On this day …..
On January 21, 1973, the first broadcast of the Bluegrass Ramble radio show on WCNY-FM Syracuse, New York, took place. The presenter then, as now, was the award-winning Bill Knowlton.
Knowlton’s experience as a broadcaster of bluegrass music began in 1959 when he was a student at Fordham University. He launched New York City’s first all-bluegrass radio show, Bluegrass Ramble, on WFUV-FM, the university station. Later the program moved to WBZY in Torrington, Connecticut.
Knowlton, noted for his flamboyant attire, recalled recently ….
“When the Air Force sent me to Syracuse, New York, in 1972 I started volunteering at Public Radio WCNY-FM with a weekly feature The Dusty Record Shelf. It featured some of the 78s I collected dating from 1900-1940 (not country). [NB He first presented The Dusty Record Shelf on WHBM in Xenia, while assigned as a Public Information Officer at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.]
WCNY was an eclectic station at that time: jazz, classical, talk. I got a 15-minute segment on the nostalgia show, All Our Yesterdays.
While there I talked the FM Program Director into letting me revive my Bluegrass Ramble that I broadcast in Connecticut and New York City between 1959 and 1962.
There was a variety show called Today’s Music Tonight. The program manager wanted to fire the disc jockey. I was convenient to him, so he put me on playing bluegrass from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. I did it live the first couple of years. It went to 9:00 p.m. to midnight when WCNY went all-classical.”
The moment of dawning for William Brierley ‘Bill’ Knowlton, who was born in Manhattan, New York, and attended Brooklyn High School, came when at school and he heard a DJ play the Hank Williams’ recording, Jambalaya. Soon afterwards he became aware of bluegrass music, and Knowlton he been a devoted fan of bluegrass and old-time music ever since.
His enthusiasm was further boosted by listening to WAAT, a Newark, New Jersey, radio station, Rosalie Allen’s Prairie Stars on WOV in New York City, and Wheeling West Virginia’s WWVA, with its Saturday-night Jamboree and daily night-time deejays.
At WNYE, a station located in Brooklyn Tech, Knowlton became a member of the All City Radio Workshop, and on Saturdays he would ride his bike from home to Woodside where he appeared on WWRL’s What’s Right With Teenagers.
He then attended the Bronx’s Fordham University in 1956, majoring in Communication Arts, and it was while in his senior year that he hosted the first version of his Bluegrass Ramble, over the college’s radio station WFUV; it was the first all-bluegrass radio show in New York City.
Upon graduating Fordham in 1960, Knowlton joined his parents in their Connecticut home, getting his first radio job as a DJ and announcer at WBZY in Torrington.
The first playlist clearly reveals Knowlton’s abiding love of old-time country music ……
Opening theme: Wheel Hoss—Bill Monroe
Mule Skinner Blues—Bill Monroe (Decca)
Going to Georgia–Ralph Stanley and Bill Harrell
Little Cabin Home On the Hill—Lester Flatt
The Secret Of the Waterfall—Country Gentlemen
Way Down the Old Plank Road—Uncle Dave Macon
Soldiers’ Joy—Tommy Jackson
Footprints In the Snow—Bill Monroe (Decca)
On the Banks Of the Ohio—Monroe Brothers
Dog House Blues—Bill Monroe (Camden)
I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky—Bill Monroe (Columbia)
Bluegrass Breakdown—Bill Monroe (Columbia)
Salty Dog Blues—Flatt & Scruggs (Mercury)
The Bluebirds Singing For Me—Lester Flatt & Mac Wiseman (Victor)
Grand Ole Opry Song—Jimmy Martin (Decca)
Foggy Mountain Top—Carter Family (Victor)
Dear Old Sunny South By the Sea—Jimmie Rodgers
Molly Put the Kettle On—Gid Tanner
Sally Ann—Sidna & Fulton Myers
Take Me Back To the Sweet Sunny South—New Lost City Ramblers
In the Hills Of Roane County—Blue Sky Boys
Black Mountain Rag—Crook Brothers (Starday)
I Still Write Your Name In the Sand—Mac Wiseman (Dot)
Darling Corey—Seldom Scene (Rebel)
Green Mountain Hop—Reno & Smiley (King)
Old Rattler—Grandpa Jones (King)
Just To Ease My Worried Mind—Roy Acuff (Columbia)
Wabash Cannonball—Bashful Brother Oswald (Rounder)
Air Mail Special—Jim & Jesse (Capitol)
Cluck Old Hen—Ralph Stanley
Cheated Too—Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper (Hickory)
Old Joe Clark at Renfro Valley (45 rpm)
March Winds—Bill Clifton (Starday)
Southern Cannonball—Seldom Scene (Rebel)
Bill Mason—Charlie Poole
Polly Are You Mad–Stringbean (Nugget)
Ho Honey Ho—Osborne Brothers (MGM)
Closing theme—Reno Ride—Reno & Smiley (King)
Knowlton features portions of Chickie Williams’ The Parlor Is A Pleasant Place to Sit In Sunday Night both in the opening and closing themes.
The Solemn Old Judge George D. Hay, the first announcer on the world-renowned Grand Ole Opry radio program, signs off the Bluegrass Ramble with his famous saying, “Tall pines to pine, and the paw paws to pause…”.
In 1973 Knowlton also launched the annual Bluegrass Ramble Picnic, now held at Dwyer Memorial Park in Little York, New York, every first Sunday of August. It is the oldest bluegrass event in New York, New England, and Pennsylvania.
Known by some as “Mr. Bluegrass of Central New York,” he is a co-founder and long-time member of the former Central New York Bluegrass Association.
Knowlton is the recipient of a variety of awards; among these are those from the International Bluegrass Music Association (Broadcaster of the Year, 1997; Distinguished Achievement Award, 2011); the Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys) (Hall of Fame, 2006); the Syracuse Press Club (Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994); and the Cultural Resources Council (Service to the Arts Award, 1983).
In 1992 he was presented with the Jesse Messick Award, for MCing the Uncle Dave Macon Days in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
However, one of Knowlton’s most rewarding achievements is helping to save Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, long-time home of the Grand Ole Opry. To assist in the fight, he was able to enlist the support of Ada Louise Huxtable, the influential architecture critic of the New York Times.
Also, he took part in saving Syracuse’s Loew’s State (now Landmark) Theatre, becoming a charter member of the board. Through the years, Knowlton has conducted hundreds of tours of the venerable movie palace.
Bill Knowlton has long MCed the Gray Fox, Wind Gap, Tug Hill, Pickin’ In the Pasture, Thousand Islands, and Brantling bluegrass festivals, in addition to some that are, sadly, no longer in existence.
He served with as a US Air Forces Officer in Saigon before being re-deployed in Syracuse. In 1974 Bill left active duty, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.