A traveling journalist can't live on interviews and Diet Coke alone. She needs fortifying music, and today's FM stations are awfully thin soup.
A few weeks ago I took a trip across six southern states in as many days. I logged 2,000 miles alone in my rental car, just me and the FM radio. Where I come from in Wyoming, one can hit a car radio’s Seek button and enter a trance as the digital numbers fly from 88 to 107 without alighting on any sonic islands. Knowing I would need to rely on barrels of Diet Coke and constant radio chatter to keep alert on this long trip, I decided this was an opportunity: to discover if regionalism were still alive in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas or Arkansas, at least on the airwaves.
Working from left to right on the dial, as the days rolled by I noticed the lower numbered stations tended to be public and community radio stations. Somewhere in Texas I learned about Gender Identity Disorder: that if young boys played with Barbie dolls and didn’t get along with older brothers, they may be on their way to homosexuality. While in Mississippi, I listen to a public radio call-in show called “Southern Remedy.” It was hosted by a doctor who, on this day, was joined by a charming pediatric specialist. I learned that in the South, babies who throw up frequently are known as “spitters” (oddly comforting to know this behavior has such a quaint name).
In the middle of the dial I found mostly Top 40 country music stations. Toby Keith was topping the charts. I must have heard his “American Ride” a dozen times between Marked Tree and Paducah. Justin Moore and others reminded me that the ideal man is from Small Town, USA, wears boots, chews Copenhagen, drives a tractor, flies the flag and enjoys a cold light brew on a Saturday night at the local dance hall. Carrie Underwood taught me that the ideal woman loves her man and is ready to slap down any woman (or the man himself) who gets in the way.
From about the middle of the dial to the far right there’s rock music. The breakdown into music categories here is more granular than in country. Rock is carefully compartmentalized, it seemed to me, as Oldies, Classic Rock, Top 40, Hip Hop/Urban, and Loud Generalized Screaming. From this music, no single portrait of the ideal man or woman emerged – maybe because very few of these songs are actually about people, ideal or otherwise. I found myself hitting “Seek” just a few seconds into any one song, unless Steely Dan or the Beatles captured my ear. The singer/songwriter indie rock loaded on my iPod was nowhere to be found in FM rock radio-land.
The question I posed as I began this experiment was in danger of being answered depressingly in the negative. Other than the southern pediatrician and a few regressive social theoriticians, I’d heard very few local voices. Perhaps that is because few radio programs are locally produced. Instead, most are received as though through mystical communication with a distant satellite. I had a gasp of hope in Arkansas when, not too far from the Tennessee border, I heard blues-tinged gospel music on the “Praise Hour.” And in north Texas I heard some Tejano music complete with accordions, fading into the static west of Paris.
My last night in the South took me along Highway 30 from Texarkana to Little Rock. I was out of Diet Coke, it was raining, again, and the radio was seeking seeking seeking something I would enjoy. I think it was tired of scanning and wanted to please me. Then faintly, just past Hope, I began to hear bluegrass music that sounded like it was broadcast from a radio station deep in the Ouchita Forest. Markey’s Mountain and Bluegrass Music was the program, and I had literally not heard anything like it before. Sure, we have bluegrass and old country music back in Wyoming, but this DJ was pulling material out from the 1950s and 1960s that I had never heard.
Thank you KABF radio, transmitting from Crystal Mountain. Finally, I wasn’t just in Arkansas. I was in my idea of Arkansas. And the best thing about it – those great regional sounds of that little community radio station stream live over the Internet. It’s like Roger Miller sang: “If I was a tree and you were a flower, what would we do? I guess we’d wait for the power of reincarnation.”