What were you doing 20 years ago?
Back in 1997, before Big Ears and Bonnaroo and Beyonce, I was a stage rigger on the most consciously self-absorbed rock tour of all time, U2’s “Popmart” juggernaut. But a couple of years later, I did a 180, and my whole world changed.
In 2001, I moved back to Anderson County after a 16-year stretch as a Texan. I loved Texas, Travis County, and Austin, but on the eve of turning 50, needing to start a new chapter in my life, I knew there was only one place to be. My soul ached for the Clinch River and the sunset profile of Windrock Mountain. Redbuds, dogwoods, and honeysuckle.
The day I got home, I saw a WDVX bumper sticker on a beat-up Crown Vic with spare tires on both back wheels. So I tuned my radio to 89.9FM, and in the first half hour, I heard James McMurtry, Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo, Marcia Ball and Stevie Ray Vaughan, all of whom I had known personally from my years in Austin. It was stunning. How could a low-power commercial-free radio station in Clinton sound like it was coming directly from the Live Music Capital of the World?
And the next set included Blue Moon Rising, Todd Steed, Robinella, Tut Taylor, Red Rector and Pine Mountain Railroad. In radio world, this was tour-de-force independence. And when the DJ came on and said “This is East Tennessee’s own, WDVX,” all I could think was “Hell yeah.”
It was like finding a spring trickling out of a rock wall after you’ve been hiking uphill for half a day. It’s one thing to come home after being away for what feels like forever. But then to find this fresh new reflection of the culture that defines home… well, that was a total surprise.
Culture is a fickle beast, because it’s a product of reality and perception. The perception component is ephemeral. The reality component is actual, touchable.
The interplay between the reality and perception of culture is like Plato’s cave of shadows. Observers in the cave see only the shadows cast on the walls by objects that are out of sight. Something real and concrete casts a shadow. The shadow is anything but real and concrete, except to the observers, for whom the shadows are reality.
What’s that got to do with WDVX, I hear you ask.
Well, it’s like this:
In Plato’s parable, one observer is freed from the cave to discover he’s been looking only at shadows, and when he sees the real objects that cast the shadows, his whole sense of the world changes. And it changes him so radically, when he returns to the cave to inform his friends of his discoveries, they think he is crazy, and they refuse to venture outside the cave.
In the big picture of American musical culture, WDVX is the guy who escapes the cave to see a world his cave mates cannot imagine. When he tries to tell them how they can be liberated, they think he’s nuts.
Thank God for the 20 years WDVX has been liberating the musical culture of East Tennessee from the forces that try to minimize it, trivialize it, marginalize it, and erase it. ‘Cause back in the cave, they ain’t listening to anything but the same 10 songs over and over and over, packaged like sausage in Nashville and played coast to coast like political ads a week before an election that never comes.
As they say in Texas, that don’t even suck.
WDVX was all the more charming when I discovered it in 2001 because it was still broadcasting from a little trailer in the Fox Inn Campgrounds next to the Museum of Appalachia, where stars of the musical firmament like Johnny Hartford and Ricky Skaggs would drop by for impromptu live performances.
The brainchild of founder Tony Lawson, WDVX has the most uniquely talented group of DJ’s you’ll ever hear on a single radio station. And it’s not because the station has a ton of ad revenue to pay salaries with. Their commitments go a lot deeper than that. They’ve got musical souls to save. Yours. Mine.
In ’01, I went by one day to meet Tony, and I volunteered to stage manage their little 16’ x 24’ stage at CamperFest that spring. I met more truly sweet people that weekend than I had in 16 years in Austin. And it started a relationship that continues to today.
In Dec 2003, I went to the empty shell of a building on Gay & Summit Hill to meet Lawson and WDVX engineer Don Burggraf to lay-out the footprint of a new studio and stage in what would become the Knoxville Convention & Visitors Center. It was spitting snow, cold as could be, and we scrambled over a 6 foot tall plywood barricade to get in. Apparently, they hadn’t cleared this with anyone, and as we were just getting our bearings, a KPD officer rounded a corner with weapon drawn to see what we were up to.
That’s not the first time someone’s had Burggraf in their crosshairs. Not long after they had installed WDVX’s transmitter on top of Cross Mountain, on an antenna above the housing over an abandoned Nike missile silo, Burggraf climbed back up the mountain in the snow to see why the signal was acting up. As he was nosing around a hole in the fence around the building and a larger hole in the side of the building, he was startled by a mountain man aiming what might have been a flintlock long gun, telling Don not to move or he’d fire. Turns out the old boy was wintering his cow in the old missile hut.
In 2004, I had the privilege of helping design and build the furnishings in WDVX’s new broadcast studio. And I had custody of the legendary broadcast camper for several months in Oak Ridge while Tony et al made a plan to restore it top to bottom. So I definitely feel invested in what this precious resource is about.
They’ve made it work by keeping it real. It hasn’t been easy. Personnel have come and gone. Finances have been good and bad. But the audience has been growing consistently for 2 decades now. And the noontime “Blue Plate Special” is as well-known around the country as the “Louisiana Hayride” and “Ozark Jubilee” ever were. I don’t know if Marty Stuart is scheduled to be on the “Blue Plate” when he’s in town to play the Bijou May 6th, but he’s done it in the past. Just sayin’.
Congratulations Tony, Don, Red, Freddy, Grace, Alex, Johnny Mack, Roger, Katie… all y’all at WDVX, on 2 decades in the sun. Let freedom sing.