In a sense, WDVX’s trajectory reads like an all-American success story. From humble beginnings born in a trailer in remote environs, it eventually became a leading force in East Tennessee’s music community. Now, 20 years later, the station has a lot on which to look back … and much more to anticipate in the future, as well.
“WDVX is the result of a perfect storm: listeners weary of boring radio, an extraordinary abundance of talented musicians and writers longing for the opportunity to present their art to an appreciative community and passionate music lovers – led in the charge by Tony Lawson, who knew there could be something better on the airwaves,” notes General Manager Linda Billman. “Its continued success is because a lot of people have worked – and continue to work – very hard to see WDVX go and grow and have no expectation or need of big financial rewards. For them, it’s the thrill of turning on fellow music fans to a band or a song or showing up for a live performance and being absolutely delighted by what happens in that moment. WDVX is something we here in East Tennessee can all be proud of.”
The idea for the station originally was conceived by co-founders Tony Lawson, engineer Don Burggraf and a small number of like-minded volunteers. From those humble beginnings, the station developed a home-grown brand that’s recognized regionally, nationally and even internationally. It now has grown into a station that’s world-renowned and one of the nation’s foremost Americana outlets.
“I met Tony Lawson in the mid-1980s when he was working for WQLA in LaFollette,” recalls Wayne Bledsoe, one of East Tennessee’s most prominent music journalists, current host of the popular program “Six O’Clock Swerve” and author of an upcoming book about WDVX’s history. “Tony was playing the artists in what Steve Earle likes to call ‘the great Nashville credibility scare’ when other country stations were pretty much ignoring them. He’d call up and tell me about a show the station was helping to promote or we’d just talk music, and we became friends.
“In 1990 or ’91, we had lunch and he told me about his idea for a radio station, which sounded amazing. He had all sorts of great ideas for programming. I know he was going to have a show that played only Frank Zappa, there was going to be storytelling show and I was going to have a show called ‘The Best Music You Never Heard.’ He asked me to be on the board, but after a couple of months I realized that I could do a lot more by being on the outside and being able to write about it with no conflict of interest. I wrote the first story about the proposed station (long before there were even call letters for it) and stories about a lot of fundraising concerts.”
Lawson’s interest in music had been spawned by his desire to work at Johnson City radio station WQUT. He began working there part time in the late ‘70s while simultaneously working at public radio station WETS. His career moved up a notch when, in February 1979, he became music director at WKIR in Jackson, Tennessee, only to return to WQUT in 1980.
A change in format again found him leaving the station in 1981. Lawson and several other staff members opted to start a station of their own, WIDD, in Elizabethton. It was there that he met engineer Burggraf, who would later play a vital role in the founding of WDVX. Still, Lawson had more moves in his future, including stints as music director at WKTM in Charleston, South Carolina, on air duties in Knoxville at WNOX and at WNKX (Kix 95 FM), where he reconnected with Burggraf. Later, he moved to WQLA in LaFollette, where he and Bledsoe first met.
In 1988, Lawson took a job at WMYU (U-102) in Ooltewah and began hosting “The Good Time Oldies Show.” However, what he really wanted was to start his own independent radio station. Ironically, it was his therapist who convinced him to act on this idea, even giving him $100 as his first funding.
After enlisting the help of an engineer named Dwight Magnuson, the two decided to do a study to determine its feasibility. They secured a frequency, 89.9 FM, and began looking for a location, Benny Smith, then a recent UT graduate and concert promoter and currently the general manager of WUTK, read an article about the budding venture and volunteered to help in the new enterprise. Lawson, Smith and Shane Tymon launched a bluegrass show on WQLA that they dubbed “Soppin’ the Gravy.” It was, in effect, the initial template for what WDVX would soon become. The show later changed its name to “The Bluegrass Breakdown,” and, after that, “The Bluegrass Special.” These days, it’s a Tuesday night staple on WDVX.
Soon, donations began coming in courtesy of both businesses and individuals. A series of fundraising concerts followed thereafter.
After attaining its broadcasting license in 1991 and subsequently launching a series of test broadcasts, WDVX made its official debut from the back deck of an A-frame house located in Peach Orchard. That was the setting for the station’s first live-broadcast performance, courtesy of bluegrass artists Chris Jones and Jesse Brock.
Still, it was clear that that location was only temporary. Bob Moore, who owned the Fox Inn Campground in Clinton, just off the Norris exit off Interstate 75, suggested that the station could consider using a camper located on his property. Consequently, WDVX found a new home on November 5, 1997, in a 14-foot camping trailer, permanently parked at the Fox Inn site.
Funnily enough, Burggraf once had put a studio in a train caboose, so converting a camper to a radio studio seemed like a reasonable proposition. In fact, three studios were housed there. Studio A had a bunk, a CD player and a microphone to accommodate 24-hour broadcasts. Studio B was a dinette where interviews could take place. Studio C held a sofa and served as a performance area. The facility was so small that one could stand in Studio B and have their arms extend into each of the other two sections at the same time.
Burggraf used to call it “radio in a can.”
