A New Generation of Roots Music Reissues
A New Generation of Roots Music Reissues
January 8, 2010
By BARRY MAZOR
The Wall Street Journal
It's no secret that the commercial standing, even the viability, of the recorded album has been severely challenged in this decade by the rise of the single digital download, but that overarching trend is not inhibiting the vitality of historic American roots music CDs and boxed-sets. This year's releases from the archives of country music, folk, blues and gospel have often been audio statements designed as keepsakes, elaborate in presentation and annotation, and virtually always revelatory in sound qualityâ€”even when they're targeting younger listeners raised on low-fi MP3s.
One Grammy nominee for "Best Historical Album," Rounder's boxed set of Woody Guthrie cuts derived from recently rediscovered master recordings made in 1944 ("My Dusty Road"), comes packaged in a replica of the folk singer's beat-up suitcaseâ€”a one-off shape for a time when fitting on record retailers' shelves is not the key consideration it once was. A second nominee in the category, Hip-O Select's 5-CD collection of blues-harmonica giant Little Walter's Chess Records recordings, is an example of an alternate approachâ€”very simple packaging, but completist, multitake archival content.
Both sets exhibit startlingly new levels of audio presence and both are also, in one sense, outliers, since it's not folk and blues that have dominated this year's key reissues, but early hillbilly music and gospel. The celebrated reissue engineer and producer Christopher King pinpoints some reasons: "The blues, for instance, have been done, redone and done again, whereas the hillbilly and gospel stuff is still more or less untraveled territory; it's been scraped a little bit, but it's never been really fully conceptualized and painted the way that it should. There's probably twice as much hillbilly material as blues and quite possibly three times as much gospel that's still untapped. Secondly, there are all of these hot young artists who are playing in the old-time string band style nowâ€”Old Crow Medicine Show, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the East River String Bandâ€”making the style cool for younger audiences."
Mr. King, through his firm Long Gone Sound Productions, based in Virginia, works with such historic-roots-music labels as Old Hat, Tompkins Square and Britain's JSP, and he has a reputation for sonic mastery large enough that JSP's boxed set "J.E. Mainer: The Early Years" has the legend "Transfers by Chris King" plastered across the cover. (That set is the first exhaustive exploration of the driving late-1930s recordings of the singing fiddler and his associates, who are considered a key missing link between old-time string band music and bluegrass.)
"It's an art, not a science," Mr. King suggests. "You'll actually hear a little more noise on the new 'Gastonia Gallop' collection of hillbilly records made by cotton-mill workers, and on the 'In the Pines' and the Red Fox Chasers CDs I engineered, than you would have heard on LPs of old-time North Carolina hillbilly music [which all three contain] 20 years ago, or the 'noise-reduced' CDs of 10 years ago. But you're also going to hear much more audio information. We'll leave a little dirt in the bathwater to get the baby sparkling clean; people accept that today. My goal is to re-create the actual sound and ambience of the studio, to be in that room with the artists and hear them playing as they did."
A third Grammy nominee for historic album, "Take Me to the Water," is every bit as much a book of striking, annotated photos of full-immersion baptisms from 1890 to 1950 as an audio collection of gospel music reflecting that experience, and it's the product of Dust-to-Digital, a young company that specializes in elaborate thematic, multimedia roots-music releases. (The much-praised 2003 historic gospel set "Goodbye, Babylon" was an earlier release.)
"Most of our titles," Dust-to-Digital's Atlanta-based president, Lance Ledbetter, noted in a phone interview, "start with the historic audio, with the question of how much of it is still unavailable, and what's the story behind it that we would be trying to communicateâ€”that people could enjoy, learn from and have a great experience with. 'Take Me to the Water,' however, started with old photographs collected by Jim Linderman, who'd been a fan of 'Goodbye, Babylon.' I realized that there were tracks that would capture that same life-changing moment as the photos, and give the listenerâ€”or whatever you want to call the person who might purchase thisâ€”an experience. It took two years, going to record collector after collector to put that all together, but it's got just about every prewar song about baptism ever made."
A second worthy reissue in the continuing gospel revival, Tompkins Square's "Fire in My Bones," takes up from about the point where the baptism collection leaves off, moving from the riverside to the streetcorners and storefronts, c.1944 to 2007.
One charming Dust-to-Digital production, "Victrola Favorites," released in 2008, demonstrated how much the visual side can add in re-engaging 21st-century audiences not just with old-time music, but with its original presentation. Arguably an art book with audio as the addendum, it lovingly archives the effluvia of the early recording industry itselfâ€”label and cover art, advertising and catalog graphics of the 78rpm era, across national boundaries and roots-music genres. Tellingly, Mr. Ledbetter's focus on historic multimedia was sparked by the elaborate rerelease of the 1951 Harry Smith "Anthology of American Folk Music," in 1997. He was 21 at the time, and remains attuned to these collections' ability to cut across age barriers.
That a historic reissue can reach a mass audience was proved anew with the release last year of the first volume of Hank Williams's radio broadcasts sponsored by Mother's Best flour ("The Unreleased Recordings" from Time-Life). According to its producer, Williams biographer Colin Escott, that box set has sold close to 120,000 copies thus far. A follow-up set from the same source was released this fall.
Mr. Escott, on a break from further research in Nashville, commented on the titleâ€”and the continuing relevance of the format: "This new set is called 'Hank Williams Revealed,' because you really do feel he's revealing himself to us. You hear a lot more of Hank talking on the air, talking about his back breaking. And you hear him struggling to his feet in pain. It's heartbreaking. A one-dimensional man becomes three-dimensionalâ€”and that's something that would be very hard to do on a single CD."
â€”Mr. Mazor, author of "Meeting Jimmie Rodgers," (Oxford University Press) writes about country, roots and pop music for the Journal.