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The Collector

Chris King in a scene from The 78 Project Movie, courtesy of The 78 Project

Chris King lives in a nineteenth-century farmhouse in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, not far from the real-life Walton’s Mountain made famous by television. Until now he’s been a gracious host, providing sweetened iced tea and breaded chicken livers and playing records from his vast collection of vintage blues and hillbilly 78s. But I’ve made the mistake of asking him if he digs Howlin’ Wolf, and he’s clearly offended, as if I’ve just spit on the hardwood floor of his immaculate record room. My assumption that he’s a fan of Wolf, one of the greats of the post-war blues era, is an assault on King’s finely tuned sensibilities.

“That’s way too slick,” he says.

It’s an outlandish description of Wolf, who by any reckoning was more akin to a force of nature than a polished entertainer. (“This is where the soul of man never dies,” said producer Sam Phillips when he heard Wolf sing at his first Sun session.) And now here’s King dismissing him with cool arrogance. It’s not like he’s calling Howlin’ Wolf a pantywaist—still, I can’t let it slide.

But King isn’t one to chase down a confrontation, even with someone who’s challenged one of his pronouncements. He’s mild-mannered, a formal sort who “yessirs” his elders and strangers, a country boy raised the old-fashioned way. It’s no surprise to learn that after college he worked for a year at a funeral home, a job he may have pursued as a career if not for the irregular hours. (He says he got some fine records from estate sales at the homes of many of the deceased.) So instead of pushing or biting back, in his defense he turns to the arsenal he keeps at the ready for such situations: roughly a thousand shellac 78s nestled in custom-made shelves of sturdy poplar. He pulls out a record, forgetting his usual decorum: “Now this, this is fucking raw.”

King puts the record on a turntable, part of a vintage hi-fi system that is one of the few concessions to modern technology in a house crammed with Depression-era appliances and artifacts. It is “Rising Sun Blues” by King David’s Jug Band, a black group recorded in Atlanta in 1930. The music kicks from the speakers: a guitar and a mandolin nudging each other along, two jugs laying down a bottom rhythm, and a singer weaving his way through the syncopated bramble.

I got twelve little puppies
And ten big shaggy hounds.

It takes all of those doggies
To run my brown skin down.

King listens with reverence, and shouts over the din: “Have you ever heard a voice like that? That’s one-hundred-percent pure backwoods rural shit!”

When the record ends, he gives a brief history: It is one of only a handful of copies, a clean one he junked in a box of hillbilly 78s at a West Virginia flea market. The group made only three records, all highly sought after by collectors. Little is known about the band members except tidbits gleaned from lyrics; King figures they probably hailed from somewhere near the Alabama–Mississippi border.

“That voice is so separated from anything that you could ever hear nowadays,” he says. “It’s like from a lost colony: There’s no way that anybody could affect that voice, let alone have it nowadays. It’s a voice from somebody from some obscure town who probably never went to school beyond the fifth or sixth grade, and probably talked like his parents, who talked like his grandparents. It’s a purely historical, regional voice that can never be duplicated. It’s totally unique.”

For King, this lost voice is a clue to how pre-war blues and country have cast their spell on him. It carries the weight of centuries in its sound, and bears the traditions of countless pockets of isolated, homegrown cultures wiped out by the spread of radio and, ironically enough, records. As performers throughout the South began to emulate the quality and effect of records, they sacrificed their own idiosyncratic styles, making way for the amplified, homogenized music he despises, which, besides bluegrass, includes pretty much everything recorded after World War II.

There are plenty of 78s collectors whose shelves have a place for Howlin’ Wolf next to pioneers like Charley Patton and Charlie Poole, but King is not your average 78-record fiend. At thirty-one, he is a youngster among geezers. Most collectors, like R. Crumb, came of age in the ’50s, rejecting their parents’ big-band records and the rock & roll favored by their teen peers.

King’s love of ’20s and ’30s music, however, is part of a family tradition: His father, Les, was one of the early collectors of hillbilly records in an era when this music was held in low regard by nearly everyone outside the communities that had spawned it. A music teacher by trade, Les King was a repairman, too. He took both skills on the road, traveling throughout Bath County near the West Virginia line to give private lessons and do odd jobs, often in exchange for objects that struck his fancy. “My dad was probably the most inveterate collector you could imagine,” says Chris. “He had one room with nothing but phonographs, another for music boxes. The basement you couldn’t even walk through, it was so full of stuff he’d picked up. He was a shameless seeker of anything. He’d go into a house and see something and say, ‘You have any more like that?’ and pretty soon, instead of teaching the kid, he’d be in the basement looking for stuff.” Victrolas were Les King’s main interest, and with each of these phonographs often came a batch of 78s, eventually numbering more than twenty thousand. The sheer bulk of records ultimately overwhelmed him, and without the space or time to deal with it, he sold his collection when Chris was still just a boy. (The music boxes and Victrolas are at the home of King’s mother.)

