edited from Amanda Petrusich (www.oxfordamerican.org):
In the summer of ’66, Bussard was on the road, running his usual Appalachian route in a Scout pickup. He thinks he must’ve had a buddy with him, but that bit of the legend is incidental, at least as far as Bussard is concerned. He got lost looking for a flea market. That sort of thing happened to him a lot. “So old dummy, old dumbass, I s’pose I made a right turn instead of a left turn,” he explained. There was a pause. “Best left turn I ever made.”
Bussard was getting into the story now, his blue eyes flashing like two synchronized traffic lights. “So I got down the road about a mile and thought, There’s no flea market down here. There’s an old man walking up the road, and so I ask him, and he says, ‘Yeah, it’s up there up the road.’ I said, ‘You goin’ up? Hop in!’ And I had a tape playing, some strange stuff. He says, ‘You getting that on the radio?’ I said, ‘No, it’s a tape.’ He said, ‘That figures,’ because, you know, he knew damn well there wasn’t anything on the radio any good. And we went up there and walked around and I didn’t find anything, of course. Then I told him what I was looking for.” Bussard was doing all the voices now: his, the old man’s. “He said, ‘I got a gang of them back at the house.’”
He drove the man the twenty-five miles or so to his house, a little shotgun shack behind a trailer park. “Sloppiest-looking place you’d ever seen—looked like a flood had hit it. And we went into this shack,” he continued, “and he goes down a hall, turns left, pulls a box out from under the bed.” Bussard felt that familiar churn of anticipation in his gut, but he knew deals like this could curdle quickly. The records might be garbage, or the man might decide at the last minute—when confronted with a stranger’s barely contained eagerness—that he didn’t want to sell after all.
“[The box] had so much dust on it—like snow, like a blizzard.” Bussard leaned in and mimed blowing the dust off the surface. His cheeks puffed up and deflated, like a cartoon’s. Bussard’s whole life would be changed—nearly defined—by the next five minutes, but he didn’t know that yet. “First record I hit was an Uncle Dave Macon. Average. Carter Family. Charlie Poole. And then the first Black Patti. I went down a little further. Three more! Phew! Finally I got to the bottom of the box, and there were fifteen of ’em. I said, ‘Where’d you get these records from?’ He said, ‘Oh, some guy gave them to my sister in 1927, we didn’t like ’em so we put ’em in the box under the bed.’ I said, ‘What do you want for them?’ and he said, ‘Ten dollars.’ And I said, ‘Ten dollars.’”
Bussard paid the man and booked it back to his truck. Almost immediately after he got back to Frederick, word got out about his find and offers started accumulating. First, Bussard said, was the collector Bernie Klatzko, who drove down from New York City and offered him $10,000 for Black Patti 8030, “Original Stack O’Lee Blues,” performed by Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull, the Down Home Boys.
Although some Black Patti masters were also issued by other labels, like Champion or Gennett, and often with the performer using a different name, “Original Stack O’Lee Blues” was released by Black Patti exclusively, and in 1966, Bussard’s was the only known copy in the world. “So then after that happened, Don Kent called, he came down, offered me more. I had other offers. Went up to twenty thousand dollars, then twenty-five, then thirty, then thirty-five, then up to fifty thousand dollars.” Bussard darted over to the shelves. “Don’t look at where I keep it!” he said, pulling the record down and trotting back to his desk. He held it out to me in a way that suggested, “Take a nice long look, drink it in, but don’t you dare touch.” A mammoth grin spread across his face