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Washington City Paper

Feb. 24–March 2, 2006

Shellac of Faith

by Andrew Beaujon

Between 1956 and 1970, Joe Bussard made hundreds of handcrafted 78s in his basement. That neither his parents nor the music-buying public cared just proved he was doing the right thing.

The garage, as everyone knows, is the domain of the valiant upstart: Walt Disney, Wham-O, Apple, Metallica, Google. There’s something about the site that implies incubation. In the realm of American myth-making, the garage is a way station between genius and the free market.

The basement, on the other hand, is for weirdos and counterfeiters. Stuff done in basements is destined to stay underground, its origins as murky as its commercial prospects.

Joe Bussard has basement in his blood. The son of a prosperous Frederick, Md., merchant, he turned first his parents’ cellar, then his own, into shrines of obscurity, a place to enjoy—at ear-splitting volume—the 78s he obsessively tracked down on trips through the hinterlands of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.

Over his 70 years, Bussard has acquired some 25,000 of them, almost all examples of the old-time country, blues, jazz, and gospel that flourished before what he calls “that rock crap” came to dominate our popular music. Before country, blues, jazz, and gospel went bad, even—which, in the case of at least the first of those genres, Bussard maintains was sometime around 1955.

These days, Bussard says, “the only thing on the radio that’s any good is the switch that says O-F-F.” That unyielding aesthetic has made him something of a legend among those who happen to agree, including more than a few fans of that rock crap. Bussard has been featured in both the Old-Time Herald and in the influential indie mag Chunklet. In 2003, his collection was featured on a compilation titled—what else?—Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s 1926–1937. This past December, Atlanta reissue label Dust-to-Digital put out Fonotone Records, a five-CD box set documenting Bussard’s own label, on which he released more than 300 recordings.

The Fonotone discs were all cut to order by hand, and Bussard has no clear idea of how many he sold. Some featured family bands he encountered on his record-hunting trips, but most of them were recorded by him and his friends. A talented guitarist, Bussard and a fellow National Guardsman named Charlie Turner used to entertain their barracks with their reprises of old tunes. One day in the mid-’50s, another weekend warrior turned to Bussard and said, “Hey, if you ever put that on a record, I’d buy it.”

Bussard approached nearby Hood College, which off-loaded its machine for cutting 78s to him for $30. He picked up a couple more over the years, and, in 1956, he constructed a studio in his subterranean redoubt by hanging a ribbon microphone over a pipe. A maiden session featuring Bussard and Turner performing as the Hillbilly Boys went well and made it onto a shellac disc as Fonotone No. 3191, and no further adjustments to the recording process were made.

The odd stranger who’d come to Frederick to tape some pieces of Bussard’s collection or swap discs with him, if he had any musical ability whatsoever, would usually leave with an entry in the Fonotone catalog on his résumé, too. One of these was John Fahey, an 18-year-old American University student and part-time gas-station attendant from Takoma Park who showed up one evening in 1959. Bussard gave him the stage name Blind Thomas and listed him in the Fonotone catalog as “Negro blues.” Fahey’s first Fonotone side, “Blind Blues,” is introduced by a slide-guitar flourish, then a gruff, liquored-up voice saying, “He’s Blind Thomas play blues.”

The record, when it appears on eBay, can easily fetch upwards of $700. It’s easy to understand why: Here, in its earliest and rawest form, was the sound of a young man who would also become a legend, as one of the great innovators of the modern acoustic guitar. And as a great eccentric: Decades later, Fahey would bemoan how, in the federal city of Washington, D.C., “goddamned government workers moved in from strange, horrible Northern places like Ohio and Minnesota and took over,” in the process sucking most of the Southern flavor from his hometown music scene.

In Fahey’s imagination, this happened, oh, sometime around 1955.

Dust-to-Digital founder Lance Ledbetter had run across Fahey when he interned at Table of the Elements, a quirky, collector-oriented outfit that used to assign each of its releases an atomic weight. Fahey released an album on Table of the Elements in 1997, three years after a Spin magazine profile helped resurrect interest in the guitarist, who had been suffering from Epstein-Barr virus and living in a welfare motel in Oregon. When Ledbetter found out that Bussard had captured Fahey’s earliest recordings, he became a little more interested in a man he’d already corresponded with.

Their relationship had begun after Ledbetter read a 1999 Washington City Paper story on Bussard (“Desperate Man Blues,” 2/12/99) by then–staff writer Eddie Dean (who also talked to Fahey about those goddamned government workers). A 22-year-old Carter Family fan from LaFayette, Ga., Ledbetter was looking for material to play on his old-time radio show on Georgia State University’s student-run radio station. He ordered cassette after cassette from Bussard, each one drawing on the Marylander’s impossibly vast collection and recorded for a fee of 50 cents a song.

In 2002, Ledbetter started leaning pretty hard on Bussard for a compilation he was planning for his nascent label. It would prove to be a definitive document of American gospel—white, black, and all manner of in between—from its six CDs of music and vintage sermons to its lavish packaging, which included a 200-page book, a cedar box, and several pieces of unginned cotton. Titled Goodbye, Babylon, the set was nominated for two Grammy Awards; the New Yorker called it “one of the most impressive collections of gospel recordings ever assembled.”

After that release’s success, Bussard approached Ledbetter about collecting some of Fonotone’s finer moments, as well. So what if one of the label’s biggest sellers was an uncharacteristically serious ballad by Bussard and Pennsylvania folkie Bob Coltman called “The Death of John Kennedy”? There was also that Fahey material in the archives. Pretty soon, Ledbetter started, as Dean says, to think about “going big” on this one, too.