Starting out with nothing, King has not only found a way to make 78s a recovered family tradition, he’s gone a step further by making the records available in a way his late father could never have foreseen. For County Records, King has produced scads of compilations of old-time music for a whole new audience. As a restoration engineer, he makes analog-to-digital transfers of 78s that render the nearly century-old recordings accessible to modern ears. His work on Revenant’s seven-CD Charley Patton box set, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, earned him a Grammy.

“Chris has the knowledge, he has the ear, he has the equipment and the technique,” says Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat, a North Carolina–based label, who worked with King on a compilation of black fiddlers from the ’20s and ’30s. “But he’s more than a technician, he’s an aficionado, a lover of the music. It’s not just, Bring me a stack of records and I’ll transfer ’em, it’s, Let me help you find the very best copies.”

Even for a fan of the music, this is painstaking work. Many of the most prized blues and country 78s survive only in the most wretched condition, gouged as they are by the steel needles of the old Victrolas. For the Patton project, King transferred over a hundred sides, mostly Paramounts, which are notorious for their inferior pressing and beat-to-hell copies; he managed to salvage crisp, clear transfers from all but the most battered copies. “There are spots in the groove that, for whatever reason, haven’t been tapped,” says Dean Blackwood of Revenant. “If you view it as a relief map, part of the terrain hasn’t been traveled on and Chris can get to it. He knows where to go in the groove to find music that’s still coded in there, that hasn’t been ground down to nothing.”

The entire operation, which King calls Long Gone Sound, is crammed in a tiny record room: a fancy pre-amplifier and soundboard mixer, a pair of ’50s-era tube amps on milk crates, and some high-end speakers that can rake the wattage King pushes through them. He likes to play these records loud.He has a few dozen styli that he uses to eke out some half-buried fiddle break from a worn shellac groove. Dropping the needle on an old 78, again and again and again. He calls this meticulous process “cracking the code.” What might seem tedious is for him an intricate communion. “It’s all in the whole ritual. As naive as it sounds, when I play a 78 on my turntable, it makes me feel closer to the music than playing it on a CD. It takes a special breed—there’s only so many weird, whacked-out eccentrics who get a big kick out of that three-minute experience.”

There’s a framed photo of the Skillet Lickers, the Georgia hillbilly band whose raucous fiddle tune “Liberty” was the first 78 that peaked his interest in old-time music.

But the place of honor, above his corner workspace, is reserved for a ’40s-era girlie poster by cult pin-up artist Gil Elvgren, one that predates his later nude studies. This is part of King’s pre-mass-media aesthetic. “The best thing about early Elvgren is that he gives you just enough leg for you to imagine what’s right above it,” he says.

King and his wife, Charmagne, have spent more than a year renovating their 130-year-old house, a project nowhere near completion. He recently stripped the walls of the room where the previous owner shot himself. The house is filled with period pieces salvaged from junk shops and estate sales, from a 1932 toilet and claw-footed tub to an antique pie safe and 1938 Hot-point electric stove, of which the hazardous open heat coils don’t bother King a whit. “It’s gorgeous,” he says. “It’s like a work of art. I got it out of my granddad’s basement. For us, the classic style is late Deco and early rural poverty. Most modern stuff is shit. It’s a throwaway culture. You buy a chainsaw, and after a year you throw it away and buy another one.”

King’s grandfather was an old-time fiddler who never recorded professionally. For King, he represents the pool of grass-roots artistry of the highest order, only a fraction of which was captured for posterity. “In the ’20s and ’30s, and way before that, there is no measure of the incredible musical talent that was around, both recorded and unrecorded. Now, what the hell is there? American Idol?”

Nothing gets King as riled up as talk of the modern world versus the workaday one of his grandparents. To his thinking, even the Depression is somewhat sullied by progress. His ideal is sometime around 1870, when his house was built, and life moved at the easy pace of a horse’s trot, and songs were still handed down. This era was the heyday of what King calls “true vine” music, made by obscure performers whose repertoire dated back before the blues to murky, racially mongrel nineteenth-century origins, when blacks and whites in the South not only shared the same grab bag of songs, but often the same local styles. The 78s he covets capture spontaneous, raw performances, when the only prodding from record-industry engineers was a bottle of whiskey and some pocket cash: Texas songster Henry Thomas, whose music can be heard on TV commercials via Canned Heat covers; Kentucky fiddler Jilson Setters, who made records well into his seventies; the black duo Two Poor Boys, whose songbook stretched back to the Civil War. “True vine is music that’s not shaped or molded by crass commercialism,” he says. “It’s the stuff that would have been in the American vernacular before there were phonographs or music marketeers. They didn’t have someone telling them what to do, they were playing the way they’d always played.”

