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He Just Wasn’t Made for These Times

Rediscovering Frederick Native Joe Bussard’s Home-Recorded, Home-Pressed LPs

Sam Holden

By Jess Harvell | Posted 2/22/2006

Joe Bussard, with many original Fonotone artists

A night of archival films, talks, and live music at the True Vine Feb. 25.

This is a tale of two record companies, one old, one new. One was once based in rural Maryland, the other currently operates out of Atlanta. One sent unadorned, fragile 78-rpm records out into the world, one releases exquisitely assembled CD box sets.

“It’s just a great story,” Steven Lance Ledbetter says over the phone from his home in Atlanta. “It was a guy who went against all the odds. And it grew into a 14-year odyssey.”

Ledbetter is proprietor of Dust to Digital. He’s speaking about Joe Bussard, former proprietor of Fonotone records. Ledbetter is in his 30s. Bussard will be 70 this year. But both are obsessed by a love of old, obscure, and forgotten music. Bussard, the collector, has sought it out for more than 60 years. Ledbetter, the archivist, is dedicated to repackaging it. And their meeting has produced one of 2006’s most intriguing recordings, a collection of rare Fonotone sides released on CD for the very first time.

Joe Bussard was barely a grown man when he started Fonotone Records out of his parents’ basement in 1956. His father was the proprietor of a farm supply store, and the younger Bussard shucked the legacy that said he would inherit it. Perhaps he saw that local farms were slowly shuttering their barns. But more than likely he was too busy with his hobby.

Bussard was driven to distraction by music. It began with an epiphanic encounter with the early country of Jimmie Rodgers. “I liked Gene Autry,” Bussard says over the phone from Frederick, where he’s lived his whole life. “But then I heard Jimmie Rodgers, and it’s like, if Gene Autry was 50 proof, then Jimmie Rodgers was 150 proof.” Bussard began a record-collecting journey that would eventually net him more than 20,000 records, mostly from the 1920s and ’30s.

“When I got my license, that’s when it really opened up,” Bussard says. “I used to go into these little towns and show people records, kids, and they’d run down the street and bring ’em out for you.”

Get Bussard on the topic of record collecting and stories spill out like a broken water main. “There was a place in Tennessee where there were pinball machines piled up to the ceiling, and you had to crawl through them like it was a coal mine,” he says, delighted at the memory.

Needless to say, his parents didn’t quite understand. “Daddy and them don’t know shit about music, they don’t even know what music is,” Bussard said in a 1968 interview reprinted in the Fonotone set. “They like Guy Lombardo and Lawrence Welk, for chrissakes. They never heard anything good.”

Bussard was—and remains—utterly contemptuous of modern music. “It’s not a pose,” Ledbetter laughs. “He really hates it.” His complaints are common from people obsessed with old-time music—the recording industry had destroyed the sense of community that had defined the early years of music on record. The hit parade, as opposed to an oral tradition of folk music, represented everything wrong with modern music.

“Country music was gone in ’55, that was the end of that,” Bussard says flatly and without brooking any argument. “After ’55 is when they brought the drums in and bong-bong-bong and I’m a teenage queen bong-bong-bong. It was all commercialized for the bucks. [Elvis] Presley was around with that squealing, hip-shaking stuff, and those screaming girls. And then you had those lousy Beatles and those Rolling Stones and all that crap.”

Has it gotten worse since the ’60s? “Oh my god, are you kidding?” Bussard exclaims. “They’ve gone as far as they can go! Nobody pays any attention to music anymore. Music is a word to describe something that no longer exists, quote-unquote!”

In 1956 Bussard did something we take for granted now: He started his own record company. This wasn’t uncommon then, but it also wasn’t quite as easy as hitting “burn” and scribbling on a CD-R with a Sharpie. Cutting and mastering a vinyl record is an arcane and slightly mysterious process relegated to the hands of skilled engineers.

Bussard went one better, not only starting his own record company but pressing the records themselves. He acquired a 78 cutting machine, which was about the size of a couch and weighed quite a bit more. He would cut the records in his basement, 50 or so at a time, glue the labels on himself, and sell them for a buck a pop. He did this for 14 years, releasing hundreds of records.

But Bussard wasn’t particularly interested in traveling the world like Alan Lomax. Besides, the music Lomax recorded had already passed into history. So Bussard started recording himself and his friends playing traditional music with a verve that made up for their lack of skill. And, without the arched eyebrow such a move would entail today, he pressed them to 78s and gave their one-off groupings names like Jolly Joe’s Jug Band and the Tennessee Mess Arounders.

Eventually, people outside Bussard’s circle of friends—locals, radio personalities, musicologists—came to Bussard’s basement to record. Bussard actively cultivated this enthusiasm for a world that was slipping away, and he packaged the records to reflect that. At a time when rock ’n’ roll was just born, Bussard was the Berry Gordy of retro-primitivism. (A comparison for which, if made to his face, he’d probably ask you to get off his premises.)

