Author: Daniel, Bert


Twenty years ago, I lived in western Maryland. I really liked living there. Part of the fun was because there was a lot of good music in the D.C./Northern Virginia area. By that time in my life I had sort of drifted away from the music of my Carolina childhood. I'd moved on (or so I thought) to classical, jazz and rock. But living in the metro area of our nation's capital reintroduced me to the bluegrass music that I hadn't really listened to since the Beverly Hillbillies TV show left the air.

Bluegrass was all over the radio on station WAMU. They played bluegrass almost all the time. For my twenty mile commute, my radio was almost always tuned to WAMU. The DJs there had good connections in the bluegrass community and they played so much more than that great old stuff I was used to. People there didn't just listen to Flatt and Scruggs, the Grand Old Opry, Arthur Smith and the Wilburn Brothers. They listened to bands like the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene. Bands that in their day were considered "edgy". Western Maryland in the early 90's was a good place to be.

Not to change the subject or anything, but like I said, I was living in western Maryland and no matter where you live, it's always a big advantage to know a good car mechanic. That's especially true if you drive an old car like I did back then (and still do). I worked in Frederick, and whenever my car needed repair, I took it to Bussard's Auto Repair. The guy who owned the place was a relative of our departmental secretary. He always did a good job and if he thought your old car could limp along OK for a while and save you some money by not fixing it yet, he'd tell you straight out.

What I didn't know at the time was that Bussard (pronounced "buzzard") had a very interesting family member named Joe. Joe was something of a local legend. Let me ask you this. You like music? How many records have you collected over the years? Well Joe Bussard collected over 25,000 records, mostly 78s from the 20's and 30's. Many believe it to be to be the largest collection of its kind in the world. All kinds of stuff. The complete Jimmie Rodgers Catalog, Louie Armstrong, French Canadian, spiritual. Whatever.

But record collecting wasn't enough for this guy. He just had to start his own record label. Enter Fonotone Records. And Joe Bussard was a gadfly. He's not the sort of guy who goes out and lines up some posh studio with state of the art equipment. This guy buys up a bunch of obsolete 78 rpm recording machines that people were practically giving away and figures he'll make records in his garage. Bring in a bunch of friends you know from the local radio show you've been hosting and see how it goes.

Sometimes Joe recorded himself. He's a good musician and even wrote a few songs. Sometimes he'd travel over the hills to do a field recording of some West Virginia old time fiddler he'd heard of or something. Eventually the word got around that Joe was doing some innovative stuff and his fellow musicians took notice.

How many of you have heard of John Duffey? Great mandolinist for the Seldom Scene. He recorded for Joe in the late 50's. Not Country Gentlemen material yet, but Duffey's unique mandolin style and high tenor voice comes through on 78 rpm quite well. Mike Seeger recorded for Joe and so did the young blues guitarist and future star John Fahey. They were under record contracts at the time so Mike recorded under the pseudonym "Birmingham Bill" and Fahey did his best to " sing like an old black guy and sing rough as hell and we'll call you Blind Thomas."

Bob Coltman played a lot with Joe Bussard. Coltman's songs have been recorded by some very diverse musicians. My favorite Coltman song is Lonesome Robin, about the famous outlaw, Robin Hood. One good version was recorded by an Irish Band, Bohola.

A documentary film was made about Joe Bussard. It's called Desperate Man Blues and his 78 record collection has been issued on a compilation called Down in the Basement. I have a five CD set of the 78 collection issued by Dust to Digital in 2005. It's a very eclectic mix. Everything from jug band music to blues, country, old time and bluegrass. But it's well worth it for the good performances, the liner notes, rare gems and other tidbits.

Joe still does a weekly radio show for Georgia Tech's radio station WREK in Atlanta. He's also active on WTHU in Thurmont, MD and WELD in West Virginia. Worth a listen. Gadfly. What a guy!

Posted:  10/9/2011

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