I had a chance to sit down with Pat at KDHX a few weeks ago to learn about his passion for music and his long tenure at KDHX as a volunteer DJ.
James Kaegel: This seems like a conversation between two old friends, because I've been listening to your show for quite a while. Does that seem odd to run into people that act like they know you because they listen to you on the radio?
Pat Wolfe: People say all the time, "I've been listening to you for three years and I've never called before, but I just wanna tell you that you do a great job" and it's like, wow, there's a lot of people out there. I get a lot of phone calls on the show every week. I want people to call in and request music because I end up learning a lot from the listeners. People have turned me on to a lot of different artists that I wasn't really aware of or I didn't pay enough attention to. I knew they were out there, but the listener tells me, "No, you gotta listen to the song on this album," and then it's like "Wow, you're right." It's a shared experience. I love it. It's great.
How much of your show is prepared and how much of it is based on feedback and interaction with the listeners?
If someone requests something and it's something I have that I didn't bring that week, I'll make a note and make sure that's one of the first things I pull from home to bring in next week. I usually bring enough to do a complete show if nobody calls, but that usually only happens a couple of times a year -- if my show happens to fall on a holiday. When I first started, I would plan it out. I would actually plan sets and specific songs I was gonna play. Sometimes I would print out a playlist, but as things evolved I kinda chucked that out the window because it was just too hard to follow a set script. So now I just kinda go through the music at the house and pick things out. It's just random, and when I get here and start the first CD, it just kinda goes from there. I never really know what I'm going to wind up playing from week to week because a lot of people call in and ask for music. It's probably half my library and half the station's library.
Do you have a sizable music collection?
Yeah, I probably still have about 400 vinyl albums. I used to have a lot more, but over the years I've sold some and traded some for different music I was trying to pick up. Nowadays I download from sites like iTunes or eMusic. It's really convenient. I can find a lot of stuff that I wouldn't be able to find in a normal record store.
Well, record stores are carrying less and less these days because it's hard to keep such a variety.
Yeah, you can't possibly have everything that everybody wants. It's not possible.
What was the first album you bought with your own money?
The first record album I bought with my own money was "Business as Usual" by Men at Work. The first 45 I bought was -- I'm embarrassed to admit this -- "Tell Her About It" by Billy Joel. But the first album that I got, that I asked for as a present, was when I was turning nine years old, and I asked my mom to get me the eight track to the Barry Manilow album "Even Now." I liked the song "Copacabana." It was a big smash hit at the time. Wow, I can't believe I publicly admitted that!
Yeah, you're disillusioning Interstate fans across the board!
I know! Interstate is kind of an Americana/country/bluegrass/what-have-you show. When I was young, in the '70s, my mom used to listen to John Denver albums, so I think that was kind of the thing that got me started. When I first heard "Take Me Home Country Roads" as a little kid I was like, "That was such a cool song, I really want to go to West Virginia now."
What kind of stuff did you grow up listening to? What other stuff did your folks listen to?
Elton John was a big one. Back in the early '70s, some artists were putting out two or three albums a year. They were really prolific and they would just crank out the stuff. I heard a lot of Eagles. I mostly listened to AM radio. I grew up in New Jersey. The big hit music stations in New York City were WABC and WNBC. I would listen to them a lot. I went through my Shawn Cassidy phase when I was 10. Again, this is quite sad!
But my mom would listen to Gordon Lightfoot. I remember all that and I used to like it. And Kenny Rogers and stuff like that. My mom grew up in Appalachian Virginia and later in Pennsylvania, and I think part of that comes from her. I don't know if it's a gene, or a birth defect, or what, but it's just something that's in you. I really love bluegrass music, because of my mom. And it just went from there. Then when I was in high school, I went through my new wave phase with Men at Work, Talking Heads and Blondie.
How old are you?
I'm 44 now. When I first started at KDHX, I did a show called Medication for four and a half years. It was all '80s music. But when I was originally given the opportunity and privilege to do a show on the station, I really wanted to do an Americana/country show like I'm doing now. I would listen to Fred Friction, Larry Weir on Songwriters Showcase, and Fred Gumaer on Mid-Day Jamboree and I thought those guys were awesome. They're still awesome! And I thought I could never, ever do a show as good as those guys do. So being intimidated by that ...
Well, I know that you seemed intimidated stepping into that Friday morning slot. Larry's old slot.
Yeah, I had forgotten about that. Those were big shoes to fill. Thankfully people seemed to like the program. They were pretty kind to me.
That had to be hard. Larry's status with the station was almost legendary. That was one of the cornerstone shows.
