Thrift store answering machines inspire local musician

by Amy Kingsley

The final track on Bart Trotman’s album Messages is a lament about alcohol addiction, heartbreak, regret and loneliness. Thematically the lyrics could hail from any number of folk musical forms indigenous to our area: country, bluegrass or blues.

But upon listening, it becomes immediately obvious that the lyricists of this particular piece don’t descend from any of those musical traditions. Instead their words come from a casual conversation, recorded long ago then forgotten and relegated to a thrift store.

The tape with the dialogue between two women came from an answering machine. In most cases, whoever bought the machine would have thrown out the tape, or recorded over its contents with new messages. Not Trotman, who saw an answering machine, got an idea and elevated a conversation to ‘“The Conversation.’”

Along the way Trotman had to edit out some boring moments, discussions about mortgages and transporting kids to school that don’t contain the dramatic heft required for musical epics. And it is an epic, clocking in at 27 minutes.

‘“The first tape I got was the conversation,’” Trotman says. ‘“And I was hooked after that.’”

Trotman, who frequents thrift stores in Greensboro and his hometown Shelby, west of Charlotte, saw an answering machine in one thrift store that used conventional-sized cassette tapes. He removed the tape from the machine and bought it along with a handful of music tapes each priced at a quarter.

‘“It wasn’t really a stroke of genius,’” he says. ‘“It was just me going to thrift stores, looking at the answering machines they had for sale and realizing that they still had tapes in them.’”

He collected the tapes when he could find them and noted the most interesting content. Next he edited the messages together, wrote some music and combined all of it with a digital music program. Although he wrote and performed all the instrumentation for the project, the album puts the messages front and center.

‘“For the most part I wanted to let the messages breathe,’” he says. ‘“It’s more about the messages than the music. I mean, they’re the lead vocals.’”

The music was written to reinforce what is happening in these answering machine exchanges, like the first track, ‘“Talk at Cha.’” Jazzy guitars and brushed cymbals back messages focusing on partying or sports teams. The ‘vocalists’ on that number discourse on leisure with the world-weariness of corporate clock punchers.

On ‘“Crazy Knife,’” Trotman pairs a menacing melody with a dialogue describing an angry woman who has pulled a gun, walked out to her car in the pouring rain and driven off into the night.

‘“After she left he pulled a knife out of the drawer,’” says the voice at the end. The speech is peppered throughout with maniacal laughter.

It is the only violent scene played out over the found voicemail messages that comprise the album. Trotman edited one message he found where the voices discussed espionage and intrigue, but did not include it on the album.

‘“Some of my friends told me that they were describing a scene from the movie True Lies,’” he says.

It is the third song, ‘“Mrs. Beverly, Just When ARE You Coming Home?’” that provides the most developed storyline, complete with subplots. What’s in the package that arrived for Beverly two days ago? Is it perishable? Did she flee her forlorn boyfriend? Did she ever come back home?

Trotman has a healthy collection of tapes collected over a year and a half of shopping thrift stores, but much of the good material from that collection comprises the vocals for his album. The rest are just run of the mill ‘“hey it’s me, call me back,’” phone tags, he says.

‘“I think I have found all the tapes there are to find in this area.’”

Recently he has tried expanding his repertoire of recorded media, buying an answering machine that uses mini-tapes so he can tap into that small universe of left messages. Unfortunately, the machine he purchased did not work, and Carolina Thrift offers no money-back guarantee.

Another shortcoming of the switch to mini-tapes is the difficulty of purchasing the tapes. When Trotman buys the conventional cassettes, cashiers often assume he selected them from a tape section, but with mini-tapes, his cover is blown.

All the same, the endangered nature of these answering machine tapes is at least part of the romance for Trotman, even if it necessitates a limited discography of such recordings.

‘“For the most part when people leave messages these days its on a cell phone,’” he says. ‘“So its digital and mostly deleted really quickly. The time of leaving our messages on tapes is disappearing. In five or ten years people won’t be buying answering machines anymore so no one will be selling them to thrift stores.’”

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