The Black Keys, deadboy & Elephantmen, Fiery Furnaces, and, coming next spring, a new album by Andrew Bird: Following the deaths of bluesmen R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, whose music helped launch the label -- and the untimely passing of potential musical heirs like Paul "Wine" Jones and Charles Caldwell -- Fat Possum Records has focused its efforts on an indie-rock future.
Luckily, for fans of rural music, there are others stepping in and picking up the obscure blues torch.
Take Missourian Jeff Konkel, who started Broke & Hungry Records last fall -- inspired, he says, by a visit to the 2005 King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. "R.L. had just passed away, and Paul died that Sunday. At the same time, it seemed like Fat Possum was pulling into a new direction, and I thought, we're losing these guys too quickly. Something needed to be done, so I tried to harness some resources and make it happen."
Three days later, Konkel drove down to Bentonia, Mississippi, and recorded Blue Front Café owner/blues guitarist Jimmy "Duck" Holmes.
This past July, Konkel recorded Gulf Coast guitarist Odell Harris for the album Searching for Odell Harris, released in November. "Again, I was following rumors. Lightnin' Malcolm spoke highly of him, and I'd heard that he'd been at Otha Turner's picnic on various occasions. I had yet to actually hear Odell, but his reputation was such that I thought I might only have one shot to record him. I took it on faith that he was as good as everyone said he was, and it was true."
Amos Harvey, who has worked as a tour manager for Fat Possum and recently put together the package for Too Close, Birdman Records' posthumous collection of field recordings on Alabama gospel singer Bishop Perry Tillis, says that there's plenty of undiscovered talent left to be tapped.
"It's inevitable," he says, "that in these small rural communities there's somebody talented, somebody creative, somebody who's an entertainer. They may not be actively practicing their craft, but they're still there. Look at the Gee's Bend, Alabama, quilters, who we just recorded last week. These ladies are singing the same songs their mothers and grandmothers sang 60 years ago. The traditions are dying out, but somebody needs to be trying to archive these last remnants."
Labels such as CaseQuarter and Dust-To-Digital are on similar missions to expose gospel music to wider audiences.
Atlanta resident Lance Ledbetter remembers falling in love with pre-war blues music via a program called Twentieth Century Archives that he heard on Georgia State University's radio station, WRAS.
"In '97, when the Anthology of American Folk Music was reissued, I started putting the pieces together," says Ledbetter, who inherited the show while a student at GSU. "I noticed an empty spot for gospel reissues, and I couldn't find an access point. Once I did, I was blown away by how much strong material was out of print."
In 2004, Ledbetter inaugurated Dust-To-Digital with a lavish, six-disc set of reissued gospel tracks and sermons called Goodbye Babylon. The equally astounding Where Will You Be Christmas Day? followed soon after. This year, he released the Fonotone Records box set, culled from the archives of longtime collector Joe Bussard; a documentary DVD on Bussard called Desperate Man Blues; a collection of sacred harp singing recordings called I Belong To This Band; The Art of Field Recording, a selection of tracks from musicologist/artist Art Rosenbaum's archives; and How Low Can You Go, a three-CD collection of string bass-dominated pre-war jazz.
Kevin Nutt, who runs the CaseQuarter label from his home in Montgomery, Alabama, has God's Got It, a phenomenal compilation on Louisiana gospel guitarist Rev. Charlie Jackson (who died shortly after its release) under his belt, along with You Without Sin Cast the First Stone, a new album by Alabama gospel veteran Isaiah Owens. He also hosts Sinner's Crossroads, a radio program on New York station WFMU, every Wednesday night.
"I can't tell you how many times I've pulled over to the side of the road and called a local radio station to find out who's playing," he says.
"For so many years," Nutt laments, "even [Library of Congress musicologist] Alan Lomax ignored the churches. Somebody needs to start canvassing churches, because there's such an incredible body of music and performance styles that's disappearing. The real juke-joint experience is gone, but there are thousands of churches, and each one has something going on musically."
"I don't think it's finite," Ledbetter says. "There's always somebody who recorded a music festival in 1952 and somebody's grandson who just found it. As far as I can tell, there's always gonna be a spotlight to shine."