For some DJs, radio is a casual weekend hobby. For others, it’s a career. For Midwest native Orin Friesen, who celebrates his fiftieth year in radio this month, it’s been a lifelong passion. “I can’t remember when I wasn’t interested in radio,” he says.
It all started on the Nebraska farm where he grew up. He built his first radio transmitter as a teenager in the early 1960s, and got a ham radio license in 1963. His first radio show came the next year as a freshman at Wichita State University, dropping bluegrass into the playlists of the folk and acoustic music program he hosted. Several years later, he graduated with a degree focusing in radio and television, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Friesen’s current show has been on the air since 1973. Originally called Bluegrass Country, he changed the name to Bluegrass from the Rocking Banjo Ranch when he started broadcasting from his Kansas ranch in 2001. It was one of the first big bluegrass radio shows in the nation, and was syndicated on 35 radio stations all around the country throughout the 1980s and 90s, including large stations in Shreveport, Oklahoma City, and Baltimore. Unlike today, when broadcasters can simply post online or email digital versions of their shows for other DJs to use, Friesen mailed out two tape reels of his show each week to every station that broadcast it. Friesen was IBMA’s first Broadcaster of the Year, an honor which was presented at the first IBMA awards show in 1990 – an event that he helped develop, and co-produced until 1999. Friesen’s lifelong dedication to radio was recognized again by the IBMA in 2012, when he was presented with a Distinguished Achievement Award.
However, Friesen’s involvement in music hasn’t been limited to radio. He’s a musician, and has actively played in various bands since 1967. His emphasis was on bluegrass until the late 1990s, when his focus switched to cowboy music. He is currently the operations manager at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper, an Old West/cowboy themed dinner show in Benton, Kansas. He is the bass player and bandleader for the show’s house band, the Prairie Rose Rangers, a popular group that has played at Carnegie Hall twice and even toured China in 2006. Friesen is also the author of the recent book Goat Glands to Ranch Hands: The KFDI Story, which traces the history of the Wichita radio station on which his show is broadcast.
We recently had the chance to ask Friesen 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?
“It is very difficult to define bluegrass music. It is based on the music of the early founders of the style of music that became known as bluegrass. That includes Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and all of the other first generation performers. The music is centered mostly around the sound of the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar, bass, and dobro. Whereas most popular music uses instrumentation as a support for vocals, in bluegrass the instrumentation is featured just as much as the vocals. Bluegrass started as a progressive style of music and it has continued to progress ever since it began. It is my belief that almost any song can be done in the bluegrass style, and still be “bluegrass” and still be recognized as being a part of the genre. Having played bluegrass on the radio and in bands for 50 years, it is still difficult to define the music, but I “know it when I hear it.” It’s hard to explain bluegrass music and I think everyone may describe it differently. My own definition of the genre would be more inclusive than exclusive. Though I wouldn’t include pre-Monroe styles of music in my definition of bluegrass, I do gladly include the modern, progressive, or newgrass styles.”
What form of bluegrass do you most enjoy?
“Newgrass. I love all varieties of bluegrass, though the emphasis of my show is current music.”
What artists do you consider examples of the form you most enjoy?
“New Grass Revival, Mountain Heart, Balsam Range, Blue Moon Rising, Infamous Stringdusters, Lonesome River Band, Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, Steep Canyon Rangers, Gibson Brothers, and many others.”
If you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, with Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Vassar Clements, etc. This landmark album from the early ‘70s brought together Nashville music legends and young upstarts from the California rock scene. It was pure magic. All of the heart and soul of the music came to the forefront in that album, and the personal comments between tracks were the ‘icing on the cake.’ Though I love all of the thousands of records in my collection, the Circle album continues to remain at the top of my favorites. This album paid homage to the heritage of the music, while at the same time bringing a fresh presentation to it. I realize that this love of traditional music seems to contradict my love for newgrass or progressive bluegrass. I actually like all forms of bluegrass if it’s done well. I love Ralph Stanley and John Cowan equally.”
What album is currently in your car stereo?
“Hook, Line, and Sinker by Chesapeake, because T. Michael Coleman just gave it to me yesterday.”
Artists who are interested in submitting their music to Friesen for airplay consideration should mail a CD to him at:
Rocking Banjo Ranch
14339 SW Parallel St.
Benton, KS 67017
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