Bluegrass music lost one of its foremost champions Friday when former DJ Dennis Jones died at a hospital in Shelby, N.C., after fighting sepsis for days. He was 62.
Dennis was the longtime host of Goin’ Across the Mountain on WNCW Radio until he was taken off the air late in 2017. He was also a much-sought-after emcee and, as anyone who followed him on Facebook and online discussion groups knows, a hardliner about what is and isn’t bluegrass.
To say Dennis thought bluegrass is meant to be played exactly the way Bill, Lester and Earl played it, is a stretch. But not much of one. He’d call newer stuff music. Maybe even good music. But he wouldn’t call it bluegrass. Ever.
Jones, who was born in 1956 and contracted polio at the age of 3, never let the disease slow him down or define him, friends remember. “He didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for him,” recalled good friend Mike Ramsey. “That was just his lot in life.”
Ramsey got a chance to visit Dennis in the hospital earlier this week. He said the perfect summation of his friend’s life came from a nephew, who said, “I think he went around the world and saw everything twice.”
He did, indeed, travel widely, thanks to an earlier job as a first-call front-of-house soundman. Those who know Dennis only through bluegrass might be surprised to know that he ran sound on a world tour for rock band Huey Lewis and the News, and worked for a time for Disney studios in California.
That was Dennis, in a nutshell. Incredibly talented but too polite to blow his own horn. And, though a missionary for traditional bluegrass, he loved all kinds of music and he treated musicians with respect and admiration, along with a healthy dose of humor.
From the first time Flatt Lonesome came to the studio as guests on his show, he was a huge fan, even calling Charli Robertson “Chuck.”
“Dennis was a precious jewel,” remembered Andrea Mullins Roberts, who runs The Andrea Roberts Agency and manages The Grascals and Flatt Lonesome. “He was such a tremendous supporter of the music and the musicians, and such a sweet, sweet soul.”
He was a huge fan of her daughter, Jaelee, from the time she sang with her dad’s band, The Grascals, at the Red, White and Bluegrass Festival when she was 9 or 10. Jaelee, who just graduated from high school, still calls him Uncle Dennis. Today, in one of those heartbreaking twists, Facebook reminded her that this is the anniversary of the day they became Facebook friends.
Longtime friend and noted bluegrass publicist, Kimberly Williams, recalls Dennis as a tireless advocate for the music. “He was a champion of all of us. He was always telling people about two things: bluegrass music and his love of the Lord”
There was another side of Dennis, who could come across as a grumpy guy set in his ways. But it never lasted. He could argue heatedly about his definition of bluegrass at a festival and then, soon after, be spotted giving a friend’s grandchild a ride on his electric wheelchair while singing “the wheels on the bus go round and round” at the top of his lungs.
You always knew where Dennis stood, and you always knew where you stood with Dennis. If he liked you, he loved you. If he didn’t like you, he probably still loved you.
Ramsey said it seemed his removal from the air, one of those corporate suite decisions that leave you scratching your head, took some wind out of his sails. There were talks of trips and maybe an internet radio gig, but nothing came to pass. Arthritis pain slowed him and side effects from medication tore at his organs. He was pretty much housebound for the last month.
“It was time for him to go,” Ramsey said. “But the good parts far outweigh this sad part.”
Ramsey told how Dennis and the late Bobby Jones, a bluegrass-playing physician, would joke when they were together. Doctor Bobby said he could fix Dennis right up with a prescription for some Moon Pies and a bottle of Cheerwine.
Bobby left us a few years ago. Today Dennis followed him. I like to think that prescription got filled and Dennis no longer needs braces or an electric wheelchair.
R.I.P., Dennis Jones.