He saves vintage music, turning 78s into CDs

He saves vintage music, turning 78s into CDs
October 18, 2009

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Staff Photo by Robert Willett
Marshall Wyatt, who owns Old Hat Records in Raleigh, is a connoisseur of vintage North Carolina music.
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BY LUCIANA CHAVEZ - Staff writer
Tags: entertainment | lifestyle | local | news | tarheel

RALEIGH -- Marshall Wyatt loves mulling over his old 78s, then selecting one shellac record from his shelf.

He loves tilting the sleeve and feeling the heavy black disc fall into his palm.

He loves placing the record on the turntable and placing the needle in the groove.

He loves hearing the blues riffs over the sound of the scratches on the record as it plays.

"After three minutes, I get up and take the needle off," Wyatt says. "Then I have to think again, 'What do I want to hear next?' It's a neat thing."

Wyatt loves the ritual he must follow to savor blues and other vintage American music. He's fascinated by the history and the musicians behind it. He loves the details.

The love gave Wyatt, 59, a career. He preserves and documents the history of vintage American music by making CDs of the original music.

"I'm not a historian with a capital H," says Wyatt, who owns Raleigh's Old Hat Records. "I don't have a degree from a university but, in practical terms, I guess I am."

Wyatt will release Old Hat Records' seventh album Tuesday. "Gastonia Gallop" features blues records from 1927 to 1931, the height of Gaston County's textile industry. The CD is the second in a series preserving old-time North Carolina music.

"Marshall caught on early that North Carolina is a remarkable place [for pre-World War II music]," says Dick Spottswood , an international bluegrass expert. "Marshall puts together some very intelligently constructed sets. ... He disseminates. That's his contribution."

Blues fever

Wyatt caught the blues flu at Broughton High School when he first heard music from Yazoo Records and the County Label. Wyatt credits them both withpioneering the practice of reissuing music -- Yazoo with the blues; County with hillbilly string music.

"I look up to them for what they accomplished, but they don't do it anymore, "he says. "It leaves little guys like me."

Old Hat Records was born in 1997, with Wyatt eager to reissue the American vernacular music he so enjoyed.

His first album was "Music From the Lost Provinces." The second, "Violins Sing the Blues,"was a hit. The songs by African-American fiddlers, a rarity in hillbilly music of that time, got a positive review from the NPR program "All Things Considered" and was mentioned in The New York Times.

Wyatt isn't getting rich. Sales from one CD allow him to go on producing the next.

He basically acts as curator for each CD, first unearthing 78s from closets, swap meets and yard sales. He taps a national network of fellow collectors, historians and archivists to find the best original of each track. The best are turned into digital files.

When the songs are remastered for the CDs, Wyatt and the engineer make sure some, but not all, pops, clicks and scratches are eliminated. "If you're too aggressive," he says, " ... the character of the music starts to fade."

Throughout the process,Wyatt works with people, such as graphic artist David Lynch, who also love the old music.

After researching the music and the era, Wyatt taps libraries, archives and friends' stashes for photos and memorabilia to go into the CD booklet. He and Lynch will spend hours going over every detail in the packaging.

"I'm happy to go through the process because Marshall appreciates what we do," says Lynch, also a fiddler. "It's nice to have somebody who insists on getting it right and is willing to take the time to do it."

Wyatt is currently fussingover five albums. He is eager to preserve as much of the old-time music he can as quickly as he can. "The CD as a medium is dying," he says. "I don't know how much longer people will want them."

Rare finds

Two years ago, Wyatt made his biggest record discovery. He bought a steamer trunk full of 78s from a man who was moving from an East Raleigh trailer park to an assisted living facility.

During the 1920s and '30s, when few could afford records, the man's mother collected them from the favorite bands and artists she saw in concert.

"Durham was the nerve center of North Carolina blues," Wyatt says. "It was a remarkable example of someone immersed in African-American music."

In the trunk, Wyatt also found a Paramount Records disc by Blind Blake. . He recorded just 42 records before disappearing. Collectors have been searching for them ever since. When Wyatt opened that steamer trunk, he found No. 41.

Wyatt also cherishes finding Ashe County fiddler Frank Blevins and Yadkin County singer Helen Nance. Wyatt became close friends with both.

Wyatt's most prized 78 is a super rare album from Frank Blevins and His Tar Heel Rattlers, who recorded just three. Wyatt's first Old Hat Release featured Blevins' music.

Nance's "haunting, ethereal" voice on Nance Family Gospel Singers tunes moved Wyatt as he worked on another Old Hat album -- "In the Pines." Six months later, they met in her music room.

"That's a spinoff of record collecting," Wyatt says. "I got interested in who the people were. I've befriended some who I knew for the rest of their lives. It's been an incredibly enriching experience."
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