Hundreds of thousands of people, if not more, around the planet are fans of bluegrass music. However, few can say that they helped introduce it to a particular part of world. In the early years of bluegrass music, it was often only available to audiences through live or radio performances. Because most of the top bands were based in the southeastern United States, it’s only logical that the music’s fan base started there. However, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, bluegrass was really starting to spread. Enter Mike Theobald, who, along with his father Jack, helped bring bluegrass music to Kansas.
In the 1960s, Jack produced a weekly radio show which featured him on guitar and lead vocals and a longtime friend on fiddle and mandolin. As a teenager, Mike joined in and added banjo the mix, thus laying the groundwork for what would become the first bluegrass band in Kansas – The Bluegrass Country Boys. The band went on to have a successful regional run throughout the 1970s and ’80s, including regular appearances at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, KS and releasing several albums. While Mike still plays banjo today, most recently with the group Kansas Heart (alongside his wife, mandolin player Vickie Lynn Theobald), his main focus for much of the past forty years or so has been on his radio career, which, interestingly enough, started with the subject of last week’s Behind the Mic, Orin Friesen.
“I met Orin Friesen while attending Wichita State University,” Mike says. “Orin was the program director for the college radio station, and he gave me my start on a weekly folk music show. It allowed me to mix in some bluegrass along with the likes of Buffy St. Marie and the Kingston Trio.”
Shortly thereafter, Mike began working full time at a 250 watt daytime radio station in Winfield, where he started an hour-long bluegrass show on Sunday afternoons. Mike’s radio work in Winfield also helped him earn a longstanding gig with the Walnut Valley Festival. He says that while working there, he met the festival’s founder, Bob Redford, and became their “commercial ad” radio voice. He later spent almost thirty years at KFDI, part of the largest chain of country stations in the nation. Today, he makes his radio home at KWLS, a country station in Wichita that, according to Mike “plays everything from modern and classic, to red dirt, to bluegrass.” He serves as the station’s general manager and also co-hosts Mike and the Ranger – Bluegrass & More, a bluegrass show on Sunday afternoons. Fans outside of the Kansas/Oklahoma area can tune in to the show online on Worldwide Bluegrass or listen to podcasts on Stitcher Radio or iTunes.
We recently had the chance to ask Mike a few questions about his thoughts on bluegrass music. Here’s what he had to say.
How would you define bluegrass music as a genre?
“When I first started it was a very narrow definition. 5-string banjo, mandolin, guitar, acoustic bass, fiddle, and dobro were the accepted instrumentation. I think that still holds true, but with the infusion of rock, jazz, country, folk, along with the thrash and punk grass movement, bluegrass has expanded as a genre, at least in the minds of the mass consumers of music. Where Mumford and Sons might be what your son or daughter calls bluegrass, you may believe that the only bluegrass on the planet are Bill, Lester and Earl, Sam, Tony, Alison and Rhonda. It’s all good and part of the never ending process of growth.”
What form of bluegrass do you most enjoy?
“All forms if it’s good.”
What artists do you consider examples of the form you most enjoy?
“Steeldrivers, Boxcars, Dan Tyminski, Darrell Webb Band.”
If you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
“It’s difficult to pick one album. I have performed, promoted, and DJ’d bluegrass for so many years, that I’m always looking for the next big thing, so I think I would get bored if forced to listen to only one album. I can tell you though, that the kind of albums I like have to have some soul to their singing, not too precious, but with some guts like the Steeldrivers, and something I can pick along with on my 5-string, right in the pocket, like the Boxcars and numerous others.”
What album is currently in your car stereo?
“Bryan Sutton – Into My Own.”
Artists who are interested in having their music considered for airplay on the Mike and the Ranger show can send physical copies of their music to:
Mike and the Ranger
325 S. Firefly Ct.
Wichita, KS 67235
If you host a bluegrass radio show and would like to participate in our chart as a weekly reporter, please fill out this form and we’ll get right back to you.