“Off his head,” Ledbetter says, “Joe was able to go through 45, 50 CDs of material and pulled it down to seven. I cherry-picked it down to five.”

Fonotone Records is the kind of release that could maybe make even Bussard love the compact disc. It comes with the now-requisite Dust-to-Digital quirks—a nickel-plated bottle opener, several Fonotone label blanks—and a 167-page book edited by Ledbetter and Dean that features quotes from the performers, a gallery of animal art that Fonotone artist Bud Taylor did for Maryland Conservationist magazine, and, as suits a label whose coin was ersatz old-time music, fake articles about Bussard from publications such as Teen Rocker Magazine, Folk Now!, and Special Rider Rag: Der Blues Voice of Bavaria.

“We realized this wasn’t the history of Decca Records,” Dean says. “It was this DIY thing. That’s why we went whimsical with the stuff.”

Not all of the book’s content is counterfeit, however—which also suits Fonotone. Though Bussard and his friends are well-represented in the set, so are the folks Bussard encountered on his record-hunting expeditions and captured with his 100-pound “portable” reel-to-reel machine. Sometimes they’d make a Fonotone record. Sometimes they’d just end up buying a few.

“There’s people you can compare him to, like Alan Lomax,” says Ledbetter. “But Alan Lomax never ran a record company.”

And somehow, it doesn’t seem wrong that Bussard’s own work—produced by jokingly named groups such as Jolly Joe’s Jug Band, the Tennessee Mess Arounders, and the Possum Holler Boys—is as exhaustively documented on Fonotone Records as that of genuine backwoods relics such as the Adcock Family and Joe Birchfield. “When I first saw the list he compiled,” Ledbetter says, “I thought, Oh man, Joe’s on a bunch of these. Then we started listening to them, and he’s one of the best musicians on there.”

Besides, Ledbetter suggests, “I think him doing those old songs was almost another evolutionary step, where he’s adding his own thing. He’s not imitating those old records; he’s contributing to them.” Bussard’s baby is also the oldest self-sustaining DIY label that anyone involved can think of, which makes the fact that it put out some quality music almost a bonus.

I’m an alien!” Bussard shouts over the phone. “While we were recording that old music, that rock ’n’ roll stuff in the ’60s—oh God, I hated it. I can’t stand this society.” His sentences are punctuated by an unruly laughter that, like his voice, gets louder the closer he gets to the punch line. And there’s always a punch line—even when it comes to those sacred Fahey records.

“He was tooted that night,” Bussard says. “We put ’em out as Blind Thomas. Ha, ha, ha! And he sung in that horrible voice. Ha, ha, ha, ha! And people loved it, and they bought ’em! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”

Though it may seem a bit extreme to chronicle, as Dean puts it, one man’s “quixotic and totally time-consuming” passion, the simple fact of the matter is that Fonotone put out some indisputably great records—not just by Fahey but also by Mike Seeger, Country Gentleman founder John Duffey, and others. Some sold only three or four copies. Others were hits after a fashion—the Kennedy tribute, for one (“Christ almighty,” Bussard says, “they were lining up in front of the house”), and “Chinese Breakdown,” an instrumental recorded by Bussard and Oscar Myers, a local character who played harmonica on the street and was, naturally, a cornerstone of Fonotone’s roster.

“The Fonotone years were some of the greatest times of Joe’s life,” Ledbetter says. “What I think [the box set] does for Joe is further validates what his life has been.”

Not that Bussard has ever felt the need for such validation. “The context we want people to understand,” Dean says, “is that Joe’s 20 years old and he’s doing it in the basement, and his parents think it’s bullshit. He’s not encouraged by them. The townspeople don’t really like it. It’s just him and these very, very crazy fanatics that like the music. So there’s not a sense of trust-fund, cheering-on-our-gifted-son stuff. He really was rebelling.”

Certainly the Fonotone set demonstrates something that doesn’t always shine through on the more scholarly releases drawn from his collection: that he has a hell of a sense of humor about his situation as a man who dwells in what’s essentially an alternate universe—a place where rock ’n’ roll never became the music of teenage rebellion, the Weems String Band was never forgotten, and a few fake hillbilly records can somehow be an expression of authenticity.

“It was nothing really put on—it was just the way we played,” Bussard insists, before launching into another rant about the debased state of contemporary culture. “There’s no comedy anymore. They took all the good comedy off the TV—Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, those kind of guys, y’know. The Three Stooges are about the only thing left. And the only ones that are any good are the ones with Curly.”

Bussard stopped doing Fonotone in 1970, when 78 blanks got too expensive and “you couldn’t even buy a decent cutting stylus.” Though he still records cassettes for 50 cents a song and shares his collection on weekly radio shows for stations across the South and mid-Atlantic, he doesn’t go record-hunting as much as he used to, either. “I don’t go any long distances anymore, because if it says ‘old records,’ you get there and it’s LPs,” Bussard says, fairly spitting the last word. “Perry Como, Doris Day, that kind of crap.

“It’s just dried up,” he adds, though he gets tickled whenever he finds an old Fonotone release among the detritus. “I would say 90 percent of the good records are in collections. There’s still a few out there somewhere. Gotta be. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”

Bussard appears at a Fonotone Records release party at 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at the True Vine, 1123 W. 36th St., Baltimore. For more information, call (410) 235-4500.

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