New Internationalist

Fonotone Records, Frederick, Maryland

April 2006

Fonotone’s boxed set, the product of an almost insanely detailed record-collecting obsession, arrives with perfect timing. Back in 1956 when Joe Bussard, a collector from the town of Frederick, Maryland, started gathering 78s of country and bluegrass music in his parents’ basement, he wasn’t to know that, 50 years later, a renewed interest in Americana would turn his collection into gold.

Packaged with a lover’s eye for detail, Fonotone Records, Frederick, Maryland comprises five CDs packaged in a cigar box along with postcards, a 160-page book of essays/information and, for some reason, an embossed bottle opener. It’s difficult to pull gems from the 131 tracks, but among its selling points are tracks by Birmingham Bill (aka Mike Seegar), Kid Future (aka Stefan Grossman) and the first John Fahey recordings ever made. Oh, and more jug bands, reels, yippee-ay-ayes and authentic holy rollers than you can shake a possum at.

One thing that the Fonotone set isn’t is an Alan Lomax revisited. Bussard’s songs are not ‘found’ in the way that musicologist Lomax saved so much American folk music. Bussard sought out pre-recorded music and, over time, brought it back to life via radio shows, reissues and now, finally, this remastered set. It’s a set that offers numerous pathways through its material, but whether you’re following the trail of the mountain gospel or just the country tracks, Fonotone Records, Frederick, Maryland will change forever how you interpret the Handsome Family, Will Oldham in his many guises or even Andrew Douglas’s wonderful documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

Louise Gray

This column was published in the April 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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