After interviewing Nathan Salsburg, we went out for lunch and sat among the cheering locals at the Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot and Smokehouse, wolfing pulled pork sandwiches and sipping on local beer. The World Cup game between USA and Germany drew the crowd’s interest, but we were too exhausted to pay much attention, focusing instead on satisfying the hunger brought on by the interview. Digesting his comments along with the sweet and salty pork, we exchanged awed and envy-laden thoughts about Nathan’s work. He is a record collector, a music writer and a professional guitarist in addition to his duties as curator of the Alan Lomax Archive. Our inspired exchange, however, was juxtaposed against an uninspired performance by our nation’s soccer team. Germany scored against USA, the bar groaned through their fingertips and, we, along with a bar-full of dejected fans, made the universal gesture for the check.
Earlier that morning, we paced out the walking directions to Nathan’s studio and stopped underneath a light-up sign that said “Clovene.” A group of construction workers had just finished a job and were loitering outside. They nodded. We nodded back. Louisvillians seemed like welcoming people, I inwardly concluded. We knocked on the door and Nathan answered it expectantly, beaming at us. Tall and fit, his fashionable, workman’s clothes, closely cropped hair and superhero chin defy the stereotypical image of an archivist. Accepting our gift of lukewarm, to-go coffee, he gestured us in through the weather-beaten threshold, introduced us to his studio, a converted grocery store, and to his greying redbone coonhound, Ruby.
“She’s a bit skittish around cameras,” he informed us as we set up the tripod and arranged the room. Shifting uncomfortably on her red couch, Ruby followed our cautious movements with concerned eyes before slowly settling back down. Nathan patted her reassuringly and politely sipped his coffee.
We knew Nathan Salsburg from his work as a solo guitar performer - his two solo releases, Affirmed (2011) and Hard for to Win and Can’t Be Won (2013), showcase his lithe, fingerstyle technique – and from his folk and vernacular radio program, Root Hog or Die (East Village Radio, ARTxFM). At just 36 years of age, he contributes regularly to the Oxford American magazine and runs his own label, Twos & Fews, a folk and vernacular music imprint of the Drag City record label.
Inside of his studio, shelves of LPs and vintage musical ephemera commanded the eye. Nathan invited us to look around and shoot b-roll while he stood at his computer to wrestle with his Comcast subscription. The World Cup match had just started and he was eager to see the game's progress.
Thousands of LPs surrounded his workstation and on the other side of the room stood his collection of 78-rpm records (“atavistic”) and CDs (“even more atavistic”). Shelved in thick, vintage binders and heavy-duty file boxes, his 78s represent mostly hillbilly performers, accompanied by country blues and black sacred material. Interestingly, Nathan had never intended to become a collector of 78s. Rather, they just fell into his lap. Back in 2010, a friend tipped him off about a box of records at the dump. He hurried to the scene and rescued what turned out to be a portion of the private collection of “hoarder” Don Wahle, a Louisville-native and collector of early country records. Wahle had died and his estranged family, eager to be rid of his squalor, ordered a purge of his entire home. Nathan, with permission from the waste removal company, organized a full sweep of Wahle’s home and recovered the remaining 78s, many of which had never been reissued, and compiled Work Hard, Pray Hard, Play Hard (Tompkins Square, 2012), an effort that would earn him a Grammy nomination and a seat at the round table of contemporary 78 record collectors.
Even so, this didn't make his job any easier. As a 21st century archivist, he alternates working with old and new mediums, and must navigate between the romantic and pragmatic aspects of collecting. Curious how he does it, we asked him about the apparent juxtaposition between his vinyl collection and his digital collection. He explained to us that, when compared to the uniform appearance of digital track lists, vinyl has a usefulness in its physical form; the artwork, the label, the liner notes and the multitude of other visual details help one to contextualize and situate the music in its time and place. “Yet those four hard drives,” he said, pointing at the entire digitized Alan Lomax Collection, “are what pay my mortgage.”
Nathan has worn the title of curator for the Alan Lomax Archive for the last four years. It’s a position that he has worked up to after starting out as a twenty-two-year old gopher and admin assistant. “To give you a feel for the era,” he said, “my first task was writing accession numbers on DAT tapes.” Today, he oversees the digital iterations of Lomax's vast collections and perpetuates the vision of the pioneering folklorist. In addition to the 17,000 some audio files currently available through the online Lomax Archive (culturalequity.org), Nathan said, “We have fifty hours of ‘30s Kentucky recordings, forty hours from the 1954-55 Italian trip, fifty hours of 1937 Haitian recordings and three hundred some hours of video that are still being processed for inclusion.” The task, he explained, is to not only make this material available, but to present it in manageable formats. Just what the ideal format is for disseminating aural and visual material, however, is a global work in progress.
As a teenager, Nathan opened a record store in Louisville, specializing in underground music. Early on, he saw how reissue labels such as Yazoo, Biograph and County effectively used detailed liner notes, photographs and excellent transfers. Nowadays, with reissue records becoming somewhat vogue, Nathan is critical of those that carelessly release content. He said, “When you see a bad reissue, it’s just a record that’s been reissued and there’s no further contextualization, which I think is sort of the point. Granted, the music should affect you first, true, but part of the joy is knowing where the stuff came from.” Making information accessible isn’t difficult, he indicated. It’s making sense of that information through an educated narrative.
A testament to his work, Nathan’s influence reached us long before we knew of him. Through the Alan Lomax Archive channel on YouTube, we had admired the footage of R.L. Burnside, Tommy Jarrell and Dennis McGee. We had seen, too, what Lomax shot of low riders in 1983 (they awkwardly pass by a static camera, a thumping bass conspicuously absent), which not only increased our respect for Lomax’s vision but also wised us to the range of material that Nathan has yet to produce. In short, it will be exciting to see what he comes up with next (we were told that up next is a new set of sacred music from Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers)!
Back at the smokehouse, a mass exodus was happening. Having transformed our pulled pork sandwiches into piles of grubby napkins bloodied with BBQ sauce, our moment of reflection seemed all of the sudden like an intrusion. We haggled our check from the flustered waitress, tipped, signed and followed the dirge of disappointed World Cup fans out into the hot summer evening, mildly pleased that our hopes and dreams rested not on sports that day, but instead on vinyl collectors.