'Turn left in the break in the weeds': An Interview with Ron Edwards
As KDHX celebrates its 30th anniversary, the station also celebrates the induction of 88.1's first generation of blues DJs into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame: Art Dwyer of Blues in the Night, Ron Edwards of Nothin' but the Blues, Denny Clancy and John McHenry of Blursday and Tom 'Papa' Ray of Soul Selector. Ronnie Wisdom of Shake 'Em on Down, the newest blues program at KDHX, sat down with Ron Edwards to talk about the early days of the station, the many firsts over the years, and the deep service of KDHX's volunteer community. Look for Andy Coco's interview with Tom Ray coming soon, as well as an interview with the Blursday boys. And if you missed it, check out Sean Smothers' interview with Art Dwyer.
Ronnie: So, Ron, you are one of the original three blues DJs at KDHX among the five just recently inducted inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame. Congratulations.
Ron: Thank you, I think all of us are really thrilled to be part of this. We have some dear friends at the station here who have been so honored. Gabriel is in. And the late Lou Thimes who used to be on in front of me for a year is part of this. Gentleman Jim Gates used to be on Monday drive time, and our good friend Bernie Hayes who actually has filled in for Art Dwyer, Tom Ray and myself may have done the Blursday show too. So we now have nine individuals who have broadcast for this station who are in this hall of fame. It's really thrilling because it's such a legitimate award. And you generally see it for people who are in a different form of media. They are in commercial media or are known for different presentations. It's incredibly rare for people to have survived the way we have outside commercial radio with its different companies changing format over time, you simply can't find people around for thirty years doing the same thing with the exception of KMOX [AM 1120] who do mostly speaking programs. But in terms of people who broadcast music, particularly in blues, we've held the record for ten of fifteen years now [of multiple long-running blues DJs on the air], but it is so nice to find this kind of recognition because St. Louis has understood the importance of 88.1 as the community radio station: the people that are on are the people who live here and they bring you the entertainment that you're looking for — all of the types of things that aren't on the radio anywhere else.
Ronnie: So Ron, you've been with KDHX since the beginning 30 years ago. How did you get involved?
Ron: Well, I had a couple of friends — Susan Littlefield and Brian Costello — who I had gone to school with and then I worked with Susan and they had both been down in Memphis at WEVL and had some experience on the radio. But they got involved in this project, in fact I first heard about it at Susan's house during the 7th game of the World Series in 1982. And she was talking about how she was working with the Double Helix Corporation and that they were fighting to have a radio station and they felt it was possible and they were going to do it. Now that was five years before we went on the air. Brian came in and was the original engineer who oversaw the construction, and I kept up with it through them. They talked about how they had found a great site down in Arnold, real high up, and they were going to put a big tower up there. So in 1986, I went and played the very first concert fundraiser for the station itself. We thought it was getting pretty close but it ended up that we came down within the wire, they were actually going to lose the site permit within a day of going on the air, so they understood that they were gonna have to go on live from the tower itself. It's funny how I heard about it because I've known Art Dwyer and Tom Ray since long before the station, 15 years 17 years before. Anyway, one afternoon Tom calls me up and says, "Hey Ron, what are you going to do on your show this Sunday?" and I said, "What show? What are you talking about?" He said you're on right in front of me at KDHX." I said, "Nobody's called me — I'll get back with ya?" And then Brian called right after that and said, "Look, we've set you up on this." He had asked me whether I'd come in and do blues and maybe work with the other programs and I'd said, "Let me know." So l asked him to let me hold off for a couple of weeks so I could develop a specific format that would be complimentary because Art was doing Monday and Friday afternoons, drive times, and Tom was doing a show called Night Train behind me and I wanted to be very specific about what I was doing in relationship to them. And also, I thought it would be something really worth doing because I was one of the founding members of the St. Louis Blues Society and on the board of directors, and we'd had so much difficulty trying to promote blues artists here in St. Louis. There was practically nothing you could do to get it on the airwaves unless people would do favors for you. Otherwise you'd have to pay for it, and for a nonprofit that was terrible. But I thought about it: "Wait a minute, this station is the perfect vehicle to support the St. Louis blues musicians. You could talk about them; you could play their music — it would be the best thing on earth to do with the blues community." Ultimately, I spent about ten years with the Blues Society but I had to give that up because this was really more worthwhile, I thought, in the long term. And that's the way it's been since the beginning. This station has been full of musicians and has also played St. Louis artists absolutely from day one. Before most people knew we were on the air, the musicians caught on, and you'd go down to a bar or something and they'd be talking about it.
