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Hardly Strictly Jazz

Your Past Will Come Back To Haunt You: Omnivore and Dust To Digital - Two Record Labels That Matter

By Published: October 9, 2012
Bussard has always been generous about letting compilers use his extremely rare 78s (and Edison cylinders), so his collection is known to enthusiasts around the world. The 2003 Down In Joe's Basement (Old Hat) disc he assembled himself is like spending an afternoon with the man listening to old hillbilly, blues, and hot jazz while breathing secondhand cigar smoke. Play it deafeningly loud for maximum authenticity. An Australian production company made a documentary about him, Desparate Man Blues (also available through DTD). But they left out of the film that he ran an extremely unique record label for fifteen years. His Fonotone Records cut bluegrass/jugband talent mostly in or near Frederick, but not entirely. Bussard was the first to record primitive acoustic guitar master John Fahey, enough so to warrant the recent five disc box, Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You (1958-1965). Bussard has real taste in stringband music, was lucky to find good acts to record for such a big stretch of time, and no less fortunate to know how to generate and capture energetic performances. I recorded at his place and his means of getting you on tape involved a strange, enthusiastic technique by which he alternately conducts you with his smile, index fingers, and head. If he closes his eyes while you're playing, you're golden. I am not making any of this up.

Fonotone was as extravagant as Babylon, and was likewise nominated for a Grammy (in 2006 for best reissue package). The Dust To Digital product description:

"After spending his early years soaking up the sound of thousands of 78 rpm discs, record collector Joe Bussard decided in 1956 to make some recordings of a few guitar-picking pals in his local National Guard unit. Little did Bussard know that his hobby would turn into a 14 year odyssey resulting in hundreds of custom-made 78 rpm records to be issued on his own Fonotone label out of his parents' basement in Frederick, Maryland. What started as a conversation about Fonotone Records metamorphosized into a five CD retrospective, for which no stone went unturned. Master reel-to-reel tapes, unplayed for decades but still pristine, were remastered; forgotten Kodak slides in old cigar boxes were dusted off and retouched; and musicians of all stripes who had disappeared more than 35 years earlier were tracked down. Their stories, and the story of Fonotone, the very last 78 rpm record label, are told here with words, pictures, and music."

"When everything came together with Goodbye, Babylon and Joe saw the finished package, which of course included so many records from his collection, he said, 'Hey kid, I've got this other thing,' and... I mean, what an accomplishment, even if he hadn't recorded Fahey. So we start going through the tapes, which are somehow pristine even with two inches of cigar smoke on 'em (laughs). And what he recorded—all in that basement on that one reel to reel [tape recorder]... It could only have come from him."

Fonotone Records Frederick, Maryland (1956-1969) is five discs and a 163 page 5" x 7" book. But that's not all! It comes in a cigar box, and includes a set of color postcards, three Fonotone 78 labels, a session ledger sheet, and a chrome churckey bottleopener (embossed with the Fonotone logo, which is itself based on Frederick News-Post's old masthead logo).

"I called Joe up and asked him to send me some of his Fonotone 78 label blanks when we were just starting to put the set together," Ledbetter recalls, "and he sent them to me in a cigar box, and he threw in a Pepsi churchkey bottleopener, and I just thought, 'That's Joe. That's the way you put his label and his world together.' And just that box Joe sent me was the major design cue.

"I think Fahey was influenced a lot by Joe," Ledbetter speculates, "because he already had Fonotone going. Joe was only about twenty-one when he met Fahey, and Fahey was seventeen. When you're seventeen and you see a guy twenty-one and running his own record label, it really impresses you. I really think it was the thing that sparked Fahey to start his own label (Takoma).

Frederick has changed so since those days when Joe recorded jugbands and bluegrass. The once open rolling hills are now covered in McMansions, Home Depot's and other commercial vestiges of contemporary life. Although many mailboxes in the older neighborhoods still sport the old News-Post banner, the paper has a sleek new logo. Joe Bussard's house is a time warp/twilight zone.


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