Atlanta design artist hoping for more Grammy gold

Susan Archie still gets goosebumps when she thinks about winning her first Grammy Award.

Her mother died the year prior, but the sadness she carried all of those months was temporarily alleviated as she wound her way through the crowd at Madison Square Garden.

There was Tony Bennett, giving her a high-five. And Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins pointing at her — the winner of the 2003 Grammy for best boxed or special limited edition package for “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton.”

Archie got to the stage and unleashed an audible exhale.

“It was surreal. I was onstage at Madison Square Garden,” she said, recalling the moment.

It was a long way from growing up in Boynton Beach, Fla., drawing pictures of horses and roses.

On Feb. 15, Archie finds out if she’s won her third Grammy. She’s nominated for “The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records” – “Volume Two (1928-32)” on which she collaborated with Revenant Records co-founder Dean Blackwood and Jack White (White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather). She won last year for “Volume One.”

Archie, 56, has combined her love of music and design for most of her life. After getting a degree in visual arts at Florida State University, she and her band, The Implications, moved to New York when she was 21. Corporate jobs at behemoths such as Grey Advertising and Citibank paid the bills while she played the drums. In 1989, Archie moved to Atlanta and created PowerPoint presentations for companies including Ernst & Young and Price Waterhouse.

An introduction to Jeff Hunt, founder of now-defunct Atlanta indie label Table of the Elements, led to her first job designing a CD — the 1995 Gastr del Sol album, “Harp Factory on Lake Street.”

In the ensuing decades, Archie has designed projects for Dust-to-Digital, Fifth Planet Press, Kranky Records and Tompkins Square Records, as well as “The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949.” She’s been nominated for six Grammys.

“It should win this year,” Archie said of “Volume Two,” a 22-pound treasure trove of musical artifacts. “People may say, ‘They won last year,’ or that this is really over the top … because it is over the top.”

Inside her artsy Candler Park home, where she’s lived for a quarter century with her partner of 37 years, Janet Smith, Archie kneels on the hardwood floor in her track suit pants and unlocks the silver case that contains the innards of “Volume Two.”

Six LPs of songs from historical Mississippi Delta Blues artists such as Geeshie Wiley, The Mississippi Sheiks, Skip James and Charley Patton; three books; a field guide with biographies and illustrations of the singers; reprints of hand-drawn ads from the Chicago Defender newspaper; and a metal USB drive in the shape of a hood ornament containing 800 songs fill the polished aluminum case.

Archie lovingly holds up one of the white vinyl LPs, which are label-less and contain holograms of shapes that pop up when playing.

“We really pushed a lot of boundaries,” she said. “That’s what Jack is all about.”

Several years ago White, the mercurial face of one of the most revered garage rock bands of the late-‘90s/early ‘00s, met with Blackwood, whose Revenant Records produced the Charley Patton box set that earned Archie her first Grammy, and expressed interest in culling a history of Paramount Records. Archie was looped in to work on the project.

The Grammy-winning “Volume One” of the Paramount collection was released as a joint production between Revenant and White’s Third Man Records, as is “Volume Two.”

“The first time I met Jack, we spent two days together. Just sat in his office and tossed ideas around,” Archie said. “He’s a gentleman. Really nice. Very polite. He’s got his ideas, he’s definitely in charge, but he listens and he contributed a lot artistically. It’s like Willy Wonka’s factory up there. But they do serious work. (Jack) has a serious work ethic.”

The Paramount collections cost $400 per unit to produce and the retail price is … $400, so turning a profit isn’t a priority for White, Archie said.

“It’s a history lesson. It’s not pop. It’s not current, but the music is so great. People are going back. Music today is so bland, it’s just a repeat of everything. You go back to this and it’s art. It’s different. It’s something you haven’t heard before,” she said.

Lisa Love, director of music marketing for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, counts herself among Archie’s many fans.

“Susan is a quiet superstar,” said Love. “She is a wickedly talented artist, but I think her work has resonated so strongly because her motivation comes from a deep and authentic love of music and not dollar signs or credit. She’s a die-hard music fan who has earned her own place among the greats behind the scenes.”

Archie dreams of doing a Joni Mitchell box set so day. She’d also like to work with Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and Rhino Records. But for now she will continue with under-the-radar endeavors including another Greek music compilation by renowned record collector and producer Chris King, which will be released by Third Man Records.

And, of course, there is the possibility of a celebration Monday night.

“It’s a lot different when you win and when you lose, and I have been on both sides,” said Archie. “If we win this time, we’ll be batting .500, and I can tell you, it’s a lot more fun to win.”

Follow Melissa Ruggieri’s live Grammy coverage from Los Angeles on Twitter (@MRuggieriAJC) and The Music Scene blog at AJC.com.

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