Ronnie: Ron, I've heard you reference "going out to the country," tell me what was it like out there in the tower...
Ron: Well, it's not something anyone thought we were going to do. When Brian first told me about it, he said we gotta do this because we got on the air. And I said, "Well, how long are we gonna do this?" and he said maybe about six months — that was the plan but it turned out to be a year and a half. By that point he had us all convinced that we can't quit because we gotta get into a building somewhere. I remember getting the directions to the tower and I realized it was 65 miles round trip from my house. I was on Sunday nights, the only space I knew I didn't have a conflict with because my schedule working at the University of Missouri. I vividly remember going there the first night. The instructions were really elaborate, turn down this road, turn down that particular road I got to the point where I thought I'm in somebody's driveway and I'm going to end up in their back yard. But it was this little gravel road that went past this person's house and the instructions were "Turn left in the break in the weeds," and I turned left in this break in the weeds and came up over this hill and there was the transmitter shack. You could see it from a tremendous distance. You could see it from Highway 55 because this tower is 500 feet tall. But you weren't sure that you could find how to actually get there. There was no fence. There was just this wooden building with a 100-watt lightbulb stuck over the door. There was a porta john right next to it and plenty of parking — no problem — open fields all around, so at night the sky was deep black and you could see the Milky Way and all the stars and the lights on the tower above you which was always a little frightening because that 500 feet of metal would have come down right on top of your head, but it was wired up well. You would knock on the door and the person in front of you would come out and open it because we always kept the door locked. [Laughs] I always joked, "It could have been a bear." But you'd walk in and you were in the transmitter room — you could hear it humming. Off to the right was a small six by eight room in which there were two chairs, a very small mixing board, and behind you there was a small shelf of LPs, so you basically brought your own. In those days, we used two turntables and a cassette player. CDs weren't around yet. We did announcements strictly by reading them — that's before all the pre-recording at the station itself. And the wonderful part was that the only way we could monitor ourselves was a little transistor-style radio plugged in and we would turn that off before we talked otherwise we would feedback and as soon as we turned the microphone off, you then turned that up because that was your monitor and at some point you'd have to take a reading off the transmitter with a clipboard and read the little dials and so on, but you would always keep the door closed because otherwise it would be humming and you could actually hear it out on the air. Whatever the elements were, you were out there. It was a phenomenal experience. People did remarkable things there. I know Ed Vigil broadcast for eight or ten hours on Christmas Day, that first Christmas that we had there. People just went there and went on the air without any publicity or knowing whether people could pick you up or who you were. There were 35 programs hosted by a unique group of autodidacts. There was little to no training for these individuals — we all learned by doing live radio.
Ronnie: So with 30 years under your belt, you've been involved with a lot of firsts here at the station...
Ron: Somehow that's all worked out — we figured that out a little bit later. About the send week I'd been on the air I took my old, early '30s National and when I went in that night I opened the program with a tune that I played. And because it was so small, the man in front of me —a large man, Al Mothershead — he had to lean over me to adjust the dials. Meanwhile I had a mic leaning into the wall, my head was almost touching it so he could get to the actual board itself. That gives you an idea of how much space was in this room, so I ended up playing that. Then, remarkably, when we went to Magnolia, first week I was in there I took that guitar and played a similar piece of music, and then out of a complete coincidence when we moved in to the studios here in Grand Center, it was on a Sunday — and that had to do with Larry Weir [former co-host of Songwriter's Showcase], our old friend, who was the one that really was involved with the station before we went on the air. He was here the longest of anybody at the station. At times, he was the only staff person we had, so we all knew him and we all appreciate that this place is named after him because he was a dear friend who really did a great deal for the station. But that night, I called Paul Stamler, [aka Pablo Meshugi, host of the Sunday afternoon program No Time to Tarry Here], who's also from '87, and asked him "Are you going to play live music?" and he said, "Nooo, I don't think I am." I said, "Fantastic." I had already set up a program in which I asked the Class of 1987, all the ones who could come, the ones who were still involved who had broadcast from the tower and had never left. We did a remote by phone for Paul and then Ed Vigil could not come, but I had Susan Littlefield who was here talk about the early days. I also had Chuck Lavazzi who went back to that time and Art Dwyer and Tom Ray and so I had each of 'em bring music to program part of the show, and we did it as a celebration to help people understand that all of us had come from this little place in the country and how much we appreciated the space, these studios — the way everything was brand new and could function because we had used some of the most primitive things that you could imagine, so people could get a feeling of what it meant to us — as a thank you to the community, really. We dedicated the program as a remembrance to all of our friends at the station who had passed away. At the end of the program Tom sang and played harmonica, and I took the very same guitar that I had used at other the other locations and played and Art clapped his hands together or a tambourine and the three of us performed at the end. It was kind of like completing a full circle. But somehow over the years, I always seem to be in a certain place. I played the first live music at the Magnolia Cafe. I gave the first lecture at the Stage and Tom was there so we played the first blues duet here at the station. But it's been a remarkable thing to believe that this has lasted so long, that people have dedicated themselves, because it's been something that's been really worth doing, but all through the years I've thought that there's nothing like live music, and I'm not talking about going into the studio back there, I'm talking about stickin' it in front of a mic and crankin' up a guitar.
