WAMU’s Bluegrass Country has come a long way since Dick Spottswood and Gary Henderson signed on for their first show – 30-minutes one night a week, with one taped repeat – 47 years ago.
And from the days in the early 1970s, when Henderson used to grab a pizza, drive out to the CIA headquarters in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, sit on the spy agency’s front porch and talk bluegrass with a fan of the music who happened to work in the director’s office.
But some things haven’t changed, as was obvious during Saturday’s open house for WAMU’s sparkling new studio in the nation’s capital. Spottswood and Henderson are still on the air, though they have plenty of company to keep the music going 24/7, and they have a global audience thanks to the Internet instead of the limited regional audience that could pick up the station’s weak signal.
And Henderson still talks about bluegrass with that eager acolyte. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to drive out to CIA headquarters for those chats – and couldn’t if he wanted to. He just pokes his head into an office a few steps down the hall to catch up with that woman – Katy Daley.
Henderson recalled the start of the much-heralded and widely honored bluegrass show during an interview at Saturday’s open house. “We figured if we’re going to play hillbilly music on this highbrow academic station, we’d have to make it educational,” he recalled. So in that first show, with Spottswood on the air and Henderson serving as his engineer, they intermixed songs and an overview of bluegrass history.
Washington was a bluegrass hotbed in the show’s early days. The Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene were born there. They and other bands, including the Johnson Mountain Boys, found plentiful gigs in clubs and bars that catered to bluegrass followers.
Most of the clubs have disappeared, though bluegrass is sneaking back onto the stage at some newer clubs and restaurants in the area and the music still gets played at the Birchmere Music Hall on occasion.
The only constants are the Seldom Scene – together since 1971 – and WAMU’s Bluegrass Country.
The new digs include a well-appointed recording studio, a theater, separate offices for the talent and plenty of elbow room so the musicians who come and go are out of ear’s reach of the public radio hosts of non-musical programs, who now work on separate floors.
There are plans to hold bluegrass shows in the theater, where bands would play before a live audience and be broadcast around the world. And to bring more performers into the recording studio.
Henderson sees the expansion as part of the continuing effort to do what he has been doing for nearly half a century – finding new audiences for the music. “I still love it,” he said with an expansive smile. “Sometimes when I wake up at 4 o’clock on Sunday mornings (to get ready for his Stained Glass Bluegrass show), I don’t love it so much, but once I get here and the music starts, it’s good.”
Katy Daley stumbled into her radio career by accident. In fact, when a fortuneteller predicted years ago that she would one day be known for her voice, she figured she would be a singer. Today, she is known for her voice, as demonstrated during the open house, when our discussion was repeatedly interrupted by strangers who called her by name even though they had never seen her before.
Indeed, it isn’t much of a stretch to say there were three major stops for Saturday’s visitors: Listening to Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen outside the theater on the lower level, checking out the old time band jamming in the interns’ bullpen, and saying hi to Katy.
She started as a volunteer in the early 1970s and stayed until 1979. She spent the next 18 years at WMZQ before Lee Michael Demsey called with a proposition.
“Lee asked if I would come back and do a bluegrass show,” she said. “I think I was at the station before he hung up the phone.”
The station had a reputation that far exceeded its reach, even in the days when the only way to listen was to be close to DC. When he was with Mountain Heart, Adam Steffey once said, the band would place bets as to where and when they would first pick up the staticky signal. A trip up or down the East Coast almost always included a stop at WAMU.
Today, with BluegrassCountry.org available anywhere there’s an Internet connection, artists have even more reasons to drop in. Claire Lynch will be on the air with Katy Daley Tuesday morning following a Monday night show in the suburbs, for example.
But even if a picker isn’t in the area or passing through, WAMU’s Bluegrass Country is a magnet. On one recent day, Edgar Loudermilk drove for more than nine hours to spend some time on the air, chatting about his new solo CD with Katy and playing a few songs live. Then he hopped back in the car and drove home, no doubt listening to WAMU along the way.