AUSTIN, Texas — Amelia "Foxtrot" Raley isn't a typical Austin DJ. She has no laptop, speakers or need for an electrical outlet. Instead, Raley lugs two 1900s-era phonographs and a crate of vintage records to her gigs and literally cranks out the nostalgic tunes of yesteryear.
At a recent Austin, Texas, Mini Maker Faire event, Raley's old-timey DJ set lured a group of wide-eyed children around her booth. "This record player is more than 100 years old," Raley told the curious faces. She hand-cranked the phonograph's small lever like manually rolling down a car window and dropped a thick needle that landed in the grooves of her old 78 revolutions per minute record. Then, out of the phonograph's big horn boomed the sweet 1917 tune "My Fox Trot Girl" by the era's famous saxophone ensemble the Six Brown Brothers.
Some of the taller kids poked their small heads in the horn for an irresistible peek inside a machine unlike anything they'd seen before. "It's louder than I thought," one of them said. The shorter kids tiptoed just enough to stick their hands in the bell. Almost immediately they smiled when they felt the vibrations of the music buzzing through their fingers.
Raley launched the Austin Phonograph Company last summer after her friend Devaki Knowles suggested she DJ at her outdoor wedding ceremony. A fellow lover of all things vintage, Knowles threw a laid-back old-fashioned wedding and loved the idea of the atmospheric songs of the past as part of her big day. The park didn't allow amplified music, so Raley's no-electricity-required phonographs turned out to be a perfect solution.
"I knew she had great taste," Knowles said. "From the tablecloths she uses to the hairstyle she wears, it's genuine and very Austin." Guests were so receptive to the authentic phonograph idea that Raley decided to launch a business that's now taken her across the Texas Hill Country for weddings and private events.
Raley doesn't just look the part — she lives a vintage-inspired lifestyle. Raley's been fascinated with the 1920s and 30s since she was a teenager. One of the first things she did when she got an AOL dial-up Internet account was search for "flappers." Today, she owns Sweet Ritual, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor in Austin's historic Hyde Park neighborhood. She enjoys researching and reading about the era, and signs her emails with "compiled by electric stenographer." She has collected old valentines, sheet music and vintage clothes for years.
"It made sense to collect the music, too," she says. "I've been enamored by these outside horn machines (another term for phonographs) for a while."
In 2008, Raley purchased her first phonograph. It was a reproduction, but it fueled her passion for the machines with its rich sound and elegant shape. Raley has owned a progression of phonographs throughout the years, even funding the purchase of one through a successful Kickstarter campaign. Most phonographs in good condition start at about $2,500. Raley plays two vintage 1902 and 1907 models and also owns a smaller one that's built into a suitcase. Raley purchased the two bigger phonographs through a dealer at the Marburger Farm Antique Show in Round Top, Texas.
At Raley's DJ events, guests can listen to anything from 1920s hot jazz to Texas swing, with records spanning from 1915 to about 1938. Sometimes you can find Raley perusing the record selection at local shops or on eBay, and other times record collectors contact her.
Unlike the 78s most people are familiar with, Raley's 78s only play one song per side and are made out of shellac, so they weigh a little more than vinyl. Thick, sharp needles last for one record before having to be tossed. That means Raley usually buys a couple thousand needles at a time on eBay. A small compartment on Raley's phonograph stores old needles headed for the trash.
When she shows up as the live entertainment at a wedding or art gallery opening, she says regular DJs are often taken aback. "Oh, gosh, you're the real deal," she remembers one DJ saying. But Raley doesn't call herself a DJ to other DJs.
"No matter how many times people ask me, I still can't scratch the record," she says. Without the ability to mix, Raley says she has a little less creative input as far as the music she plays. She calls what she does DJing so people can understand and relate, but she considers her live entertainment more of a performance.
As vintage-inspired television shows such as "Boardwalk Empire" and movies such as "The Great Gatsby" seep into popular culture, the music and the fashions of the early 1900s have become hip. But although the trend has helped Austinites embrace her hand-cranked phonographs, Raley says she'll still be writing letters on her old typewriter and cranking the tunes on her 110-year-old phonograph long after it fades.
Austin Phonograph Company gigs start at $300. For more information, visit austinphonographcompany.com.