Lance Ledbetter: Founder, Dust-to-Digital

Utne Reader visionary

Lance Ledbetter

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A couple of times a year, Lance Ledbetter and his wife, April, gather friends at their Atlanta home to assemble a few thousand small wooden boxes and stuff them with raw Georgia cotton, a 200-page book of liner notes, and a collection of rare American gospel recordings. Then they head to the post office.

Ledbetter spent years picking through the record shelves of eccentric collectors all over the country, rescuing what he calls “cultural artifacts” from obscurity.

After releasing the Goodbye, Babylon box set in 2003, he figured on selling 100 copies or so. To say he underestimated his project’s potential would be an understatement. Bob Dylan bought a box for himself and gave one as a birthday gift to Neil Young, who gushed over the collection on National Public Radio. Then, in 2004, the set received Grammy nominations for Best Historical Album and Best Boxed Package. Ledbetter treated the success as a mandate and made his label, Dust-to-Digital, a full-time affair. He’s been resurrecting 78s and re­releasing the work of unheralded American folk, blues, and jazz musicians ever since. In the process, he has introduced listeners to musicians from Laos, Burma, and Syria. Once too shy to call musicologists to get information for his exhaustively researched books and liner notes, he’s now getting calls from scholars who ask about rare recordings they’ve been sitting on or simply say thanks.

Extras:

An Atlanta news station produced a delightful two-part documentary on Dust-to-Digital that takes you into Lance and April Ledbetter's home and base of operations. The documentary also focuses on the work of folklorist Art Rosenbaum, whose decades of recordings have been released as two Art of Field Recording box sets. In a 2005 interview with the website Gospel Flava, Ledbetter talked about his base motivations for risking massive debt to release Googbye, Babylon and start his own business: "People probably thought I was crazy or that it would never sell, or whatever. But I didn't care. The music moved me so strongly that I wanted it to be out there for others. And I wanted there to be a book that explained what this music was and where it came from."

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