Country’s Last Stand

In an industry filled with giants, one little AM station goes it alone. But not without compromises.

The atmosphere and feel is Floyd’s Barber Shop. Yet the equipment is modern. In the old days of radio, one would see lots of meters and giant knobs called pots to control sound. But surprisingly for an old-style station like WXGI, Barnett works from a computer that plays commercials with a mouse-click.

The Redneck Baker, who is also known as Wilson Spencer, sometimes goes on the air. This morning he is content to be eating some sausage biscuits from Hardee’s, which he offers a visitor. He says it usually gets a little busier at WXGI around 10 a.m., when listeners such as bluegrass fan R. T. Williamson begin to stream in, in a fashion more like 1960s Mayberry than a radio station in 2002.

“This place looks like a Cracker Barrel,” says The Redneck Baker, who gained his name and fame at WXGI for the many baked products he brings by the station to give away to listeners. To get a good pound cake, he says, the trick’s not in the batter, but in acquiring quality equipment: “It’s all in the pan.”

Answering the lighted-up phone is Dewey Doss, a grandfatherly disc jockey from the Louisa FM station WLSA. Doss comes in to help with the show as Barnett’s Ed McMahon. This morning, he takes requests from listeners who are calling in requests from towns from Bumpass to Ruther Glen.

“You’re coming up so good at the Doswell exit,” Dewey reports to Barnett after taking yet another listener’s call. “You got bluegrass going everywhere.”

Many of the requests are old bluegrass favorites, including a 1928 Victor recording of the Carter Family called “East Virginia Blues.” Many of the songs are tunes that Barnett grew up hearing on stations such as WWVA in Wheeling, W.Va., WCKJ in Cincinnati and WSM in Nashville.

“That’s the way it sounded when we heard it on a battery radio,” Barnett says, after playing a tune by Tommy Jarrell of Mount Airy, N.C., who is a bluegrass favorite and is also in the folk collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

Barnett, a West Virginia native and retired trucker, says, “We bring it back to where it used to be many years ago in radio land.”

But Barnett doesn’t have to say that. He proves it. For example, a song can be played many times in one show, a move that would be verboten at any modern radio station. That day, the station again plays the song “He Still Looks Over Me” by local artist George Thomas and Friends. Thomas, a parts clerk at Richmond Ford, has had big success of late in the bluegrass world. This week Thomas is on tour in Florida.

“I played it four times last Saturday,” Barnett says. “What radio station in America would you hear a song four times in a program?”

“This is WXGI,” Barnett tells listeners. “Take the knob off and spot-weld it.”

WXGI OOZES HISTORY. Sit down for a short chat with station veteran WXGI personality V. Clellan Jarrell and the desk that he happens to ask you to sit down on is the same desk that Loretta Lynn sat down at when she toured at the beginning of her career in the early 1960s.

You know the scene in the Sissy Spacek movie, where Loretta dropped by dozens of AM country stations across the South in a bid to get her music played? Loretta was here.

“When she was trying get her first record promoted, this is where she came to,” says Jarrell, as he points to a desk in a little-used room that was the station’s old studio. “That’s the old table. And I’m not going to have it finished. I’m going to leave it like it is. And I also have the microphone that she used at this table.”

The point, in case anyone should miss it, is that WXGI is a country-music institution and has become a home for the music that was born and bred in Virginia. On top of that, it plays more music that few other radio stations play anywhere, in a fashion that is totally contrary to modern radio management.

WXGI does what it pleases. On a Saturday morning, visitors who want to can walk in the unlocked doors and be on the air, rather than being sent to security.

Bring a great CD by the station, and they might even play it.

As a result, fans are doggedly loyal.

But with success comes criticism for a station as well-loved as WXGI. Owner David Gee admits to it easily, saying that the compromises are an economic decision driven by a need to keep the lights on. Only some will understand that, he says.

