Think of Cleveland, Ohio-based radio host and podcaster Franklin Fantini as more than a vinyl collector of note. His crate-digging habit led to Dollar Country, a home-recorded showcase of country, bluegrass, gospel, folk, Cajun and rockabilly rarities. The show's role in preserving forsaken sides --recorded by practically unknown artists and issued by equally obscure record labels-- tacks music historian and audio archivist onto Fantini's proverbial business card.
"You can go buy a Dolly Parton record at any flea market or record store, but the records [Fantini] is digging up could be lost to time if somebody doesn't care," Clint Holley of Well Made Music and The Earnest Tube told Wide Open Country. "His caring is an active thing. You know, he doesn't just care about it mentally. Franklin is going to go in a record store and sit there for four hours and sort through 2,000 records to find one record that nobody has ever heard of before. Not a lot of people have that wherewithal, so what he's doing is a very important service."
As the show's name implies, Fantini discovered his love for hard-to-find country tunes while browsing dollar bins.
"I used to have a show on the local student radio station [in Lawrence, Kan.], KJSK. My uncle was in radio for a long time, and I've always liked sharing music," Fantini said of Dollar Country's origin. "Eventually, I was working at a record store, Love Garden in Lawrence. I started collecting 45s because I thought they were cool. Country 45s were always there. Nobody seemed to be picking through them. Out of economic necessity, I started collecting those.
"I didn't grow up a country fan, but I started listening to those and I was like, 'These are really interesting and really cool.' You could find some wacky, outsider-sounding stuff," he continued. "From there, I wanted to make this radio show. I always wanted to be on the radio again, but getting a radio job if you're not a student is impossible."
Records by such lesser-known imprints as Rimrock, an obscure country goldmine founded by Arkansas-based artist Wayne Raney, get airplay on Dollar Country, proving that a release's price tag doesn't always equate its musical quality.
"I think the thing about country music that allowed me to start the show is that it's so undervalued," Fantini added. "It's so taken for granted, especially country music that's not mainstream. People don't think it's worth anything."
One of the greatest rewards for Fantini comes when the artists behind the records he spins or their kinfolks thank him for out-of-the-blue, decades-delayed exposure.
"It's usually family members because a lot of people I play are old or have passed away," he added. "That's always really cool because we live in a world where [records] are valuable now. When these records were released in the '50s, '60s, '70s and even in the '80s, a lot of these people didn't even think to hold onto copies. Some of these families don't have them, and they're glad that anybody cares."
Before adopting his country radio moniker (Hank Williams homage Frank the Drifter) or relocating to Cleveland, Fantini toured in a stoner rock band and listened to a steady diet of grindcore. What he does now mirrors his rock past more than you might suspect.
"One of the things I really took from punk and metal culture was a DIY attitude, like doing everything yourself and releasing your own records," he explained. "I basically translated that into a radio show. I record everything myself, I email radio stations myself and I do all of the distribution and packing and shipping."
To help promote the show and further spread his sonic discoveries, Fantini compiles and sells CD and cassette mixtapes as well as a fanzine he authored (Ten Country Songs About Drugs). In true punk merch table spirit, there are stickers available if you don't have a tape deck at home, with the "I Like Music That Sounds Like Shit" option coming across as more sincere than self-deprecating.
"The music I connect with most is the DIY-sounding stuff," Fantini adds. "The things that obviously sound like a major label wouldn't have signed this person. That's the sort of stuff I really like."
Like most products of underground scenes, Dollar Country is a communal effort, crowdfunded by over 125 Patreon backers. A healthy mix of self-sufficiency and listener support has grown the show since its Oct. 2016 debut into a series heard on multiple radio stations.
Episode 173, titled The Salt Grass Trail, posted on March 30. It'll introduce even the most dedicated crate-diggers to rarities by Slim Skellett & The Slim Skellet Trio, Helling and His Hillbilly Buddies and, best of all, Brenda Wells and her 1978 song "(I'll Cry My Way Through) Loretta's Greatest Hits."
"I think it's a fascinating frontier of new music discovery," Kurt DeLashmet, label manager for Arkansas-based Gar Hole Records, said of Dollar Country. "It's songs that can be quite good, very worth it, very interesting, very cool. Songs that people haven't heard in decades or no one ever really heard. He's dug out some really fascinating stuff."
Be warned, though, of a common side effect of Dollar Country fandom: the sudden urge to dig for country curiosities and build your own collection.
"That dusty, weird box of gospel records in Goodwill, you walk right past it most of the time, but there might be some hidden gems in there," DeLashmet added. "You never know. You've got to sit there and pick through them all and take chances on things you've never heard of to find out."
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