Sunny Boy has been a member of the 88.1 KDHX family for over 17 years and counting. He first joined as a volunteer in 1993, and years later he grew into an on-air personality and gained his own time slot. With Howzit Bayou? he features a variety of Louisiana-flavored tunes that include cajun, zydeco, blues, jazz and a whole lot more. When not on the air, he can be heard performing with the roots music band Sins of the Pioneers.
In mid October, when the fall leaves were just starting to ripen, I had a chance to chat with the St. Louis native. We met at MoKaBe's Coffeehouse on the corner of Grand and Arsenal, not too far from KDHX's Magnolia Avenue Studios. This gathering was far from formal given all of Mason's jokes and wisecracks. In this interview he shares his background with KDHX and a brief history lesson on Louisiana's music and culture.
Dannie Boyd: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Sunny Boy Mason: I grew up in north county, Florissant. I was born up there. My family is from there too. I grew up in a musical household. My dad was a traditional jazz musician, and still is, so there was always that kind of music around. From the time I was born we were always exposed to New Orleans things. Louis Armstrong was like the patriot saint of our household. That kind of thing. It's something that's always been around. I've always been well connected to that stuff and it carried on into adulthood. I took it into the KDHX world too.
How did you get started in music and DJing?
Like most people there [at KDHX]. I was just a fan of the station years before that. I listened to it and decided to become a volunteer at a pledge drive back in 1993. I did volunteer work, answering phones, working in the mail room. I use to be there almost every day. I was annoying (laughs). I was there all the time, it was a cool thing. I made a lot of good friends. I started learning the ropes, the technical ropes and what not, which were a lot different then than they are now.
I guess about a year later I got a show of my own on Saturday mornings. I did that for about five years. It was like a variety show kind of thing. Tuesdays, the same time slot that I'm doing now, was held down by Al Boudreaux. He did a Louisiana/New Orleans music show for, I'm not sure how many years. Maybe a few years. He retired early and moved back down home and so I kind of inherited his time slot. I became the New Orleans guy, the Louisiana guy. It was an interest of mine anyway.
Can you remember what it was like when you first went on the air with your show?
It felt scary and exciting and fun. The very first time I was ever on the air was accidental. I was just running board op stuff for a pre-recorded show. It was '93. That's when we had the big floods with serious storms every night. Alarms going off every night. The tape I was supposed to be playing -- we had big hour-long real tapes at the time -- they didn't tell me this but the tape had to be rewound. I put it on and it started playing backwards (laughs). I was just a kid, a relative kid to radio. It sounded like a Klingon. I couldn't tell what the hell was going on. Then it dawned on me, "Oh yeah, the tape is playing backwards!" Meanwhile the alarm system is screaming at me the whole time. I had to start playing records and making announcements so it was pretty scary. It was exciting though, and it was a good story to tell later on. Shortly after that I got a real show.
How did you come up with the concept for your current show?
Basically, just copying what was already there. There was already a Louisiana/New Orleans show on, and I just took that over and changed the name a little bit. Carrying on what Al had already been doing with my slant on it. Our tastes aren't exactly the same but they're close enough. His presence on the air is totally different. He's an actual Louisianan with the accent to boot. I'm not. I'm a St. Louis guy.
Al was always a little heavier on the cajun than I am. I used to play some but not as much. I'm more jazz, and new traditional jazz. We have a separate cajun/zydeco show on Sunday mornings that covers nothing but that. My ex-partner Mark Silverstein was on the air with me for years. When he got to be like 60 years old they decided he was old enough to have his own show (laughs). He moved into Sunday [5-7 a.m. Central]. It's all cajun/zydeco.
What type of music do you play on your show?
Lots of different things. It's all from south Louisiana, meaning New Orleans and things from the country part of south Louisiana which is essentially cajun/zydeco. New Orleans music takes in a lot of different things both old and new. All the way from old Creole things and traditional jazz to modern jazz and R&B and old rock 'n' roll. All these thing originated in New Orleans. Some people claim that American popular music was born in New Orleans. You could make that case. There's a lot of history down there.
For rock 'n' roll you could make the case it was born in New Orleans among other places. R&B is the same way. There are the more modern offshoots of all those things like modern brass bands which are sort of an amalgamation of old marching band music with jazz, then with modern funk and R&B elements thrown in. That creates a whole new genre. It's a whole tradition that carries on and modernized itself. It's a real folk art form that evolved in a natural way over 100 years and is still going strong. Brass bands in particular.
There's the Mardi Gras Indian music, which a lot of people aren't familiar with. African Americans from New Orleans have been doing it for well over 100 years. Since the late 1800s I think. I'm sure you've seen these guys dress up like Indians with extremely elaborate feathers. More extreme than any Indian would have ever done (laughs). It's a whole art form. These guys work on their suits all year and they only bring them out at carnival time. They have to make a new suit every year. That's their religion. They go out on Mardi Gras morning and on St. Joseph's day, and occasionally some other special occasions. But generally that's the only time they go in costume. Or at jazz festivals. They get paid to come out at jazz festivals. Generally it's a sacred tradition, and a whole genre of music goes along with the guys that do this. That's another topic by itself.