“This year in the first quarter we are 28 percent ahead of sales last year,” Gee says. “So we are clearly headed in the right direction. But, unfortunately, it’s been a compromise of values by taking on more products that are contrary to our history.”

Yet around the country, the stations that will be able to keep programming in such a unique way are independently owned stations like WXGI. And Gee likes it that way.

The story of the Richmond station’s beginning has been told a hundred times — how it got its name from three ex-GIs who wanted to start up a country station in 1947, just after World War II. With surplus equipment, they built the station in an old grocery store downtown near The Jefferson. When it started, it became one of the first all-country radio stations in the nation.

While it had a loyal listeners, the station was losing money by the late 1990s, and owner J.D. Keatley was desperate.

It so happened that Richmond trucking transportation entrepreneur Gee, owner of the company Virginia Highway, happened to have WXGI on.

“I’m at home listening to a radio station and did not know which one it was,” says Gee. “And I’m saying to myself, what would it be like to own a radio station? I heard the call letters, looked up the telephone number of WXGI, called in and asked to speak to the owner. And when [Keatley] answered the phone, he says, ‘You’re an answer to my prayer if you want to buy this radio station. How soon can you get over here and talk to me?'”

Gee was astounded.

“I says, ‘You’re kidding.’ And he says, ‘No, come on.'”

When Gee arrived, he was smitten.

“I had never even been in a radio station,” Gee says. “I was really particularly taken aback by the ambience and the history and the specialness of who this station was. At the same time, what I saw was an opportunity to try to preserve the history of the station but yet turn the page and get it moving into a 21st-century business model.”

Gee, now 55, bought the station in October 1997. “$650,000 bought it,” he says. “It had lost money every year.”

Gee, who owns the station outright — “lock, stock and barrel,” he says — through his company, Gee Communications, says that last year was the first year that the station has come close to breaking even. He’s made some tough decisions, the most public and painful of which was the firing of some longtime disc jockeys who tried to unionize. In the end, Gee lost in court after a series of cases. That chapter of WXGI’s history is still unfinished. Gee hired back veteran Wiley Southworth six months ago for the afternoon drive shift, but other cases are still being resolved.

Yet since Gee has arrived, the station has also invested heavily in capital expenses, including a new tower, transmitter and automated equipment. The station has also been broadcasting WXGI over the Internet, though that is ending because of new rulings by the Federal Communications Commission, which have increased the cost of replaying music over the Internet.

Gee admits to making compromises to keep the station afloat and independent.

Indeed, what has made the difference in revenue for the station has been the addition of sports programming — from ESPN radio and the “Big Al” Coleman morning sports show to NASCAR, the Richmond Braves and Virginia Tech football.

Gee says the deals are cause for excitement — and vigilance. While the station has begun carrying more ESPN sports, which is lucrative, that dilutes airtime for the bluegrass and country, which fans crave.

“They [ESPN] are asking for more [air]time,” Gee says. “So it’s a fine balance.”

Always, Gee says, the music comes first.

“That’s the reason why I really got the station,” says Gee, who likes to mix about 40 percent bluegrass songs in with traditional country ballads. “And my belief back then was that with the music, the popularity of what the station was doing would grow.”

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, the modest number of radio stations playing bluegrass across the United States is growing, according to Dan Hayes, executive director of the Owensboro, Ky.-based International Bluegrass Music Association.

“Over the last five years, the average hours of programming have doubled,” Hayes says. On average, 800 stations in the country offer bluegrass and play it an average of six hours per station per week. Many of the stations are public-radio outlets, according to Haynes.

In the last year, bluegrass and traditional country have had a resurgence, especially with the Grammy-winning soundtrack from the George Clooney movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” that sold more than 4 million copies.

Hayes says that with young artists such as Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek, a new group is finding inspiration and interest in bluegrass and its cousin, old-time country.

“There’s just a whole new segment of people who are finding the music for the first time,” Hayes says. “Even some of the pioneers [such as] Ralph Stanley are appealing to a new generation.”

