WAMU’s Bluegrass Country Turns 45

Who would have guessed that when Dick Spottswood and Gary Henderson teamed up for a half-hour radio program devoted to bluegrass music on July 2, 1967, they and offshoots of their little show would still be going strong 45 years later on the same station, WAMU in Washington, D.C.

That first show, called Bluegrass Unlimited, featured Spottswood as host, with Henderson serving as engineer. Now they both have shows, and today, at noon Eastern, they’ll team up for an anniversary special, digging through the stations rich archives to travel through the years.

You can hear the show and other anniversary events this week at www.bluegrasscountry.org.

It’s been a remarkable journey for what, until the advent of Internet broadcasting, was a station with little reach outside the nation’s capitol. But what on-air personality Katy Daley calls “our little station” has always been a destination for the legends of bluegrass, who would stop by when passing through for an on-air chat and some picking.

Some of the legends of broadcasting stopped by, too. Red Shipley made WAMU his long-time home. Eddie Stubbs got his start there before heading off to try to make it big in Nashville, just as so many musicians tried over the years. And, as we all know, he made it big. Really big.

But even when the reach was small, the impact was huge. I remember Adam Steffey talking of the anticipation, during long hauls on the road, of getting close enough to Washington to pick up WAMU on the van’s radio.

Now that digital signals give Bluegrass Country a global reach, it’s still a special place to many bluegrass pickers. Danny Paisley remembers playing on the air with his dad many years ago, and eagerly looks forward to the day when he will be joined on a broadcast by his son, Ryan, who is already a solid mandolin picker and has clearly inherited Danny’s stage presence.

“Our detractors will say, ‘Well, you’re not what you used to be,’ but for any format to remain on any station for 45 years is remarkable,” said Katy Daley, who took a break from her vacation to chat. “I think we represent the world pretty well.”

The anniversary will be tinged with sadness. Tom “Cat” Reeder, a member of the Country Music Broadcasters Hall of Fame and a show host at the station, died Saturday.

And there might be some technical limitations, too. The vicious storm that ripped through the area Friday night, cut power for more than a million people in the Washington area, and as I write, the station’s 105.5 FM signal remains off the air.

But, as always, the show must go on, just as it has since that long-ago day when Gary cued Dick that his microphone was live and WAMU’s long journey down the bluegrass road began.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.