And I'll tell you, Larry was one of the most supportive people at the station to me. Ever since I started volunteering back in 2003. He was always somebody who was very encouraging. He was encouraging to me when I took his spot. I told him I kinda felt bad about it. He was like "No, it's okay." Larry was a great guy. I still miss him.
When did you come to St. Louis? You grew up in New Jersey?
Yeah, I was born in Elizabeth, which is next to Newark. I grew up there. Moved here in 1994, when I was 26. I had been married for a few years at that point and my father-in-law owned some property on the east side, in Illinois. He sold us a house at a pretty reasonable price. The cost of living in New Jersey is crazy expensive. Everything is expensive. Taxes are real high, car insurance. So now I live in Granite City. I love St. Louis. It's a great town. People are really friendly.
Did your wife grow up in this area?
No, she grew up in Jersey City, which is next to Elizabeth. We went to the same high school in Jersey. She was a couple of years ahead of me. We met a few years later, when I was a clerk in a video store. She was a customer. We started dating at some point, hit it off and have been together ever since. We've been married for 22 years.
So when did you start at KDHX?
January 4, 2004 was my first official show. I had done a couple of fill-ins on what was called the Morning Show. It's very scary getting on the air the first time. You really don't want to make a mistake. The first time I subbed on the morning program, I wound up playing like six songs before I could work up the nerve to talk. The song would be ending and I would be like, "No, I can't do it yet!" It's not as easy as it looks. It is now. Now it's like I'm talking with a friend.
I think that comes across. And I think you have one of the most radio-friendly voices on the air.
It's funny you say that. When I was a young boy, I had a tape recorder and I would sit up in my bedroom at night and make tapes of myself talking, pretending I was a DJ. I would have my little transistor radio and I would tune into the New York AM stations and hear guys like Harry Harrison. He was a big hero of mine. And Wolfman Jack would come on late at night. He was syndicated. And I'd be like "Who is this guy?" And I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It was absolutely want I wanted to do for a living as a kid. But as I got older, and got married, and had kids, it just wasn't economically feasible. Breaking into commercial radio, you really have to pay your dues and move around a lot. I just wasn't going to do that.
What do you do for a living?
I work for the water company. Providing safe, clean drinking water.
And you said you have kids?
I have four kids. They are 26, 21, 19 and 16.
What do you do when you're not spinning records or working for the water company? Do you have any hobbies?
My main hobby is listening to music. The show takes up a lot of my time, in a good way. I'm always digging around for stuff. I like watching sports. Not so much participating in them any more. I'm an avid bowler. But I haven't had much time lately for that. I like going fishing, going to different cities, traveling. I went to New Jersey this year for vacation, spent a lot of time on the beach. We're planning on going to some Caribbean island next year. I've never been out of the country before. So that should be an interesting experience.
Do watch much TV? Movies?
My favorite show is the "Big Bang Theory." I love that program. I love the Food Network. I really like to cook. And my wife doesn't. So that works out well. I love the Travel Channel. Those two networks comprise about 80 percent of my television watching. If I wanna watch a movie, it's usually something silly like "The Big Lebowski." Or "Midnight Run" with Robert DeNiro. I love the "Godfather" movies. I love all kinds of movies. Like "28 Days Later." Those zombie movies are always cool.
What makes a song an "Interstate" song?
You mean the quintessential "Interstate" song? I think I played one yesterday. I played "Just Us Kids" by James McMurtry. I think that's a really good song. It's got a good beat to it, the lyrics are really intelligent. James McMurtry has been one of my favorites. He's one of the people that Larry Weir turned me on to. I'd never heard of him before and I heard him on Songwriters Showcase years ago. Larry played "Levelland" by him and I was like "Who is that?" You're in the car and your ears go up. The Band of Heathens are a really good up-and-coming band. I would say my favorite instrument is the pedal steel guitar. So if you have a pedal steel guitar in there, that's money. That's probably gonna catch my attention. The Waco Brothers live CD that came out last year, they have a song on there called "If You Don't Change Your Mind," and it has a wicked pedal steel on it. That's such a great song.
John Hiatt is another guy that I can play almost anything by him, post 1987. His earlier stuff is a little different. He tried getting into the new wavy thing and that didn't work out. He ended up quitting drinking in the mid-'80s and then he put out that great album in '87 "Bring the Family." John Hiatt is one of my heroes. I've seen him in concert several times. I have an autographed poster at home. Growing up in New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen is another guy. He grew up in the same county that I went to high school in. So it was like here's this regular guy, who managed to carve out a huge career for himself. He didn't come from a rich family or anything. It was really just on talent and perseverance, so I really admire that.