“There were local people who showed up, and then word got around,” Bussard says. “And then their friends and relatives and in-laws and outlaws. The doorbell would ring, and there’d be a couple of fellows standing there, bluegrass bands would come by, c’mon in.”

“They’re not perfect musicians . . . and that enthusiasm is on those records, where you can just hear how excited these people are to play these old songs,” Ledbetter says.

Many of Bussard’s finds were just folks, people who worked, raised families, and played because it was a release or a family tradition or just something fun to do. The neck-hair-raising harmonica blues of W.R. and W.E. Barnes was recorded in the boiler room of the college where the two brothers worked as janitors. Bussard would also cajole—often by refusing to copy records out of his collection—visiting musicologists to record for him.

But Bussard’s most famous artist was a young gas-station attendant named John Fahey. Even on these early sessions, the guitarist’s signature is immediately audible and his control preternatural. On records such as “Wanda Russell’s Blues,” one of Fahey’s hands picks spider webs of bluegrass notes while the other keeps a Delta blues rhythm in perfect time. And though the two had a bit of an oil and water relationship—“There’s a few things on [the box set] you may not like, there’s a couple of John Fahey’s when he gets way out there,” Bussard says at one point—Bussard was a great influence on Fahey.

“Fahey’s dead, so we couldn’t really ask him, but I think . . . he sort of looked up to Joe,” Ledbetter says.

Eventually the cost of equipment and amount of effort made running a record label stop being fun and start being work. “I just got to the point where I just said the hell with it and I quit,” Bussard says. “A guy came in here a few years ago and bought up almost all the [equipment] I had.”

Fonotone closed for business in 1970, and in the intervening 36 years the records became collector’s items themselves. “There’s an auction I just got here yesterday, and in the back it says ‘country records, Fonotone, none of these are on the new Fonotone box set, minimum bid $50,’” Bussard laughs. “Minimum 50 bucks. Here I was sitting here selling them for a buck. I knew damn well when I was making those records they were gonna be collector’s items!”

At the end of the ’90s, Bussard had already attracted a bit of notoriety, including a 1999 cover story in the Washington City Paper titled “Desperate Man Blues,” which would form the link between Fonotone and Dust-to-Digital. Lance Ledbetter was living in Atlanta. He had formerly been an intern at the avant-garde label Table of the Elements and he hosted a program called Raw Music on University of Georgia radio.

“I noticed this guy’s name on a lot of these reissues—Joe Bussard—and I Googled him,” Ledbetter says. “Pretty soon after that he sent me down his catalog—he would make copies of any song in his collection, 50 cents a song, onto cassette for you. And at the same time I started noticing this gap in reissues for gospel, and that’s where Goodbye, Babylon came from.”

That 2003 box set was Dust-to-Digital’s first release, an astounding collection of pre-war gospel music, packaged in a wooden box and swaddled in cotton. Drawing on Bussard’s deep collection while compiling Goodbye, Babylon, Ledbetter discovered the Fonotone records lurking in Bussard’s catalog. Eventually Bussard asked Ledbetter if he’d like to give the Fonotone story the same deluxe treatment.

“A little bit over one year,” Ledbetter says when asked how long it took to compile the five-CD set. “There were about 35 reel to reels, we could have done 50 CDs. And just off the top of his head [Bussard] just went through the ledger book [of Fonotone productions] and just made check marks next to the [records] he thought were the best choices.”

The packaging on the Fonotone set probably outdoes Goodbye, Babylon. The book is a beautiful piece of design all on its own, running to over 160 pages and full of hundreds of vintage photos, reprinted articles, and interviews with many of those who played on the set.

“When we first started talking about this, Joe sent down this cigar box, probably from the Fonotone period, probably hadn’t been opened in 40 years,” Ledbetter says. “And it had some slides in it, and it had some pictures, it had some blank record labels, it had some calling cards of Joe’s when he’d gone on record-searching trips, and it had a bottle opener in it. And we just sort of said, ‘Let’s model it after this.’” And they did, right down to the bottle opener.

And, given Bussard’s pessimistic take on the state of modern music, who does he think the audience for the box set is? “All ages!” he exclaims. “Down in Georgia, where they had the official release party, that place was packed. There were old folks, young kids, guys in their 20s and 30s.”

In many ways it would be easy to see Joe Bussard as a man out of time. “I don’t belong in this society, I’m an alien,” he says. But he seems more than happy to have the Fonotone set available, even on a lowly format like the CD. “We had a lot of fun making them, and preserved a lot of good music that would have otherwise gone. Didn’t make much money, but we sure had a lot of fun.”

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