In the last few months, the station has even seen a big change in the age of listeners, which it tracks by seeing who comes to pick up bluegrass tickets given away on the air. In previous years, the age was usually well into the 50s, and mostly male. But recently, sales manager Howard Keller gave away tickets to a young couple who came in “with much piercing.” His first inclination was ask if they were picking the tickets up for grandparents, but it turned out that they were bluegrass fans too.

One of the biggest promoters and boosters of the new sound is the record label Doobie Shea, based in Boone’s Mill in Southwest Virginia.

Jeanette Williams, Doobie Shea’s radio rep, says that the label relies on independent stations that are unrestricted by the format rules of corporate stations, and can push new artists. Such flagship stations as WMNA in Gretna and WBRS in Galax are in smaller markets.

“The stations that are privately owned are not trying to fit the mold,” says Williams, who lives in Danville and calls on radio stations across the nation.

She says there are a number of pioneering bluegrass stations, the best known of which is WPAQ in Mount Airy, N.C. Like WXGI, WPAQ is privately owned.

New artists on Doobie Shea are revitalizing the bluegrass genre, through adding twists like piano, which some hard-core bluegrass fans don’t like.

Nevertheless, the new artists are revitalizing an old tradition, and many country music stations are programming bluegrass shows outside of drive time.

“I think it’s kind of like the clothing styles,” Williams says. “What’s old becomes new again.”

Still, the new music is not so much different from the old. What is different is the new, group of fans and musicians.

“When they see a younger person playing it, they can relate to that,” says Williams.

One big change is that bluegrass has begun to have an intellectual appeal and is growing in places outside of the South, says J. Roderick Moore, a professor at Ferrum College and director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum there.

“You look at the market for bluegrass and you see a lot of college-educated people listening,” says Moore, who has helped collect archives and old recordings of Virginia’s folk music traditions. Stations at places such as George Washington University are taking bluegrass out of the traditional settings, and academics and critics are now calling bluegrass “roots music” or “Americana.”

Whatever the label, bluegrass still is a live phenomenon, with most of the audiences seeing it live at such places as Dairy Queens, carpet shops and civic events. “It’s never going to be mainstream music,” Moore says.

One reason the music is growing is because it is simple and unsynthesized. And with the small collegiate feel of the bluegrass community, fans get to know and play that music with their idols.

“It’s pretty easy to get close to the stars,” Hayes says.

Most of the stations like WXGI are in the South and Midwest. Bluegrass experts believe stations like WXGI are a regional phenomenon.

“I think of that as the locus of the music and the heart of the business,” says Lance Kinney, a professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and host of a bluegrass public-radio show there.

But that does not mean that it is easy for bluegrass to find an audience on radio. Many of the music’s listeners are older, male and rural, which means that even if a bluegrass show has a wide audience, radio stations have a hard time selling airtime on the show for fear that it draws the wrong demographic.

Advertisers think those viewers are less desirable than younger consumers who have years of purchasing patterns ahead.

The station still struggles with serving both the advertiser and audience.

The popular D.J. Barnett show, like the gospel show on Sundays with “Judy and Carol,” has enormous appeal but loses money for WXGI.

“What you heard on Saturday morning historically has been a leader in the Richmond radio market for Saturday mornings as far as audience share is concerned,” says Gee. “But in all due respect, it is not a profitable program to run. What … helps subsidize our music is our success in being the home of the Virginia Tech Hokies.”

However, the problem of bluegrass is not just limited to bluegrass. Even traditional country performers have had a harder time in the current radio environment that craves younger, suburban female listeners.

“Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn are having difficulty having their music played,” Kinney says. “The younger generation wants the Dixie Chicks or Shania Twain.”LUCKY FOR DOLLY AND LORETTA, there are no out-of-town radio consultants making the playlists for WXGI. Indeed for the station, like the old days, the DJ is the station.

That situation was painfully clear the first Saturday in May when popular bluegrass host D.J. Barnett was out sick. Co-host Dewey had to do the show by himself and had a hard time keeping up with the incessant listener calls.