Ronnie: So you also play live regularly for the pledge drives, have you always done that?
Ron: Starting with our first which was done from the tower in May of 1988. I thought what would be interesting to do would be to take the guitar out, and since it was nice weather I decided to do it outside on the gravel driveway. I took some equipment from work. I took a little mixer and whole bunch of mic chords and a couple of microphones — I thought, "This should work," but we'd never done it before. So I plugged it up, ran it all the way outside, got one of the chairs and sat there. Susan had called up the man whose land we were on, who we'd been renting the space from, and they came over with their grandkids. And so they sat right in front of me. And I had arranged that the man who was on the air in the previous hour would give me the signal. I said, "Just point at me," because I had no headphones, no monitors and no way of even knowing I was on the air — he was going to adjust it on the inside. So I had a little amp and my little guitar and he comes runnin' out the door, points at me and I start talking. Later on I heard a tape of it: you could hear birds chirping in the background. An amazing thing. I told stories of [Fred McDowell] and musicians I'd known and played examples of their kind of music, since I would have killed the station immediately if I'd tried to sing. [Laughs] But I did that for 20 minutes or 25 and was gettin' ready to switch because I had already worked it out with Tom Ray to do a couple tunes together. He was going to play harmonica and sing but because it was getting dark, I needed to get over by the 100-watt light bulb — this is a true story. Tom was running behind. He had this old Cadillac. He came up over the top of that hill at full speed, shootin' gravel all over the place. We looked like deer in headlights. I thought, "Oh my god, he's going to run us over! This is the end of KDHX." And that's what he thought too. Fortunately, he broke, jumped out, and we got ourselves set up, and I remember him distinctly saying, "They told Ron and I that if you donate you'll get us out of this one-room country shack." And then we played, I think, "It Hurts Me Too," kind of in the Elmore style, not Tampa.
Tom and I go way back with those kind of things. We used offer all kind of things during pledge drives. I would have people come and I would give them the full experience. I would say, If you pledge this amount I will have you come and you will be a co-host. You're not just coming in here, we're going to work up a theme together, I'm going to rehearse you, we'll set up all the music. I'll bring you in ahead of time. We'll get you relaxed and so on, and you'll be my co-host for the evening and I'll take pictures of you in the studio. I wanted this to be the experience of a lifetime for them. That's how Rich Barta got his start at the station. So we did that, and every once in a while we'd offer people crazy stuff: "We'll come wash your car"; "We'll come burp your baby," or "We'll walk your dog." I was there with Tom — it was right before he goes off the air and he says, "I'll tell you what. If you donate so and so, Ron and I'll come to your house and play a show." And I thought, "Tom, we don't really have an act together! What are you talkin' about?" I thought, "Ah well, nobody's going to get it." Right at the last minute, this guy called up, he donates the money, and it turns out he lives way over in Illinois somewhere. So I ended up having to get my buddy Bob Case and Dave MacKenzie, we threw a little act together — the four of us actually went over to the man's house and played. We don't make those promises anymore, but throughout the years, one thing I've always tried to do, and been grandfathered into, is to bring the guitar because my concept of a pledge drive is more of what they used to call a house rent party. Occasionally I'd have somebody — Rondo [Leewright] or Leroy Pierson or some friend — come by and I'd do a little bit with them, where we'd do a couple tunes or with a piano player or somebody else as part of the pledge drive to kind of break it up, instead of, as I say, begging and moaning for money. I've ended up keeping the tradition: now I've had Fred Gumaer come with a snare drum and we've done some McDowell stuff where he plays on the drum. The last time he's come with a guitar we've played a couple rhythm pieces. So we're stretching the boundaries so it's not the same thing, but one thing I do say is that we close the book — so we're not going to tell you anything you've heard, we'll replace it with some live music and hopefully that'll give you a reason to donate to the station.