There are a few dozen records that have this elusive quality, and King is always on the lookout for more. “The most captivating performances, the ones I absolutely have to own, are the most backwoodsy, informal recordings that you can’t possibly imagine. To me, there’s no such thing as a dichotomy between black and white, between blues and hillbilly. It’s more like a dichotomy between country and city. There’s the stuff that was made to sound slick, like they were recording for the microphone, versus the stuff in a country setting, where it’s like the person walked into the room and did what they did every day of their life. It may sound weird and alienating to us, but that’s because it was second nature to them.” An example of this “purely American rural music,” he says, is “That’s My Rabbit, My Dog Caught It” by the Walter Family, an instrumental recorded when the musicians weren’t aware that the mic was turned on. It has the loose feel of a rehearsal, which in fact it was. The band members chime in on an array of instruments, beginning with Draper Walter’s lone fiddle, then his wife on piano, then a guitar, a banjo, a washboard, and finally a jug—like a family jam session moving through the house and picking up players along the way, from the parlor to the kitchen to the porch. Recorded in 1933 at the height of the Depression, there is only one known copy (it’s available on the new Kentucky Mountain Music box set on Yazoo).

What destroyed this Golden Age, according to King, were advances in the music industry made after World War II, in particular the advent of amplified instruments and the A&R men who marketed music. In a purer time, King says, “you only had your voice and your instrument to produce the dynamics. That changed in the late ’40s and early ’50s with amplification. They had all these studio gadgets they pulled out, and it diminished the artistry. There’s a good analogy my dad always told me. Back in the ’20s and ’30s, they couldn’t afford a nice Martin guitar or a good Gibson mandolin; they were playing Sears & Roebucks and Stellas—Patton played on a fucking Stella and he could take that instrument and pull out more notes and rhythms than a person nowadays with the most expensive guitar could ever dream of.”

This standard, of course, means that few artists make the cut. Hank Williams? A singer from Alabama sabotaged by Nashville studios; even Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, had only three songs that aren’t too uptown for King’s tastes. Today’s so-called alt-country rebels are delusional poseurs beneath his contempt. “The alternative country scene is a twenty-five-year-old hippie girl backed by a lap steel,” he says. “There’s nothing going on. It’s urban people who sing about drinking and adultery and horseshit like that. It’s second- or third-generation swill. Somebody was playing me an alternative country band and this woman singer was really trying to put on this affected, twangy accent and it was just miserable—it made me just want to scream and tear my head off.” The only contemporary music King can stomach—besides traditional bluegrass—are stubborn iconoclasts like Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill and Tom Waits.

“Did you hear that Tom Waits said the Charley Patton set was his favorite album of all time?” says King. “He said he couldn’t keep a copy because he kept giving it to his friends.”

Driving in King’s pick-up truck, out hunting for old records, we pass a ramshackle spread where a neighbor has set up a makeshift flea market on a knoll near his driveway. A tent keeps the wares dry, but it doesn’t block the cold. The neighbor is a chronic scavenger, retrieving furniture and knickknacks that people take to the dump, then selling the stuff back to other neighbors and anyone else who happens to drive by. “He has a chair we threw out,” says King. “I’ve bought records from him. Some Bill Monroe on Columbia.”

King spends a lot of time trolling yard sales and junk shops. He posts fliers around the area (PRIVATE COLLECTOR WILL PAY CASH FOR OLD “VICTROLA” RECORDS) to flush out 78s from the surrounding countryside. Not far away, over the state line in West Virginia, King has come across some of his greatest finds in a remote county he won’t reveal. That state, he says, is still the best region to find 78s in private homes because of so many self-sufficient farmers who had money for Victrola records at the time. But even here in Nelson County, just a few miles southwest of Charlottesville, the rolling hills are planted with large Victorian farmhouses, the ones that often hold untold riches of hillbilly records. For the old folks who hesitate to sell, because they actually still use their Victrolas, King brings along a box of junkers, which he offers as replacements for a record he’s after.

Outside Lovingston, the county seat, near an abandoned train depot, we pull up to an antiques store King wants to check out. It’s not much more than a wooden shack, with dusty windows full of junk. Today it’s closed, but for King such disappointments are commonplace.

He mentions a mother and daughter his wife Charmagne recently told him about. The mother’s in her nineties. The rumor is that they’ve got 78s. They both live just down the road. But the weather makes for bad business. “It’s persistence,” King says, “and knowing when’s the right time to put the hammer down, because so many people jump the gun. For instance, I might bug those old ladies to ask them about records in the middle of winter, and they’re going to look at me like I’m a knife-wielding lunatic. But if I wait until the spring when the birds begin to sing and the ground is dry and it’s warm, and if I go over there and say, ‘I’m wondering if you had any old Victrola records?’ They might sell ’em to me. It’s knowing when to do things.”

Winter holds him back for now. When the weather breaks, he’ll pay the ladies a visit.


 This essay was originally published in the Oxford American's sixth music issue in 2003.