On WDVX, the Barndance Comes to Town

Marty Stuart Blue Plate SpecialFor all its country music history, Knoxville might have been "Music City U.S.A." And now with the Blue Plate Special, broadcast live, it's tugging at the title again.

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Marty Stuart on WDVX

Marty Stuart (second from right) plays with the Fabulous Superlatives on WDVX’s Blue Plate Special, a live radio broadcast performed before a live audience in Knoxville
Photo: Jack Goodwin for the Boston Globe

A culture cannot be kept alive under a piece of glass in a museum
Dewey Balfa

Every weekday from noon until 1 PM a feisty, low-power, listener-supported radio station in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, broadcasts and streams on the web a live music show before a live audience. The Blue Plate Special is produced at WDVX, which the Oxford American magazine has called “probably the best radio station in the world.” While that effusive endorsement may be open to debate, the creativity and passion of the people behind the station — and the allegiance of its fans around the world — are not. (With all four of the WDVX frequencies locked in to my truck’s radio so that I can always drive within listening range, I’m completely partial.)

The format of live music before a live audience hearkens to a time when radio connected rural communities to the nation and helped develop what we now call country music. Before the advent of television when almost half the country was rural, Saturday night “barndances” were common on many of the 50,000 watt clear channel radio stations. In addition to WSM’s Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, weekly hillbilly/country shows were broadcast in Chicago, Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Worth, Louisville, Richmond, Shreveport, Knoxville, and Wheeling, WV. The Opry is the only one still broadcasting. Locally, to revive live radio music before a live audience after a 50-year absence is significant for all east Tennessee, because Knoxville radio played such a sizeable role in finding and developing early country performers.

What became known commercially as country music was originally called “hillbilly music,” rooted in a variety of Southern and Southern Appalachian musical traditions — including Irish and Scottish (and Americanized string band music that evolved from those), gospel, blues, and folk music. The term “Hill-Billies” may date back to 17th century Ireland as a pejorative term used by Catholics to describe northern Protestant supporters of William (Billy) of Orange. Sometime after World War II, those determined to sell hillbilly music to a wider national audience decided that “country music” was a more palatable term for the broader public.

Don GibsonLocal music legend Don Gibson wrote his hit “Oh Lonesome Me” when he was on hard times in Knoxville
Photo: Herb Severing’s Don Gibson Page

Whatever you call this music, Knoxville helped make it happen. Local country music fans all know the legends of Knoxville’s music past: The Everly Brothers moving to Knoxville while in high school to play local TV and radio stations; Hank Williams, the hillbilly Shakespeare, spending the last night of his young and tortured life at Knoxville’s Andrew Johnson Hotel; Dolly Parton singing on a local television show at the age of 10; or Don Gibson, writing two of country music’s classic songs, ”I Can’t Stop Loving You” and ”Oh Lonesome Me,” while living alone in a trailer in Knoxville after just having his television set repossessed. But the city’s greatest contribution was via WNOX’s live noonday comedy-music program “Mid-day Merry Go-Round.” The show aired Monday through Saturday for 26 years, including holidays, beginning in 1936, and ceased broadcasting only during a three-day mourning period for FDR’s death.

Many locals wonder why Nashville, Knoxville’s more urbane neighbor 180 miles to the west, become known as the country music capital and Music City U.S.A. when WNOX was the first radio station in Tennessee (only the eighth in the country) and many of the early country music stars, people from the hills and hollows around Knoxville, got their start on Mid-day Merry-Go Round. Some in east Tennessee harbor a belief that Knoxville lost its chance because of a lack of vision — an inability to see the potential under their very guitars. Perhaps, but a more likely explanation is that Nashville’s WSM was owned by a wealthy insurance company, Life and Casualty, that was willing to bankroll the station in order to advertise itself and sell insurance policies. In 1932 WSM became a 50,000 watt clear channel station, while WNOX by 1933 operated at only 2,000 watts. When in doubt, follow the money.

