You better hold on to something solid when Ewell Ferguson kicks off his weekly one hour bluegrass radio show. Out of nowhere, an in your face, smoking fast, old time bluegrass song jumps through your speakers, while Ewell draws you in with his weekly introduction, “Howdy friends and neighbors! And welcome to another hour of old time bluegrass music; brought to you by the Bluegrass Preservation Society of Gassaway, West Virginia. . .” In the first two minutes of this onslaught of upbeat, fast, pure old bluegrass music, you can’t help but notice this show is different. Ewell’s energetic comments, insights, and back stories after each song add a deeper dimension to the music and reveal his genuine love and appreciation for the old stuff. Add to this, Ewell’s cohost, Princess Cleo, his bluegrass kitty who “mans the soundboard and pushes the buttons” and does a fine job of keeping Ewell on task.
I came across his show in 2011 while searching iTunes for bluegrass podcasts. I downloaded as many shows as my old phone could hold, and I listened to the podcast while driving many late night trips from Charlotte, NC to Latrobe, PA. If you’ve ever driven it, you know there is not much going on at night on that route. It was Ewell’s energy, personality, and oh yes, the high flying old time bluegrass that kept me awake and alive on many 7 hour late night trips.
So I contacted Ewell and I took a three our drive through the rain and fog into beautiful West Virginia. I know it’s beautiful because I’ve driven that road many times in sunshine and snow, but today was rain. We sat down to eat lunch and I quickly realized that what you hear on his show is exactly what you get in person – joy, honest from-the-heart passion, simple living, and great stories. And those are the same qualities that make old time bluegrass music special to Ewell. It is real music that brings people together.
His love for the old stuff began at the age of three while listening to his Uncle Doodle Bug playing the claw hammer banjo. Let’s be real, how can a story that starts with that name end any other way than with Ewell passing on that music to the next generation? As a child, Ewell saw Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys play live when they rolled into town. He also listened to bluegrass on the radio, and was always amazed at the energy Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and others from the early days pushed through the microphones and radio. He was even more amazed that after those songs played on the radio, the DJ would announce the song with a monotone-voiced description of the artist and song title. Ewell said, “How can he not be moved by that music? How can he be so sad sounding? If I ever get a radio show, I’m not doing that!” He told me, “This music is personal. It’s for people. It’s for you! I’m not going to put people to sleep!” Mission accomplished.
But as big and inviting, and genuine his personality is, this show is not about the host; it is about the music. Ewell told me, “I’m not special. I’m just a guy who does one thing well – communicate my love for bluegrass music.” And does he ever! What makes this show a must listen is the wide variety of the old songs and the musicians who blazed the trail for today’s artists. There is no show script, simply songs Ewell and Cleo pick from his huge music library, and whatever Ewell speaks from his heart. Some songs are familiar, some not.
A unique aspect of the show is the large selection of old songs you won’t hear anywhere else: unique because those songs were recorded live twice a month in Braxton County, WV, during the days when bluegrass bands came from all over to play live on stage for the people of Central West Virginia. Ewell saw an opportunity to preserve this music and asked his sound engineer friend, Neal Gentry, and promoter friend, Jerry Cawthorn, to help him record these unique live events and capture the energy of the real performances. He points out, “There’s no money in bluegrass. These folks play it cause they love it. And you can hear it in these recordings.” As their live recording music library grew, they knew they needed to do something with this treasure. So they contacted the local radio station, the timing was right (“it fell into place like it was meant to be”), and the show kicked off in December 2004. More than 11 years and 590 shows later, the live stage shows have gone away, but the Bluegrass Preservation Society Radio Show is bigger than ever, reaching listeners via the Internet who email him from Germany, the Netherlands, Africa, Japan and even Jerusalem!
After meeting Ewell in person, I discovered the secret to his radio show: his enthusiasm and passion and deep rooted love for not just bluegrass, but life itself, comes from deep within – just like the old music. You will find both here. Spending time with Ewell caused my heart to be lifted to a higher, brighter place than before he walked into the restaurant on that rainy day. And after a great lunch, it was time to leave.
Appropriately and right on cue, as we left the restaurant the sun started to shine outside as well, lighting up the day in beautiful downtown Gassaway, WV, just like Ewell’s Bluegrass Preservation Society Radio Show does for anyone who listens. I will never forget my lunch with Ewell, his hospitality and charm, his genuine love for bluegrass, and his “what you hear is what you get” honesty.
If you love bluegrass and really want to appreciate where today’s music came from, you have to check out this show. Or if you are tired of trying to navigate a sea of modern, over-processed, overdubbed music performed by country rock stars; Ewell says, “Just give me bluegrass with normal folks, all right?”
Try his podcast, or stream it live at bpsmusic.com, or if you are driving through Central West Virginia on a Sunday at 11:00 a.m., tune in to The Boss 97 FM. But beware: his radio show will get into your soul and stay there, and will be a part of your week that you won’t be able to miss.
Plus it just might keep you alive behind the wheel on a long, dark night.