Streaming the Swamp

A new trove of interviews from late Richmond musician Page Wilson hits online station, The Breeze.

The format was a classic radio illusion. In the midst of his “all-American mongrel music” record-spinning set, late Richmond musician Page Wilson would leave his broadcasting shack in the Chickahominy Swamp. Listeners would hear him walk on boards across the muck before entering his house, with the slam of a screen door, to greet his famous visitors around the kitchen table. It was all amiable BS and sound effects, recorded in a series of radio studios.

Now a newly edited trove of Wilson’s Kitchen Sessions, which involved informal interviews with eclectic (sometimes legendary) roots musicians, will hit the airways on the new online radio station, The Breeze, on March 4th.

The entertaining mix of talk and live songs was recorded between 1989 and 1992 for Wilson’s local public radio show, “The Out O’ the Blue Radio Revue,” which ran from the 1990s to the early 2000s on WCVE radio. The new edition, “The Swamp Sessions,” includes an eclectic mix of roots-influenced artists, including the Sun Rhythm Section, James McMurtry, the Irish-superstar Clancy Brothers, local hero Robbin Thompson, and more. Their relaxed conversations and playing were gingerly restored from reel-to-reel tapes.

“It was interesting to see how many of them, to varying degrees, played along with the whole swamp thing,” says former local radio personality Tim Timberlake, who has been editing the raw tapes into coherent programs. “He would say things like, ‘I hope y’all found the house okay. You just had to turn left at the big cypress tree.’” The setup was theater, but the food and the fellowship was real. “It was the same thing every time,” Timberlake says. “But it was different from anything else.”

The hard-living Wilson died in 2011 at the age of 56. This project started, in part, to help Wilson’s daughter Virginia Blue get some value from her singular inheritance of dusty, slowly disintegrating 10-inch reels. The conversations were never meant to be heard in their entirety. Usually an hour or more would be chopped down to just a bit of talk and a song or two that would be inserted into a two-hour program. The new shows are moderately deep dives into the unheard portions.

“I tried to make it so that you don’t notice it has been edited,” says Timberlake, “but a lot of stuff has to come out to serve the purpose of the show.”

Some comments from back in the day did not age well.

“I don’t want to sterilize it, but it should be positive. Maybe Page made some comment that was unfair to the artist, or someone said something stupid or inappropriate.” Timberlake cites the setup to “All Alone in the Endzone,” a revenge song by the late, much-beloved singer-songwriter Robbin Thompson, whose cleverly worded body-shaming has curdled into cruelty. “For the sake of The Breeze, I didn’t want to let people go blabbering on about something that doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.”

One difference with the new Swamp Sessions is that they have been cut organically, unlike the precise 53-minute cuts required for the VPM time slot.

“The folks at The Breeze were excited about the content,” says Timberlake. “They didn’t care how long it ran as long as it started at 8 p.m. If it doesn’t go the full hour, they will just fill up the rest of the block with their computer-driven playlist. I was really happy that the length of the show wasn’t a big factor, as long as the sound was good and the substance as compelling and unedited as possible.”

That the recordings held up sonically was by no means a given. The binding agent on recording tape deteriorates over time, shedding magnetized particles from the plastic film. Under the direction of vintage technology engineer, Guy Spiller, the reels were baked for hours to stabilize them and then digitized for modern editing. (At the time these were made, that would be done, literally, with physical cuts and splices.)

So how were the first set of programs received? “[Guitarist] Tommy Emmanuel has a saying: ‘And the crowd went mild,'” says Timberlake. “VPM said the listener numbers were good. And there were positive comments, but nothing overwhelming.”

This makes sense. The original show was a slice of Americana already a bit retro in its day, a fashion-defying mix of Garrison Keillor’s similarly folksy “Prairie Home Companion” and Wolfman Jack’s midnight pirate station swagger. Wilson’s vintage “pure-bred American mongrel” mix of blues and bluegrass and folk and Cajun, reveled in its aura of being made for an intimate audience. For years, Timberlake says, that made it destination listening for listeners not heading out on a Saturday night.

A lot of the artists who appeared on the shows, like legendary singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt and guitarist Tony Rice – are gone. Others, like Mary Chapin Carpenter, are still touring. The original listeners are long-grey grandparents. But the lovingly restored chatter is still as fresh and clear as it was when recorded over chili and gumbo in a faux kitchen in an imaginary swamp.

JAMinc presents Page’s Kitchen … The Swamp Sessions on The Breeze at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 4th with the Good Humor Band. Episodes will be rebroadcast on VPM at 9 p.m. starting April 27th.

Story has been updated to correct the name of a guest – it was James McMurtry not his father Larry.


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