Lee Michael Demsey celebrates 20 years in BU

With the upcoming May 2010 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited, Lee Michael Demsey will celebrate 20 years compiling National Bluegrass Survey, the singles and album chart that has appeared in the magazine since 1990.

The chart debuted in the May 1990 issue, and according to Demsey, this next issue will be their 241st.

BU editor Linda Shaw explained how the chart works, and tips her cap to Lee Michael.

“It began as a review of the top 30 songs and later expanded to include the 15 top albums. The listing is a tabulation of what a selected group of bluegrass radio disc jockeys have reported as the songs they are currently playing. We started with 37 reporters in 1990 and currently have over 50 radio stations, syndicators, web sites and their broadcasters reporting.

Bluegrass Unlimited would like to thank Lee Demsey for his 20 years of work compiling the listing for us monthly. And, of course, he could not have done it without all the radio stations and broadcasters who have reported to the survey over the years.”

Demsey is proud of his charting tenure, and recalls how it got started lo these twenty years ago.

“Credit should also be given to Pete Kuykendall for helping come up with the concept for the chart. We were just shooting the breeze one day. If I remember correctly, I was telling him that I always enjoyed making pop charts of my favorite songs, growing up in the sixties. At that point, the possible usefulness of having a chart to track the popularity of current bluegrass songs came up.”

We wondered how much modern technology has affected the compilation of the National Bluegrass Survey over 20 years. Turns out, not much.

“In putting the chart together, nothing has really changed much. I guess I’m a Luddite, and just as I did back in 1990, I still do all my calculating with pen and paper. I get joy adding figures up with my brain, call me crazy.

Until a year of so ago, we’d send a notebook with each song getting a page of it’s own, back and forth, between my home in Maryland and the magazine in Virgina. I’ve only been to BU headquarters twice in my life. Now we’ve done away with the notebook and I send the data in through my computer, using a spread sheet.

We have a few more stations reporting now than we did in the earliest days of the chart. I think it’s 63 at the moment, and we still use the same system. Ten songs are reported, no more than two from any one project or artist. Their songs are ranked from one to ten, so number ten gets one point and number one gets ten points.”

Lee Michael also keeps to some of the old ways in his day job as an on-air host at WAMU’s Bluegrass Country’s 24/7 streaming internet station.

“I’ve been doing bluegrass shows at WAMU for much of the last twenty-eight years. We’ve gone from using LPs (and the occasional cassette or reel to reel tape) to the point now where almost all our songs are stored in a computer database. I still like to pull out an album or two each show.

I’m on the air six mornings a week nowadays, at WAMU’s BluegrassCountry.org.”

I asked Demsey what sort of trends he sees in the songs that chart in Bluegrass Unlimited.

“Well, among the things I see, Gospel songs don’t make the charts too often, nor do instrumentals, and that’s a shame. I think there’s a pretty good mix of the contemporary and traditional, though some think it’s weighed heavier toward the contemporary. The more established groups naturally tend to do better on the charts, but we see newcomers and smaller, more regional acts making the lists too. Detour, from Michigan, just cracked through this month. I do find myself rooting a bit for certain artists, mainly up and coming acts.

It can be frustrating when there is a song I love and it doesn’t end up getting much in the way of votes. I want to shout out to these reporting stations, ‘why aren’t you playing this, or reporting that,’ but I don’t want to have any influence on the chart, so I keep quiet.

Most of the great songs do find their way onto the chart.”

He gets to merge his two gigs once each month when he hosts the Bluegrass Unlimited To 30 Countdown show on Bluegrass Country.

“I’m enjoying doing the monthly countdown show (heard on the last Saturday of each month at 11am eastern time). I get to interview some of the folks who’ve charted and get their insights about the songs.

Starting May 5th, and every Friday at 11am eastern time for awhile, I’m going to look back on an old chart, starting with the very first one from May of 1990. We’ll count the top songs down from twleve to number one.”

Congratulations to Lee Michael Demsey and Bluegrass Unlimited for 20 years of The National Bluegrass Survey!

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.