To say that college radio DJ-turned-record label entrepreneur Lance Ledbetter is a throwback to a simpler time in music history would be a massive understatement. Though he may not venture out into the field and make his own recordings like Alan Lomax, Ledbetter’s affinity for little known gospel, blues, bluegrass, country and folk music of the early 1900s has made him into the 21st century’s answer to Harry Smith. And his critically acclaimed, Atlanta-based boutique label, Dust-to-Digital, is now introducing old-time music to a whole new generation of fans.
Ledbetter traces his intense connection to music back to his teen years, long before exposure to Smith’s extremely influential Anthology of American Folk Music sent him digging into dusty record collectors’ vast archives in search of undiscovered treasures.
“I guess it goes back to eighth or ninth grade,” he recalls warmly, “when I started to realize that this great indie rock my peer group was into was largely coming from certain record labels. Each label had its own sound and recruited certain artists that shared that aesthetic, and there were certain labels I started to trust so much that I’d buy everything they put out.”
Ledbetter, who grew up in a small Georgia town about 20 minutes outside Chattanooga, name-checks seminal indies such as SST, Dischord, Touch & Go, Homestead, Matador and Merge, remembering long pre-Internet afternoons spent at local record stores, scouring the bins and talking to knowledgeable clerks in an attempt to stay on top of the latest releases.
But his first experience in the music industry came years later when he moved to Atlanta, where he ended up working as a DJ at Georgia State University’s student-run radio station, WRAS (a.k.a. Album 88), and interning at an indie label called Table Of The Elements.
“At that point I’d become exposed to music magazines and heard the buzz about the Smithsonian Folkways reissue of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music on CD. It sounded very intriguing, and I got a copy through a friend of mine at WREK who got a bunch of them at the DJ rate. I took it back to my apartment, read the accompanying book and listened to it all night. It was one of those life-changing moments,” he admits, “because I never knew much about that era of music. That anthology just opened this huge door for me.”
Ledbetter’s newfound passion for this raw, rootsy sound made him fast friends with fellow DJ Brian Montero, host of WRAS’ Sunday morning show, 20th Century Archives. Initially united by their mutual love of John Fahey, Montero eventually invited Ledbetter to sit in on his show, which exposed him to a whole new world of old time music and convinced him to start expanding his library of music.
“[Brian] eventually decided to leave the station and was looking for somebody to take over the show, so I asked him if I could take a crack at it. I started going to record stores and trying to expand the show, basically learning about music in front of everyone. I had an easy time finding country, blues and jazz reissues from that area, but had a hard time tracking down gospel,” which he says sparked the initial fire of inspiration that eventually led to the creation of Dust-to-Digital.
“I was listening to all of this gospel music for my radio show,” he continues, “and I realized it was something that not a lot of people had access to. I wanted to share this music with people, and I spent four-and-a-half years trying to figure out how to go about doing that. I found so much great material that the idea ended up going from a single CD to a 6-CD boxed set, but I had the idea for this gospel release long before I had the idea for a record label.”
His research for the project that would eventually come to be known as Goodbye, Babylon soon led Ledbetter to a Maryland-based record collector named Joe Bussard, who began sending him cassette recordings of his remarkably expansive 78 rpm record library. It took Ledbetter 18 months to make his way through the massive gospel music collection, listening to two cassettes per week and intently scrutinizing the music and lyrics of each song with a well-honed critical ear. If the Harry Smith anthology had captured his curiosity, it was Bussard’s collection that quickly converted him into a true believer.
“One thing that jumped out for me was the passion that people sang with back then,” Ledbetter says, his laid-back Southern drawl suddenly rising with intensity. “They were singing for their souls, singing about sin and the rudiments of Christian religion, and I think the results were a lot more compelling and engaging than the music you hear on gospel radio stations today. The music people were making 80 years ago was much more salt-of-the-earth, dealing with everyday problems with a lot more feeling. And of course historically there was a lot more going on back then in America, such the Great Depression. Nowadays it’s very easy to have a convenient lifestyle, so people don’t seem to sing about the problems of their daily lives as much anymore.”
It took both Ledbetters — Lance and writer/business partner April, more than four years to assemble the Goodbye, Babylon collection, whittling down a batch of over 300 songs to 160 spread over six CDs. He also single-handedly oversaw virtually every step of the production process, from sequencing the tracks to hand-packing the Georgia cotton that came in each boxed set.
“I had to figure out everything from how to set up a business, to how to license the material, to learning how to do graphic design for the boxed set and lay out a 200-page book, to getting the records mastered,” he recalls with an air of amazement, almost as if realizing the sheer scope of the project for the first time. “It was a huge ordeal and took so much time, but I just kept at it. I had a day job working on computers for the first three years before I got laid off, then I worked 80 hours a week doing Goodbye, Babylon for the last year and a half.”
The Little Label That Could
Clearly the results paid off exponentially, as Goodbye, Babylon earned universal critical acclaim, rave reviews from music legends like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and Grammy nominations for Best Historical Album and Best Boxed Set. Ledbetter admits that his pet project’s ultimate success was beyond his wildest dreams.
“I could not have been more surprised! Nobody knew who we were,” he admits, “so I was thinking we’d make 1,000 of them, sit on ‘em for two to three years, and maybe somewhere down the road it might get someone’s attention. I figured I’d have to get another day job and we’d get back to our daily lives. But we were extremely fortunate that a lot of people fell in love with it, got the message we were trying to convey and really enjoyed the music.”
In a rapidly evolving marketplace hungry for authentic roots music, Goodbye, Babylon came down like manna from heaven, selling thousands of units at over $100 a pop. Subsequent critically acclaimed releases such as a Fonotone Records boxed set, I Belong to This Band: 85 Years of Sacred Harp Recordings (the soundtrack to the documentary Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp) and two 4-CD volumes of The Art of Field Recording have proven equally impressive, establishing Dust-to-Digital as the sort of prestigious record label Ledbetter might have sworn allegiance to in his youth. With the gospel collection Take Me To The Water recently earning the label yet another Grammy nomination for Best Historical album, I ask Ledbetter if there might be a Goodbye, Babylon sequel on the horizon.
“Oh yeah, I think about it a lot,” he says emphatically. “We’re really fortunate because Goodbye, Babylon came out five years ago, and in that time we’ve had people like Art Rosenbaum and Dick Spottswood come into our lives. These guys are highly intelligent and have great taste in music, and they’ve been bringing some great projects to us. Dust-to-Digital has now become a sort of collaborative effort, and in a year of time we can accomplish a great deal. Next year we’re doing a boxed set of Georgia music, and that’ll be more like Goodbye, Babylon is the sense that it’ll be more the product of my personal effort. I look forward to that, and then maybe down the road we’ll revisit gospel music.”
In the meantime, Ledbetter believes that his homegrown company is on the right path business-wise, and seems content to maintain Dust-to-Digital ’s impressive legacy via slow, steady growth. “Really the goal is just to keep creating these cultural artifacts and maintaining our aesthetic of bridging the gap between the modern day of 2010 with the old days of 1928 with releases that marry the two. There really isn’t a grand scheme for what we need to accomplish,” he insists, “because I think we’re already doing it. I think we just need to keep at it and keep moving forward.”