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Roots supporter turns his hand to Christmas

CD again explores antique music

LOS ANGELES -- Lance Ledbetter, who operates the independent Atlanta label Dust-to-Digital, is offering listeners a holiday celebration. And he has something to celebrate himself.

Ledbetter's gift to roots music fans is ''Where Will You Be Christmas Day?" -- a 24-track compilation of mostly pre-World War II holiday music coproduced with record collector and scholar Dick Spottswood. Not long after Dust-to-Digital issued that collection, the label got an early yuletide present: Its very first release, the six-CD box set ''Goodbye, Babylon," received two Grammy nominations this month.

The Christmas set brings together a dazzling array of antique holiday music: the blues of Bessie Smith, Leroy Carr, and Lightnin' Hopkins; the jazz of McKinney's Cotton Pickers; the rural sounds of Fiddlin' John Carson and Buell Kazee; and other styles, from early calypso to shape-note singing.

Ledbetter says the CD was inspired by the holiday shows Spottswood used to do on Maryland radio.

''I always enjoyed the way he put together his holiday playlist -- two hours of the most obscure holiday music you've ever heard," he says.

''Where Will You Be Christmas Day?" began as a kind of breather after the mammoth undertaking that was ''Goodbye, Babylon."

It took Ledbetter, now 28, close to 4 years to put that monumental collection together. When he began, he was a student at Georgia State University. Armed only with a copy of the 1997 CD reissue of Harry Smith's 1953 ''Anthology of American Folk Music," he took over a roots music show at the college's radio station. ''I looked at it as a learning experience," he says.

The old-time music bug really bit when Ledbetter began corresponding with legendary record collector Joe Bussard, who started duplicating rare 78s for the young Georgia enthusiast to play on his radio show. ''I wanted to play more gospel music," Ledbetter says. ''There were collections of blues and jazz and early country. That was the hole I found."

Ledbetter also struck up a relationship with Spottswood, another authority with a worldwide reputation.

Floating the work with a salary as a computer technician -- and running up his credit cards after he was laid off -- Ledbetter began sorting, sequencing, and annotating a mother lode of American sacred music for a multi-CD box. A thousand copies of the ''Goodbye, Babylon" set (list price $109.99) -- a cotton-lined cedar box housing the six discs and a 200-page book -- were eventually hand-assembled by Ledbetter and his fiancee.

''Each box weighs 2 pounds," he says, ''so when they all showed up, it was literally a ton of wood."

The labor paid off Dec. 7, when ''Goodbye, Babylon" received Grammy nominations for best boxed or special limited edition package and best historical album. The nominations are richly deserved: The set is a classic look at American spiritual music in all its early recorded manifestations.

The awards take place Feb. 13. Ledbetter says of the honor: ''It probably hasn't seeped in 100 percent yet. . . . We feel really happy. On Feb. 11 or 12, it might finally hit."

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