Lance Ledbetter couldn’t believe his luck. While attending a baseball-card convention at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel, filled with the special kind of positive energy that comes with being an obsessive 10-year-old baseball historian/memorabilia collector, he and his parents were taking the elevator from their room to the lobby, when it stopped prematurely. Stepping on board, dressed casually and likely heading out to find some dinner, was a man who had won the Triple Crown in 1956, had hit more World Series home runs than any other major leaguer, and was arguably the greatest switch hitter of all time. Mickey Mantle chatted amiably with the three of them, providing the youngest Ledbetter with what he would later call “a knee-buckling experience.” Card collecting, as it turned out, would be the introduction to his life as a curator.
“It’s your first glimpse and you learn so much,” Ledbetter says from the comfort of a recliner in his East Atlanta home 25 years later. “I think it’s easy for a baseball-card collector to transition into a record collector. You learn about condition. You learn about scarcity. How many are printed. Errors. I was fortunate to have my parents. My dad would take me to card conventions. I went down to Spring training twice. Those were highlights for me, as a kid. It was an interesting time. You were told you could build your retirement from it. I think that parents supported that. It was something they encouraged, like, ‘Oh, you’re learning about price guides and money and all this stuff.’ Are they worth anything now? Probably next to nothing. But at the same time, I think they taught us all a lot of lessons about collecting in general.”
Fast forward a decade from that brush with greatness, and 22-year-old Ledbetter is a student at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he hosts Raw Musics, a two-hour show that plays 1920-1940-era music every Sunday morning. Having an easy time finding blues, country, and jazz reissues from that time period but not gospel, Ledbetter eventually discovers Joe Bussard, a Maryland collector and musicologist in possession of more than 25,000 78-RPM records. Before long, perhaps because he realizes he’s met a kindred spirit, Bussard is recording and mailing tapes every week to Georgia, and Ledbetter finds himself sitting on a seemingly unending pipeline of rare and unreleased gospel music.
“It was sort of this epiphany, like, ‘I can't believe all this music he’s sending me is unavailable in record stores,” he remembers. “Each week, I’m getting like 180 minutes’ worth of audio, all of which you couldn’t go into a record store and find. The music was so powerful.”
The people would eventually find that music, in the form of Goodbye Babylon, the six-disc, 160-track, immaculately designed box set, complete with 200-page book, that Lance and his wife April released under their newly-christened Dust-to-Digital imprint in 2003. The gorgeous set, which took almost five years to put together and was manufactured in a first run of 1,000 copies, was inspired by Ledbetter’s college station in more ways than one.
“One thing they always told us when I was there was that if we had started broadcasting over the internet, we would’ve been one of the first stations doing so,” Ledbetter remembers. “They just recently did it, and I think they were one of the last [laughs]. We were a 100,000-watt station, and I thought we were reaching a lot of people. But if we had been on the internet, I might not have done Goodbye Babylon. I might’ve felt satisfied if we did a podcast. But I felt like we needed to reach more people, and it was around the time I decided to go whole-hog reissuing music that I decided to leave the radio station.”
Goodbye Babylon would become Dust-to-Digital’s masterwork, and this “need to reach more people” with hard-to-find music would serve as the label's modus operandi going forward. That is, if they wanted to make this thing a legit record label. “That’s when I had to figure out, ‘OK, what is Dust-to-Digital?’” Ledbetter says. “Do we go away for another five years and put together a large, over-the-top, lavish box set, or do we come out with a CD this year and a couple CDs the following year? That's when we decided
There’s so much music in the inaccessible parts of record collections, let’s mine that and put it into record stores.
Even though we have limited resources both in finances and personnel, we know the formula. We’ve had it work once, let’s just apply it to [other releases].”
With the remaining 140 unreleased songs from Bussard’s Goodbye Babylon material, Ledbetter found enough for a Christmas compilation (Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, Oct. 2004) and a Mother’s Day compilation (Never a Pal Like Mother, May 2011), for starters. In the seven years between those releases and in the months since the latter, Dust-to-Digital has released more than 25 CDs, LPs, DVDs, and books, including projects as varied as a string-bass anthology, a 7-inch vinyl single of “the earliest intelligible recording of the human voice,” and two volumes of field recordings made by a University of Georgia Fine Arts professor (the first of which won the Best Historical Album Grammy in 2008). Their releases have covered the U.S. folk and blues Ledbetter specializes in, but also rare field, 45 and 78-RPM recordings from places as far away from the States as Siberia, Yemen, and Ghana.
“We’re still curators, but in a way, we’re curators of curators,” Ledbetter says. “The spark that I had for Goodbye Babylon or Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, I see that in likeminded individuals today. Like Jonathan Ward in Los Angeles, he had the spark for the African 78 collection, Opika Pende. Dave Murray, who lives in Oakland, had the spark to do a Thai 78 compilation [Luk Thung]. We’re constantly meeting these people, and we’ve built this reputation of quality, so what we’re able to do is become a conduit for likeminded individuals that also share our belief in quality, preservation, and presentation.”
Dust-to-Digital has a handful of interesting projects coming up, including double-disc sets of ‘70s Florida folk and Greek 78s, as well as a possible Doc Watson retrospective, but the most intriguing thing Lance and April are working on is their forthcoming nonprofit. Described by Ledbetter as “a little bit of Spotify, a little bit of LexisNexis, a little bit of Wikipedia,” Music Memory will give the pair a chance to preserve the music they get that’s worth saving but maybe not worth production costs. They're not sure just yet whether the organization, which has a board made up of music-industry veterans and was recently approved by the IRS as a 501(c)(3), will exist as a brick and mortar museum or as an online subscription model, but its status as an invaluable resource is all but a given.
“Right now, we’re starting with what needs to be preserved the quickest,” Lance explains. “We’re working with three large collections of collectors who are older, and if they pass on, the collections will get sold off, broken into a thousand different directions. We’re looking at it like, ‘Let’s document these now.’ And we’re doing something that the Library of Congress and places like that will not do: We’re actually going on location to these collections. We’re not boxing them up on a truck. We’ve got portable transferring units inside these people’s houses. To me, it’s something that should be documented.”