklet, and five CDs of crowing banjos and shilly-shally bellowing from another time and place. The music or the label never reached too far outside of Maryland. But its down-home obscurities capture a sense of community that disappeared with the mass marketing of music. As such, Dust-to-Digital has assembled a time capsule, preserving this sensibility. "We wanted to create a mental picture of what was going on in this basement and incorporate it into the packaging so that when you open it, you're stepping into Joe Bussard's basement in 1956-'69," says Ledbetter. "With the documentary and now this box, we're starting to get a picture of what he has done with his life, and the music he's saved."

To celebrate the release, Bussard and a few remaining Fonotone contributors, including Fahey collaborator Backwards Sam Firk and the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, are performing at the Earl in East Atlanta. Despite the club's modern gruff, there are no chandeliers.


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