Ronnie: So you're a bottleneck guitarist?
Ron: Yes, some people call it slide guitar, I play with a piece of glass which is slid up and down the strings, and it's not like the white country artists who play on their laps — I play upright. I remember Fred McDowell telling me that the bottleneck is the voice and it's meant to replicate what is sung because it has the same abilities to do that because you can play notes in between the frets. It's really what B.B. King and the people who bend the strings were trying to get. King always wanted to be a slide player but he couldn't grasp it somehow, so he would bend the strings to get those notes that were in between to imitate his vocals. It's a style that goes way back to the turn of the century. It had some Hawaiian influences and really got around to America — there was sort of a craze to it. But you hear the older blues artists playing it, some from Mississippi particularly in the Atlanta group, the 12-stringers there, they were the ones that were the great players at slide. So sometimes it's used strictly as a solo accompaniment and other times it's used in a bigger sense when you're playing in an ensemble. But I'm what you'd call a bottleneck specialist. I play all night long slide guitar because it's been the one interest I've had that's the deepest in music. I've been playing it since the late 1960s before you could even find books or anything on on it, both in open tunings and then in standard. But my guitar is tuned in what you'd call "Sebastopol" or D-tuning. I used to take a couple guitars but I got tired of lugging everything. So now I play in a single-tuning. Throughout life, it's really been an avocation but not a vocation. I've been able to do it and to have the great experience of music without having to make a living of it because I've always had a profession. And that way you can play the places you want to play and play the material that you're interested in.
I was originally taught by Furry Lewis and Bukka White and a great man named Houston Stackhouse who taught Robert Nighthawk how to play guitar to begin with and then Nighthawk taught him how to play side and he taught me how to play like Nighthawk. And a dear friend J.B. Hutto. Slide guitar was a significant part of their act and they were all very accomplished at it. J.B. was a tremendous performer. One of my oldest and dearest friends is Bob Case and he used to be J.B.'s bass player, but Bob had a terrible accident and really couldn't go on the road anymore and my good friend Keith Doder, who was a great harp player said, "Let's get Bob up on his feet again." So we put a trio together with the idea that we'll get Bob up and he'll get going, and then we just had too much fun with it so that went on for a period of time. But for the most part I spent 22 years with Henry Townsend who was St. Louis' patriarch, a man who goes back to the '20s who was here in the time frame that he knew all those artists Big Joe Williams, John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson, worked with Walter Davis, worked with Roosevelt Sykes and worked with the Spark Brothers, and worked with Nighthawk himself. I began playing with him. It was he and Henry's wife Vernell and myself. I began working with him and never quit because I had an understanding of his vintage of music, which is '30s city blues. It was not a country blues style. It was rooted here in the St. Louis urban area here in St. Louis in the '30s. So that became an experience that was really substantial and very difficult because you're not playing in a twelve-bar format, you're sometimes a little longer or a little shorter according to how the lyrics were and he'd make them up on the spot so that everything was absolutely brand new at the moment and you'd play to that. So you really develop the ability to listen and also to be in the exact moment. We only did a few tunes ever that we basically knew. I loved it when Nell got up because I knew her songs. But in between Henry'd work on a certain theme and sometimes the lyrics would be brilliant but none of us could remember which is the sad part.