Although the setup accommodated WDVX for five years, it also had its drawbacks. There were no lavatory facilities, so guests and deejays had to use the public restrooms in the campground to relieve themselves. Likewise, the threat of inclement weather would force the staff to abandon the facility and run for cover for fear of being vulnerable during a storm.
Nevertheless, numerous musicians would make it a point to stop by to talk about new records or to offer informal performances. Kenny Smith of the Lonesome River Band, Wayne Taylor of Blue Highway and Rob Ickes were among the many artists who made impromptu appearances.
Likewise, the station began attracting a staff of deejays who mostly worked for little or no pay. Mike Kelly signed on as a morning deejay, hosting a show dubbed “Rise & Shine” five days a week. Jenny Stith took over on Saturdays. Other announcers quickly followed, including Kim Hudson, Barry Hodge, Kay Cadillac, Scott Carpenter, Chad Pelton, Mary Lou Cameron and Grace Toensing. There were several well-known alumni that came from that initial group: Alex Leach later became a professional bluegrass musician, and the late Mike Flannagan, a Knoxville News Sentinel business-page reporter and music aficionado, launched the popular “All Over the Road” show airing Sunday nights. (His nephew, John, later became BLANK’s first music editor.)
There were other notables, as well. John “Johnny Mack” McCormack began one of WDVX’s first specialty programs, “Johnny Mack’s Friday Night Blues Attack.” The Friday-night program is still on the air today. Matt Morelock added further diversity with “The Happy Camper,” which featured world music and sounds of an ethnic variety, the likes of which never had been heard in East Tennessee. However, the most famous alumnus was the late John Hartford, one of the original contributors to Glen Campbell’s primetime variety show and composer of one of his biggest hits, “Gentle on my Mind.”
“He would send in cassette tapes called ‘The Anderson County Mobile Home Companion,’” Bledsoe remembers. “He’d record things at shows, in hotel rooms or wherever he could find time to do it. It was cool, crazy stuff from the guy who was really at the beginning of the underground acoustic music scene. How cool is that?”
Another rather cool thing was the fact that many of the on-air personalities had never worked in radio before, and so they brought with them their own unique personas, as well as imbuing their respective shows with a genuine East Tennessee flavor.
Meanwhile, the station started generating a wealth of publicity, both locally and around the nation. The News Sentinel and local weeklies published ongoing features. Before long, the Americana journal No Depression took note, as did The Atlanta Journal Constitution, which featured WDVX on its front page. “ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings” also aired a segment, and once the station began streaming online in 2000, interest started coming in from such faraway locales as Australia, New Zealand, Israel and England. The BBC and PBS, too, took interest. The station obviously had made its mark.
“There were a couple of ‘eureka’ moments that convinced me we were on our way,” Lawson suggests. “The first one was the first time we heard the station on the air. We had 10 watts, and we were broadcasting from Cumberland Gap. We were all celebrating the fact that we were having so much fun while realizing we had a pretty significant reach despite our low wattage. We had no idea we could reach so far from a mountain top.”
Still, that was only the beginning. “The other major milestone came after we had been in the camper only two months and John Hartford started doing the radio show for us,” Lawson continues. “We were looking for validity and hoping to get some notice from the musical community, and suddenly we were attracting the attention of these A-list musicians.”
Clearly, the timing was right. Interest in traditional music had been spawned by the success of the soundtrack for the film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” and the emergence of artists that referenced their roots as opposed to the more commercial sounds coming out of Nashville.
“In the early days of the radio station, back in the camper days, no one knew what Americana music was,” deejay Red Hickey remembers. “We spent a lot of time explaining to people what kind of music we played. There were very few Americana stations at that time. Because WDVX also incorporated bluegrass and regional music into our format, everyone was confused. Folks would call and ask for Garth Brooks, and we would say, ‘We don’t play that here.’ Which always led to, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ With the willingness to be different, along with the growth of the station, Americana music is a ‘thing’ now. There are many Americana stations, an Americana association, Americana charts and a yearly festival and conference in Nashville. Technology was making new internet highways for us to reach larger audiences, and we outgrew our space – not to mention that the camper was slap wore out and needed some TLC.”
While the camper itself was a particular fascination for both the public and the press (even spawning a fundraising event in May 2001 dubbed Camperfest), it was clear that problems with the site were becoming more and more evident. There were technical/safety issues and the need for regular repairs. Lack of adequate space was an issue, as well, and lack of air conditioning and heat made things uncomfortable regardless of the time of year. To make matters worse, the owners of the Fox Inn Campground were becoming annoyed with the disruption they experienced with the increasing number of visitors.
In early 2003, the station added a second signal at 102.9 FM and began scouting the area for a new home. Later that year, the studio moved to a house in Andersonville, not far from the Fox Inn grounds. When the house was threatened with demolition, the studio was moved to the Appalachian Arts and Crafts Center, which housed the studio in its basement.
Roger Harb, who had secured underwriting for the station as an independent contractor, then took the lead in getting the station its new home in downtown Knoxville.