But that weakness is also a strength.

In the old radio days, V. Clellan Jarrell would have been called the remote man, though his title is “broadcasting and director of public relations.” In a slick new radio station, that would mean that he is behind the desk cranking out press releases. In the world of WXGI, Jarrell, a former owner of Jarrell’s Truck Stop in Doswell, takes the WXGI Camaro out for remotes.

“That’s the way I went about building it up, getting out in the neighborhoods,” Jarrell says. “Somebody called from Habitat for Humanity Friday. I rode down here in Chesterfield County, drove up where they all were working and did an interview with them. I do it live. Everything I do is live.”

A really successful day can have him live at up to four different events from Louisa to Hopewell.

But Jarrell is not just content to stop at every tractor pull and fish-fry in town. In a throwback from the days of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry and the WRVA’s Old Dominion Barn Dance, the station and Jarrell run a regular live show at the Glen Allen Cultural Arts Center in Henrico, with their house group the Big X Band.

The event, called the WXGI Country Jamboree, has guests that range from locals such as the Mullin Sisters, Jessica Mitchell and the Heritage Cloggers to Nashville singer Shannon Stamper. The shows each attract about 300 disparate fans across the region, with ticket sales at places like Jean’s Country Diner in Providence Forge.

Gee says the live radio shows make it all worthwhile.

“I go to these things and I get a chance to meet and have some interaction with a lot of our listeners, and they are the most passionate people I think that I have ever met in the world,” Gee says. “I get a ton of people who say, ‘my radio is stuck on 950 and I ain’t going nowhere. Even though I’m not a sports fan, I’m listening to the sports because I am waiting for the music.'”

Like Gee, Jarrell says the success of the Jamborees is not measured by the Arbitrons — it’s the music.

“Yeah, Lordy, she was good,” Jarrell says of Stamper. “I mean, she got a standing ovation.”

Jarrell has another jamboree for May 22, and is planning an event for Nov. 30, a sort of WXGI powwow. “November is Native American Month,” Jarrell observes. Jarrell has asked Sen. George Allen to come to that one. Jarrell met Allen at an event, and Allen has stayed close to Jarrell and WXGI’s listeners. Allen is even said to listen to WXGI from his office in Washington through the Internet.

“Down here at one of the big dinners the president [the first George Bush] was here. And [Sen. Allen] walked over and put his arm around me and brought me up here and says, ‘I want you to meet Clellan Jarrell,’ and says, ‘This is a man that helped me get started when nobody knew me.'”

That WXGI has built a relationship with Allen through Jarrell is understandable. At the recent shad planking in Wakefield, WXGI was the rare radio station broadcasting live at the most important political hoedown of the year.

“I talked to him down at the shad planking — I had him on there,” Jarrell says. “I’m down there every year broadcasting. I had Jerry Kilgore on. I tried to get John Warner, but John just scooted out just as quick as out the door. He’s slick, he’s like a bird.”

GEE BELIEVES THAT THE FUTURE of the station is good, and loyal advertisers such as Henrico Furniture, Bennett Funeral Home and Red Wing Shoes help. But the station is always shut out of the big dollars from the larger agencies.

“To be quite candid, the bigger challenge is this: that we are a single stand-alone independent radio station, and the big hitters that buy radio advertising are doing so in large blocks where they can consolidate their buying opportunities with eight or 10 properties at one time,” Gee says.

But Gee believes the smallness can work to his advantage. Luring the Richmond Braves’ schedule was an example.

“We got a call from the Braves,” Gee says. “And in 30 minutes we were sitting down having lunch together and talking about the opportunities and then kind of had a handshake.”

In the homogenized world of corporate radio, Gee is glad to do it differently.

“In a way its kind of a ‘Hey, spoof on the rest of you big guys. I don’t care what you do. Hey, we’re here. We’ve got a license. We’re going to do what we want to do. Good luck.'” S


WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: