Ralph Epperson, founder of WPAQ-AM in Mount Airy, was riding a mule the day he decided to make a career out of radio broadcasting. That's when he noticed that a telephone line was hanging lower than it should have been.
"In our part of the world, you had a telephone system in which you would crank up your 'shorts' and your 'longs,'" recalls the 79-year-old. "You had one wire, and the ground served as the second wire." So he took the headphones he happened to be carrying, put one wire to the telephone line, held the other one in his hand--and he heard a conversation. "And I thought, this is a good thing to be with."
On Feb. 2, 1948, Epperson put his 1,000- watt radio station on the air, playing a mixture of old-time and bluegrass music. He increased the station's power to 10,000 watts in 1954, and remains the owner today. And, his station still specializes in old-time and bluegrass music.
Epperson's reflections were a fitting centerpiece to the 2001 Old-Time Music and Radio Conference, held prior to the 30th annual Mount Airy Fiddler's Convention last week. Unlike the convention, the conference--sponsored by the Surry Arts Council and the Old Time Music and Radio Group--is an intimate affair, bringing together about 75 radio broadcasters, folklorists, musicians and magazine publishers (sometimes, they're the same person) to strategize about keeping the music alive and getting it played on the radio.
For the Eppersons, it's been a family affair. His son, Kelly, manages the business and co-owns WSYD-AM, another Mount Airy station while Epperson's daughter, Deborah, manages WBRF-FM, a 100,000-watt station in Galax, Va. But by dint of its longevity, it's WPAQ that commands the fiercest listener loyalty. Epperson says he's heard from two commercial airline pilots who tune in the station while they're flying over the area--even turning the station in over the planes' public address systems for their passengers to enjoy.
The station is loyal to its community, too, reading local news, school closings, and obituaries as well as running the odd lost pet announcement.
Still, it's the music that matters most, and Ralph Epperson says the image of old-time and bluegrass is better than it's been in many years. "When we signed on, we had great difficulty convincing some of the merchants to advertise, because the music had the connotation of being 'hillbilly'," he recalls. "The performers called themselves hillbillies, and dressed in that kind of style. But now we have doctors and lawyers and schoolteachers performing locally, all kinds of professional people, so the image is at a new high. And I suggest we need to keep it that way."
Yet WPAQ remains welcome to just about anyone driving through town who calls up and asks for a few minutes of live time on the radio. "Walk-ins are accepted," says Kelly Epperson of the station's historic studio. Granted, the quality of players in the vicinity tends to be pretty high. But they don't have to be musicians, either.
"There's a guy known as the human chain saw," says Kelly of a local sound effects aficionado, "and he's amazing. When you hear him do it, you will think somebody has fired up a chain saw in the studio. And, he's a beekeeper. He brings in honey to the announcer."
"To sweeten us up," adds Ralph.
Venerable and well-established, with a cadre of loyal listeners, WPAQ seems like the perfect outlet for traditional mountain music. Yet duplicating its success was hard to imagine for the broadcasters assembled at the conference. One new opportunity, cited in stark contrast to the trajectory of the Eppersons, was the radio, Internet-style.
"If you don't have a Web page now, you ought to," said Phil Johnson (one-half of the acoustic duo of Phil and Gaye Johnson) while talking up the Web's potential for spreading the word about traditional music. Phil and Gaye--who live in the real North Carolina community of Tryon--currently host The KingPup Radio Show--Small Time Opry (www.radioyur.com) from an imaginary online community called Euphoria Falls. No doubt inspired by A Prairie Home Companion--on which they've appeared several times--the show features a variety of old-time musicians in a simulated live format. Johnson also touted Internet radio sites like live365.com as distribution outlets for similar homegrown shows and concerts.
"If you want to get old-time music out there, I can't think of a better way to do it," Johnson said of the Internet. "And it's only going to get better."
County Records founder Dave Freeman, who hosted a session on running your own record label with Chubby Dragon Records owner Ray Alden, said that the Internet is probably the best place for selling old-time music today. "There's a market for old-time and bluegrass, but it's so spread out that there are no concentrated points," he said. "The Internet has given us a big boost."
Like WPAQ, Freeman's County label remains a legendary source of traditional music. Born in New York City, Freeman was exposed to rural music on the radio for the first time while his family was driving through the South on vacation. He became an avid record collector, and after years of buying and selling 78s, he had assembled a list of 150 like-minded collectors who were ready to buy LPs as well. Using that list as a starting point, he launched County Records as a mail-order service in New York City in 1963, and in 1974 he moved to Floyd, Va., to start County Sales, a mail order and retail outlet. In 1979, he purchased Rebel Records, a bluegrass label. Freeman also was co-founder of Durham's Sugar Hill Records with Barry Poss, selling his interest in that label in 1980. During a ceremony at the Andy Griffith Playhouse, Freeman received the 2001 Old-Time Music & Radio Conference lifetime achievement award.
"Until Dave Freeman came along," said award presenter Ralph Epperson, "it was hard for stations, especially in bluegrass and old-time, to find enough material to hold an audience." Freeman returned the compliment. "Ralph played our records when it was hard to find old-time music anywhere, even in the South. It really was the beginning of us becoming a viable company."
Yet, Freeman added at the record label session, there are a lot of advantages to staying small. "When you have a big national distributor, you can't do some of the things we used to do--like putting something out just because we liked it ourselves." But there are disadvantages, too--like trying to get noticed. "The number of records on the market is the biggest problem today," he added. "You're up against a huge amount--last year there were more than 29,000 CD releases, and 18 percent of those generated 90 percent of sales."
Bringing a higher visibility to the region's traditional music was the topic of a keynote presentation by Wayne Martin, director of the folklife section of the North Carolina Arts Council. With a wave of "heritage tourism" sweeping the nation, the council put together a multi-state project called the Blue Ridge Heritage Initiative. One aspect of that plan, the Blue Ridge Music Trails, covers 23 counties in North Carolina and 15 in Virginia.
"For years, tourism has used music as a way to promote the state," Martin said, "but it hasn't always been done in a way that people who play the music felt good about. The idea was to change tourism, and to lift up the music and lift up the communities where that music had been sustained over generations."
After conducting an exhaustive survey of venues where traditional music is presented to the public--from back rooms of barber shops to flea markets and churches--the arts council met with local community members to discuss goals and potential problems involved in promoting them to a wider audience. The end result will be a Web site and a guidebook--due from UNC Press next spring--describing the venues and their protocols, as well as their connections to the larger communities in which they're found.
"In a sense, they're like hometown Oprys," Martin said. "They're great places to interact with people in the community."
And what a variety of venues there are: fiddler's conventions from Galax to Mount Airy, an African-American First Sunday Sing in Alexander County, a morning dance and music jam at a Dairy Queen in Rocky Mount. At places like these, traditional music seems alive and well--and is spanning generations. Martin showed a photo of the crowd at Young's Mountain Music in Mitchell County that featured young pickers alongside old ones--not to mention an errant drum sitting in the corner.
"I don't know what the conga drum is for," said Martin.
"That's for bluegrass," suggested a member of the audience, reminding us that this was, after all, an old-time music conference.