But my friend John May, who was with the St. Louis Blues Society since the beginning, became the bass player, and we worked toward the end of Henry's life mostly as a trio. And we were the one's who kept it here. He had other friends and close people that he knew who also worked occasionally with Leroy, and sometimes Scott Schuman would come and we'd do some things together. At the time I began playing with Rudy 'Silver Cloud' Coleman back in 1986 when Henry had his first birthday party and it became the biggest event in this town — everyone wanted to be in it. I managed somehow to play every single one of them, but the first one was at the Allen Avenue restaurant down in Soulard and it consisted of Henry and his wife Vernell, myself and Silver Cloud who's a deep blues piano player, best ever in the style of Memphis Slim. It was just the four of us and we played the whole night. I got into playing with him because the instruments that have really moved me the most were the harmonica, the piano and the bottleneck guitar, because my forte is the style of the great Tampa Red of the '20s and '30s. it's based upon a super-clean, sweet kind-of style; there's no raspyness, sometimes people think stuff is really authentic when it's actually just sloppy. [Laughs] You may be sloppy drunk or you may be a sloppy player but they don't necessarily understand the classical thing. And Silver Cloud is a great classical player — he played the '40s-'50s styles and I would play the '20s up into the '50s styles, so for a period of time it was the last of the duets and St. Louis was built primarily on piano-guitar duets, so it was kind of like Tampa Red meets Memphis Slim when you hear the musical part of it. I always enjoyed that and did that on the side while I worked with Henry, and then would play special events which is pretty much what I do now — I also worked with piano man David Krull and extensively with outstanding harp-man Jon Erblich. For a number of years I've also been part of the KDHX Blues Band which started with Art, Tom and myself and then we got John McHenry who plays drums, sometimes we'll grab somebody else. We had John Logan on the last one who is also a programmer — but what we decided, even though we knew each other well, was that we'd never have this combination except for the benefit of KDHX. Even if I were retired I'd come out and do that, but I think being a "musicianer," as Henry used to say, has an impact on how you present music. There are so many musicians on this station and you are guaranteed that if you hear someone like Andy Coco, he's a bass player, he's going to have a solid bass part, or Art, there's not going to be any sloppy bass parts. These are people who could really play. Roy Helwig, who used to be in front of me, used to be a sax player and he always had the best sax solos in the records he was playing because you have a certain level you don't want to go below. I don't play any mediocre or lousy bottleneck players. I want to hear someone who can play in pitch, that's clean, that is expressing themselves in some way. And I think that all of the musicians on the station are like that and it's one of the real secrets of the foundation of why KDHX has been accepted. Not only do we support the musicians in this community seriously by playing their music, but for people being musicians they are deciding upon which cuts to play based on the quality of those. Perhaps we don't like everything we hear on the station but I'm sure even the youngster in the middle of the night is putting the best piece of music in their opinion on the air for our listeners. One of the most rewarding experiences is the camaraderie that you develop with those in front and behind you on the air. You mark the passage of time in your life seeing them each week.
Ronnie: The one thing that I didn't realize 'til I got involved as a programmer myself here was how much goes on behind the scenes at KDHX.
Ron: That's been something that's always been true from the very beginning, when people went out and laid the concrete pad, worked on the transmitter shack, volunteered for everything imaginable over the years. It's something I've tried to make mention of and tell the audience how much we rely on volunteers behind the scenes. You know who we are because we are on the air but for each of us there are many, many others, who over the years have shown up and volunteered their time and done something significant. It wouldn't be possible if it hadn't been for all of these people coming from the community and their willingness to do things. I have a wonderful volunteer, Jill Garvey, who saves me hours every week by taking my playlist and entering it in the computer.
I have mentioned before the only reason we were on Magnolia was because that building was going to be condemned. And Brian put out the call: "We need volunteers. If we could put a roof on this building, we could save it we could buy it or at least we could get in it and out of that transmitter." And that's what happened. Forty people showed up over a weekend, and they put a roof on that building, saved the building. And every weekend, people came and cleaned and knocked the walls out of that old bakery. None of this would have been possible without them. I think it's important for people to understand that it's a joint effort, that we are the St. Louis area community, and that we're your friends, we're your neighbors and our friends and neighbors have come here and been a part of this. It is freedom radio — there's never been anything like KDHX. I've put 25,000 cuts or more cut on the air, 1,500 programs — I've never been told once what to play or not to play. We're radio programmers; we program on our own and we answer the phone because we are part of the community. We do not have traditional radio voices but we have great content. I always say my program is education under the guise of entertainment; it is highly specialized and it would only be possible to present this style of programming on community radio. I try to present those consistently forgotten artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson and artists like them, who have been part of the great foundation of the history of the blues and who've left a profound influence on the way blues sounds today — artists who might be forgotten without being put in the proper context. I always state the year the cut was recorded because through time, I hope people will learn what blues sounded like in those specific eras. When people call up and ask about an artist such as Blind Willie McTell who they hadn't heard before, I feel like I've been successful. [Laughs] The shows are all thematic and each cut relates to the theme — so I don't take requests unless they're two hours long. But this is a tremendous ongoing learning experience for all of us. And I know from the beginning it wouldn't be possible without all these great volunteers who aren't on the air but who make KDHX what it is.