One day I was listening to Fishing with Dynamite and at the end of the show Fred played some Rob Zombie. He came back on the air and said "What? You don't think I listen to this stuff ALL the time, do you?" What do listen to when you're not listening to Americana?
I'm a big Pink Floyd fan. I've always liked David Gilmour. I like the "Live In Gdansk" album he put out a few years ago. It was fantastic. I still like a lot of old '80s stuff. I mentioned I went to New Jersey this summer. It was myself, my wife and my 16-year-old daughter. So most of the time we were listening to Hot 104 or Z-92. I strangely got addicted to the song "Last Friday Night" by Katy Perry. I must have heard that song a hundred times on the trip. But every city I go through, I go, "Wait a minute. I gotta check out the public radio portion of the dial and see what's going on down there. Very seldom do I hear anything that is even close to KDHX.
Are there any defining rock 'n' roll moments that you've experience at a live show?
Yeah, what immediately jumps to mind is 1989, at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, I saw Robert Plant, and the opening act was Stevie Ray Vaughan. Me and my friends were there. I've never seen a starting act that had such a long standing ovation in my whole life. I mean that guy smoked the guitar! It was just unreal. It was a galvanizing moment for me. Another really great show I saw was at the Garden State Art Center in '91. I saw Blues Traveler open up for the Allman Brothers Band. Blues Traveler was pretty new at that time. That was a terrific show.
I've seen Cracker several times and I was lucky enough to get them on my show last year. That was pretty cool. Meeting a band that I've been listening to for almost 20 years. They're on my program. It was just amazing. Whenever I have a band on the program, it's pretty cool. They're on my show, playing this music that I love. Ryan Bingham was on the program. He wound up winning the Academy Award a couple years ago for his song in the movie "Crazy Heart" with Jeff Bridges. He was on before that happened. I had no idea that was coming. They were a really cool band as well. And Colin Hay was on this year, from Men at Work, so that brings that full circle.
It's neat to get that opportunity to meet the people in the bands that you like.
And there's a lot of local bands that I am looking forward to trying to get on this show. Bands like Trigger 5 or Kentucky Knife Fight or the Red-Headed Strangers. They're all really good. Kentucky Knife Fight is more of a rock band. Trigger 5 and the Red-Headed Strangers are definitely more traditional country based. Of course, young bands out there like Theodore. And I think number one on my bucket list is Jay Farrar. I am a gigantic Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt/Jay Farrar fan. I've always liked him since the first time I heard Uncle Tupelo. They played their last show about a month before I moved here, so I just missed them.
Were you aware of Uncle Tupelo before you came to town?
I wasn't. It was weird how I wound up finding out about them. I was in Vintage Vinyl in Granite City (it's not there any more), probably about '96 or '97. And the clerk had put on the Wilco album "A.M." And some people have said that that was the Uncle Tupelo album that Jeff Tweedy wanted to do. So I'm in there shopping and the first song plays and I'm like, "That's a great song." And the second song plays and I'm like, "That's a great song, too." So after a couple more songs, I walk up to the clerk and say "Who is this? I have to have this!"
I ended up buying that record that day and did some research and was like, "Oh wait a minute, there's this band called 'Uncle Tupelo' before that." I went out to a different record store a short time later and bought all four original Uncle Tupelo CDs on the Rockville Label. They hadn't been reissued at the time. And that's how I discovered the whole Jay Farrar thing. I was like, "This is unbelievable. I can't believe these guys weren't just huge." I'm actually hoping they've got a shot at getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, because they'll be eligible in 2014, I think. It's 25 years after the first album.
Wow, that doesn't seem possible it's been that long.
I know, I know! It's such a long time, right?
Any closing comments? Anything you want to add to rectify the Barry Manilow comment? Any Americana gold that will wash that from the readers mind?
I don't think that's possible. No. It's just that I feel really strong about the station. It really is unique. I feel privileged to be a part of it. Some people are impressed by the fact that I have a show and then I go home to my family and they're like "What's the big deal?" It's very humbling. But the station is staffed by volunteer DJs. And all the different genres, stuff you're never going to hear, ever, on commercial radio. It's really kind of sad the way things have gone. I'm sure you remember back in the '70s and '80s, the rock stations tended to be more free form. It seemed like the DJs had at least some creative control over their programs. That's what I grew up with and that's what I remember. So being able to do that now as an adult -- it just wouldn't be possible to do if I was working in commercial radio.