“It was easy for me to sell to get underwriting dollars or sponsorship dollars for WDVX because there’s nothing else out there quite like it,” Harb recalls. “I was asking Tony, ‘What are we gonna do here? What’s next?’ This is at the time where the camper wasn’t gonna make it. So Tony said, ‘We need to get a new home.’ I ended up being our location scout.”
As a result, Harb contacted then-Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam; Gloria Ray, former executive director of the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation; and Mike Edwards, chair of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and managed to secure an agreement to relocate WDVX in the Knoxville Visitor Center, now known as Visit Knoxville.
On June 30, 2004, WDVX celebrated the move to downtown Knoxville. While there were a few glitches and adjustments that needed to be made, both parties soon found the arrangement to their liking. The station still occupies that building today.
The move also allowed WDVX to initiate a new live-performance program known as “The Blue Plate Special.” A holdover from the camper days, the program, hosted by Red Hickey, began broadcasting six days a week for an hour a day. Two performers are featured on each program, with artists that run the gamut from musicians of national renown to local talent just gaining traction. Aside from a short hiatus that found her taking care of her ailing mother, Hickey has hosted the program from its initiation.
“Eventually, we landed here in the Knoxville Visitor Center,” she says, recounting the transition. “A perfect fit, yes, Visitors come, listeners come and locals come. It is a visitor center, community center and entertainment center all in one. WDVX is proud to carry on the long radio history downtown Knoxville is known for. Hopefully we are getting set for another 20 years!”
On Aug. 27, 2008, WDVX launched another of its trademark live-performance programs, “Tennessee Shines.” Originally broadcast from the Bijou Theatre with musician Jim Lauderdale as host, it later moved to Boyd’s Jig & Reel in Knoxville’s Old City. Bledsoe himself initiated a live program of his own, the aforementioned “Six O’Clock Swerve,” in November 2015. “Roger Harb wanted me to do a show that included music and interviews,” he says. “And it’s developed into its own thing. I have on artists that I like and I book it myself. “The weekly program broadcasts live from Barley’s in the Old City each Thursday.
Lawson briefly left WDVX in April 2015 to help create radio station WBCM for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia, having consulted for the station since the summer of 2014. He returned to WDVX a little over a year later to serve in a consulting role for the Knoxville station. Afternoon drive-time announcer Katie Cauthen was appointed program director last year, adding new blood to the station’s vibrant programming. She also came up with her own program, “The Category Stomp.” “It’s the stuff that’s in the ballpark, but not stuff that you necessarily hear during the day,” she notes.
Now, some 20 years after its first broadcast, WDVX will celebrate its 20th anniversary in style with a special concert on November 17 at the Bijou Theatre. Co-produced by Lawson and Cauthen, the festivities will feature an impressive array of artists spanning all realms of the Americana spectrum, including a number of special guests that will be announced later. Each portion of the live variety show will be introduced by a WDVX personality, along with a special set focusing specifically on East Tennessee artists, hosted and curated by Cruz Contreras and Sam Quinn of The Black Lillies. In addition, two-time IBMA award winner Phil Leadbetter has gathered many of the leading lights of the bluegrass world for a special performance that promises to be one of many remarkable offerings showcased throughout the evening.
A special WDVX beer, unveiled at a free celebration in Market Square a few weeks ago, also has been introduced. And, as previously mentioned, Bledsoe and Jay Clark have been busy at work writing a book that encapsulates the station’s history.
“Jay did most of the big interviews and put them in chronological order,” Bledsoe explains. ”I did several interviews, and then I stitched it all together. Steve Wildsmith helped with some editing, and Betsy Pickle copy edited it. I had a lot of the information from stories I’d written about WDVX, and there were some things I found elsewhere, but most of the information came from interviews with Tony Lawson, Don Burggraf, Alex Leach, Amy Campbell and other people associated with the station. We got a lot of great stories and information just from them. However, there were also tons of things I didn’t know. Some great stories. Some of the details about how things came together. There were personal things about the radio personalities and why they got into the music.”
WDVX continues to thrive, bringing residents of East Tennessee – and the world, for that matter, by way of streaming content – a varied assortment of artists and music representing the best of Americana music in general, as well as the finest representation of regional arts and culture from this region. The station’s website, wdvx.com, states that mission succinctly: “We create and provide content to promote the cultural heritage of East Tennessee and the Southern Appalachian region by entertaining and educating audiences globally with original programs showcasing live radio performances, underrepresented arts and emerging and local talent.”
“One of the beautiful things about WDVX is that the music programming is the bloodline that connects this wonderful family of roots music lovers from East Tennessee and throughout the world,” Harb reflects. “WDVX has been a vehicle for bringing people together. You can go to a WDVX live-music event, and you see everything from the dancing hippie chicks to the starch-shirted banker all appreciating, respecting and coming together. No matter what your background, chances are if you meet someone who likes the same types of music that you do, you have found a friend for life. WDVX helps to build friendships through the airwaves, the internet and live-music experiences.”
After 20 incredible years, that in itself is quite an accomplishment.