Andrew Johnson hotel
Knoxville’s early live music show was first broadcast from Andrew Johnson Hotel (at left)
Image: via rediff.com

Despite its limited reach, the Mid-day Merry-Go-Round was a huge success and launched the careers of such famous performers as Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Don Gibson, The Carter Sisters, Bill Carlisle, Kitty Wells, Pee Wee King, Homer and Jethro, and comedian Archie Campbell. Its popularity in Knoxville was immense. The show was originally broadcast from a small studio within the Andrew Johnson Hotel but within three months had to move to a larger venue to accommodate the crowds. Yet another move was required three months later, and WNOX purchased an old tabernacle on Gay Street, Knoxville’s main midtown street. It is reported that hundreds of people attended the shows, even during the week. And on Saturdays, when the textile and clothing mills were closed, upwards to 1,000 people crowded into the auditorium. Musicians were paid 50 cents a day (equivalent to a little less than $8 in 2008), and the initial admission price of a nickel was raised to 25 cents after the move to the auditorium.

The last show aired in 1962. One could blame its demise on television or Elvis, or simply on old age — after six programs every week for 26 years.

Tony LawsonRadio visionary Tony Lawson, founder of WDVX in Knoxville
Photo: WDVX

Fast forward to 1991. East Tennessee native Tony Lawson, a disc jockey at a commercial radio station in Knoxville, had grown increasingly disturbed that so little of the region’s great music heritage was part of current-day local radio. For many listeners, corporate radio has become as generic and homogenous as the rest of mainstream culture, offering little more than pentatonic pabulum to its listeners. Lawson wanted an alternative. So he talked with some friends and they put together a plan for a radio station, obtaining a federal license to operate. But there was a problem — they had no studio and little money for one. So off to Clinton, TN, a town of less than 10,000 located twenty miles north of Knoxville. There, Lawson asked the director of a campground in if he’d ever thought of hosting a radio station. “Can’t say as I have” was the response. Pointing to nearby Cross Mountain, Lawson explained that he had a radio station but needed a location for it where the signal would reach that mountain: the campground was a prime spot. The campground director said that he had a 14-foot camper the broadcasters could use. Would that be big enough for a studio? They next day they installed the station in the camper at the Fox Inn Campground and launched WDVX, sending its signal through an antenna on the camper’s roof.

WDVX camperWhere it all began: WDVX’s camper studio in Clinton, Tennessee
Photo: WDVX

The tiny studio had its disadvantages. There was no plumbing, so when deejays needed to heed nature’s call, they put on a long set of music, made a mad dash across the campground, and hoped all went well back at the station. But the image of that camper along with the quality of music being played there caught people’s imagination. Lawson made another smart move in 1999 when he gave Alex Leach, a 9-year-old with an encyclopedic knowledge of bluegrass music and a highpitched, nasal voice, his own bluegrass show. A unique vision for radio, a photogenic studio, and a deejay whose voice had yet to change — the world began to discover WDVX.

Alex LeachAlex Leach, age 12 here, started DJing for WDVX at age nine
Photo: WDVX

The station was named Bluegrass Radio Station of the year in 2003, 2005, and 2007, (and Leach was chosen bluegrass DJ of the year in ’03 and ’05), but bluegrass is only one type of roots music you’ll hear on WDVX. The station defines itself as playing “Americana,” a relatively new term to describe music derived from the traditions of American roots music. It includes the classic performers of American cultural traditions and contemporary artists whose music is clearly inspired by those traditions: alternative country, traditional country (from the ’20s to the ’70s ““ no Tim McGraw and Faith Hill), Western swing, bluegrass, Cajun, blues, traditional mountain music, Celtic, black and mountain gospel, and roots rock and roll. A set of music on WDVX may include several of these genres. It’s not uncommon to hear the likes of Hank Williams, Lucinda Williams, Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris, The Red Stick Ramblers, The Staples Singers, Ralph Stanley and Van Morrison in the same set.

In 2004 WDVX left its famous camper and accepted an offer to move into the Knoxville Visitors’ Center downtown. The new studio offers amenities like indoor plumbing and restaurants within a short walk — benefits heretofore unknown to the camper emigrés. The new location allowed the station to experiment with hosting live music before an audience, and all were aware that the Mid-day Merry-Go-Round had had its heyday only two blocks away. WDVX had run a noontime show of mostly recorded music called The Blue Plate Special since the camper days, but a stage added into the corner of the tourism center took the show one step further — bringing in live musicians to play before live audiences. The experiment started with once a week live shows but, as always, Lawson was bold, and decided to try producing the show every weekday at the noon hour.

(Listen to the Earl Brothers performing “Hard Times Down the Road” on the WDVX’s Blue Plate Special.)

Co-hosts of the noontime Blue Plate Special are Matt Morelock, a Knoxville native and old time banjo player and teacher, and Red Hickey, also a product of Knoxville, who studied fashion design in Atlanta and London and worked for a lingerie designer before returning to her hometown. Red –and the hair is shockingly so — sports a style that I can only describe as redneck hip ornate, set off nicely with a wash of tattooed color on both arms. But the bulk of responsibility and much of the credit for the show falls with Morelock, who also sets up the stage, engineers the sound, keeps the show on schedule and, with Lawson, books the talent.

WDVX Matt riggingCo-host Matt Morelock wears many hats, including soundman
Photo: Jack Goodwin

Fortified with broad knowledge and impeccable taste in roots music, Morelock until recently hosted a Monday night show on WDVX that was so good I began recording them to put in my CD player on long drives. You might not expect to find a guy with a degree in anthropology and a minor in African studies playing hillbilly music but having once heard it, he was hooked; when WDVX offered him a Monday night slot, he jumped at it.

(Here are the Carolina Chocolate Drops playing “Cornbread and Butterbeans” on the show.)

Having live musicians perform before an audience on the radio is so rare that some of the musicians are still surprised when they show up to find that they will be playing before living, breathing people. As Morelock tells it, some musicians “can’t believe that we host a show five days a week that is so potentially catastrophic.” Nevertheless no-shows have been few, and talent around town is quick to find when necessary. With the increased popularity of the show, Tony and Matt now field about 20 requests a day from artists wanting to appear, and the show has bookings into October.

WDVX Carpetbaggers

Carpetbag Theater takes the stage at WDVX’s Blue Plate Special
Photo: Jack Goodwin

The lineup is different every day. Musicians range from struggling unknowns who still need a day job to Grammy Award winners who haven’t played in a coffee shop that can barely seat 70 in many years. Well known artists including Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, David Grisman, Tim O’Brien, Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Bela Fleck, The Steeldrivers, Tift Merritt, and legendary Sun Record Producer Cowboy Jack Clement have graced the show. Lawson beams as he tells about the time that Americana icon Robert Earl Keen showed up in the audience just to listen.

Needless to say, not every day is sterling. On a recent Monday I watched Morelock, after a weekend of music and play in Nashville and a drive back to Knoxville that began at 5:30 a.m., suffer very professionally through two mediocre singer/songwriters and a crowd of less than 20, offering the same enthusiasm for the acts as he did a few days later when a standing room only crowd cheered the Earl Brothers’ singing about illicit whiskey, women, and death in their ancient, almost gothic, hillbilly style. Mandolin player Larry Hughes pulled a small camera out of his pocket on stage, pointed it toward the audience, and clicked. “We’re the tourists here,” he explained, and the fun began.

WDVX MichelleMichelle Malone performs on the Blue Plate Special
Photo: Jack Goodwin

The moments can be magic in this warm, resonant listening room framed by the Wall of Fame – 100 blue plates each adorned with a photograph of an artist appearing on the Blue Plate Special. Economic and ethnic divisions dissolve before a common love of music; well-polished tassel loafers sit side by side with those who are still grateful for a Roosevelt dime. As the music begins smiles break out, a woman beside me claps her hands silently to the music, heels hit the floor in cadence. The music weaves its spell.

Lawson sees the daily live music shows as a great community service and part of the bigger goal of developing a vibrant music scene in downtown Knoxville. He sits on the board of the newly formed Knoxville Americana Music Foundation that plans to kick off monthly Americana music shows in August, to be held at the historic Bijou Theatre and broadcast live by WDVX. The radio station is also in the process of creating CD’s of Blue Plate performances. So where does this all lead? The man who was willing to start a radio station in a remote campground and give a nine-year-old his own radio show explains, “I’ve always said from day one, who knows what it will be if we don’t’ get in the way?”

You can listen to WDVX on the Internet at www.wdvx.com.

(Note: Chuck Shuford caught up with Marty Stuart and asked why a big-time country music star would want to perform live on a little local radio show. Read all about it.)


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