There's also some modern rock 'n' roll that comes out of New Orleans which I don't play a whole lot of. I play some but not a lot. It has to be indigenous sounding or I'm not too interested in it. If it's a rock 'n' roll band that comes out of New Orleans but they sound like a rock 'n' roll band from Cleveland then I don't care. It doesn't hold my interest. They have to have some indigenous angle to them.
How do you pick the music that you play on your show?
It's mostly what I like. If there's something new and I think it's worth promoting -- even if I'm not totally enamored of it -- and I think it's worth exposing then I'll play it. I'm not that much of a stickler for staying within the genre anyway. I play local people as long as the music isn't too different. There's a lot of local blues and jazz out around town that's close enough. It's all related. Bands from other places as well. As long as they're related to the forms then it's ok. Mostly the stuff I like.
What connection does the music you play have to St. Louis?
It's got a lot of connection. St. Louis and New Orleans have been linked forever. St. Louis was established as an outpost for New Orleans. A fur trading post. A couple of drunk French guys came up from New Orleans and established St. Louis (laughs). They would come up here and exploit the Indians and what not like people did in those days. That's the reason St. Louis exists, because of New Orleans. There was always this connection. They connect with the river obviously. St. Louis is a part of what used to be Louisiana territory. We're all a part of the same colony that was owned by France and then Spain, so there's a lot of cultural connections between these two cities.
And then the music of course -- jazz, which originated in New Orleans. It didn't stay there long. It moved up the river to New York. It went to St. Louis and it went to Chicago. Maybe more Chicago than St. Louis, but St. Louis was certainly an important stop from the early part of the 20th century on. Louis Armstrong actually lived in St. Louis for a while in his pre-fame days. A lot of those bands rode the river boats. Spirited boats would go up and down the river and this would be one of their important stops.
Looking at the genres of music that you play on your show, do you think music has changed since you first started DJing with KDHX?
Yes, somewhat. I guess it does when you're dabbling in mostly traditional forms of music. It doesn't change that much, it evolves slowly. It's not like mainstream pop music that changes from year to year. It does evolve though. It borrows things from popular culture. It borrows things from other forms of music. Zydeco music has -- within however many years I've be doing this, 18 or whatever -- it's probably evolved the most.
Then there are more modern forms of music from New Orleans like funk that evolve considerably. Some good, some bad. It's like everything else. Not everything is great, not everything is bad. It's hit or miss. That's what music is. Sometimes it takes wrong turns in its evolution (laughs). Zydeco is kind of like that. When it comes to zydeco in particular I like real old stuff. When I say "old" I mean like the '50s and '60s, or the stuff from the early '90s. When it first started getting modern that was good stuff. It was modernized and hard hitting, it would beat you over the head. Since then they've borrowed too much from modern R&B, which doesn't really work too well.
Who are some of your favorite local bands and artists?
Local bands (pauses). Aw man, I'm going to leave somebody out. There's the obvious guys, the ones that are doing Louisiana music in St. Louis. The obvious ones are Gumbohead and Funky Butt Brass Band. I can't say enough about them. They've done amazing things in a short period of time. The Zydeco Crawdaddys, they're one of the only bands that does zydeco-like things in town. Those are the three obvious ones.
There's also a lot of good blues and R&B type acts in town. I'd hate to make a big list because I'll forget artists and leave somebody off (laughs). The Bottoms Up Blues Gang, they're talented kids. They're down in New Orleans as much as they are here. They're practically a New Orleans band anyway. There are old guys like the Soulard Blues Band that have been around a million years that are still entertaining. There are nice funk bands like the Dogtown Allstars. There's (pauses). I better stop there. I don't want it to be a comprehensive list. I might leave somebody out or hurt somebody's feelings.
How about national artists, since they can't hunt you down?
Let's see (pauses). There are so many. The obvious ones would be the Neville Brothers, Dr. John. Those are the first two that come to mind. Cajun music, there's Steve Riley. Zydeco Acts I do like are the Zydeco Cha Chas and Geno Delafose. Those are my two favorites in that world, who are still alive. A lot of the good ones are dead.
Kermit Ruffins, he's one of the jazz guys you made me think of, one of the best entertainers out there. Trombone Shorty, I think he's in town today [October 18]. He's over at the station right now. [Listen to the Live at KDHX session.] I need to go over there before he leaves. Trombone Shorty's bigger brother James Andrews, he's one of my favorites. There's a whole family of Andrews guys playing stuff. Who else? I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of them. These are active bands. There's a lot of dead guys out there as well (laughs). That's good for now.