Where Music and Art Collide
by Steve Dollar

When she was in college, Susan Archie was a rock-n-roll pilgrim. She made many a jaunt to Atlanta, where she caught shows at since-vanished venues like the 688 Club and the Agora Ballroom. Punk rock had erupted in New York and England, and the effects were reverberating, even in the Bible Belt. Homegrown bands such as the B-52s, REM and Love Tractor began to pack downtown music dives, and when performers like Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads passed through, their concerts took on the aura of legend even before they plugged in their amps.

"I'll never forget seeing the Talking Heads," Archie says, recalling one of those roadtrips from her days as a student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, which was far off the cultural radar in 1979, "and then having pancakes with Tina and Chris at the I-HOP on North Avenue." 

Flash forward to 2003, when Archie found herself on another pilgrimage: Up to the stage at Madison Square Garden to accept her Grammy Award for Best Box Set packaging. The graphic designer, who now lives in Atlanta, beat out much better-known competitors for the prize, which was given for her exhaustively detailed work on a massive archival endeavor: Screamin and Hollerin the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, released on the Texas-based Revenant label.

"It was a definite rush when they called my name," says Archie, 46. "I got a thumbs-up from Tony Bennett! Bootsy Collins and B.B. King were there in the aisle, and they gave me a big smile. I'm thinking, So, yeah! This is great! I got ups from Bootsy!" As a lifelong music fan who had taken up freelance design after dropping out of the New York corporate world, Archie felt as if she'd strolled through the looking glass. What's remarkable, in an era ruled by the iPod, is that her World of anArchie studio has made a name in the music industry for the handcrafted, almost antiquarian quality and charm of her projects.

Not only that, but she's scored two more Grammy nominations. In 2003, she went up for Goodbye, Babylon, a six-disc set of 1920s and '30s gospel songs and sermons released on Atlanta's Dust-to-Digital label. And last month, she returned for her efforts on yet another meticulous, extravagant package, the 9-CD set Holy Ghost, an extensive summary of rare and unreleased performances by the 1960s free-jazz phenomenon, Albert Ayler, also on Revenant.

What ties together Archie's projects is a love for obsessive detail and unusual materials, applied in artful ways that both illuminate the often arcane or archaic recorded works and give the buyer a unique object -- not so much like a coffee-table book as a magic totem. That these epic productions are created on low budgets for companies that are usually run by one or two people also makes Archie's achievements remarkable.

"I am very lucky that I've been able to work for fetishists who care more about the music than about skewing to the demographics of their target audience," says Archie, who often makes use of crafted wood boxes, which become something like reliquaries, filled with exotic minutiae. The Ayler set, which was designed as a faux-onyx, engraved spirit box, has a copy of an old snapshot of the ecstatic saxophonist, 1960s pamphlets, and pressed flowers, along with the CDs (in ornate vellum slip covers) and a 200-page clothbound booklet of essays and photos. The wooden lid of Goodbye, Babylon is embossed with a line drawing of Gustave Dore's 1897 illustration The Confusion of Tongues. At first glance, it looks like a woodcut. Slide the top open, and the CDs are nested between balls of raw cotton.

To be fair, Archie says, the idea for the cotton came from Lance Ledbetter, the twenty-something roots music enthusiast who founded Dust-to-Digital after a stint working with another Atlanta label, Table of the Elements. It was there, a decade ago, that Archie first began designing CD packages under label owner Jeff Hunt, whose releases touched on everything from Sonic Youth side projects to avant-garde chamber music and the late-career revival of guitarist John Fahey (who launched his Revenant label not long after Archie began assisting Hunt).

"I've been able to participate in the development of little museum pieces,"she continues. And the actual music that I have worked on, it's important stuff. It's what shaped popular music as we know it today. 

One day Archie was listening to NPR's Weekend Edition, and Neil Young was on. He said that his old friend Bob Dylan had given him an 'incredible box set full of old gospel in a wooden box called Goodbye, Babylon that he was carrying around and really enjoying. And that it was just so beautiful..' Now, in my mind it doesn't get any better than that: Bob Dylan is running around giving out box sets we made here in Atlanta, and Neil Young is our unofficial spokesman. I mean, come on! 

Ledbetter, who first met Archie 14 years ago, believes her success comes from loving the music as much as her clients do. "She gets right in there with you," he says. "You go over to her house, and we're playing the CD. I got a great feeling from her, and began trusting her more and more. I let her do what she thought should be done, and almost every time it looked better than what I thought it would be."

The acclaim won by Archie's box sets has attracted similar work: she designed an upcoming collection of Blind Willie McTell recordings that promises to be definitive, and continues to work with Ledbetter, as well as Revenant and Table of the Elements. Her mojo has won some unique fans, such as Ghost World cartoonist Daniel Clowes and rebel design guru Stefan Sagmeister.

"It's funny how things resonate far and wide but hardly a ripple here in Atlanta," she says, with a note of irony. "I mean the Albert Ayler box that is up for two Grammys? Around here not many have even heard of Ayler, except for the guys at [local record stores] Wuxtry and Full Moon. But the set is winning prizes in Europe. And you can find the TOTE stuff in record stores in Paris or Amsterdam, but good luck finding anything up at Tower. A friend of mine told me he saw my work in a shop in Rome! 

And win or lose, as they used to say, it's always an honor to be nominated. Though Archie was disappointed when she didn't garner back-to-back trophies for Goodbye, Babylon in 2003, she did relish knowing her winning competition: The Talking Heads.