It marks the end of an era—that time when bluegrass music lovers tuned in to "Bluegrass on a Saturday Night," hosted by bluegrass aficionado, Wayne Bledsoe. He shares some stories as he moves the faders on the console one last time.
“That’s a lady from Missouri who has been dubbed by The Wall Street Journal as ‘The Queen of Bluegrass’—that was Rhonda Vincent from Greentop, Missouri and she was doing “When the Bloom is Off the Rose.” Rhonda has won so many ‘Female Vocalist of the Year’ awards, we’ve probably lost count of them, but what a beautiful voice and a very pleasant lady. Before Rhonda, we had a family from down in Salem, Missouri—The Ozark Alliance, that’s a mom and dad, son and daughter, and they did Streamline Cannonball . . .
That was Wayne Bledsoe, doing what he has done best for almost every Saturday night, for close to 40 years—produce and serve as host for “Bluegrass for a Saturday Night,” a popular show carried over the airwaves from the KMST (KUMR) radio station studio in the basement of Curtis Laws Wilson Library on the S&T campus.
Many in the Rolla area know Wayne from his time spent as a university professor of Roman and Greek classical history. He joined the faculty at University of Missouri-Rolla in 1968 and taught for 32 years, retiring as chair and professor of history and political science in 2002. Then he became the general manager of KMST, before retiring in 2014.
His foray into radio and love of bluegrass music and publishing (he produced the magazine “Bluegrass Now”) was no accident. His formative years growing up in Winston-Salem, NC in the 1940’s and 50’s was peppered with a folk music seasoning that always kept it’s flavor in Bledsoe’s interests and direction in life. He noted that bluegrass legend and banjo picker Earl Scruggs was from the same hometown and bluegrass just seemed to run through everyone’s veins in those early years.
“I don’t know anybody in NC that doesn’t play some kind of bluegrass. About everywhere you go, somebody is going to break out a guitar, banjo or fiddle,” he said.
When the UM-R campus library (and radio station) was constructed in the early 70’s, KUMR was preparing to go live. According to Bledsoe, National Public Radio news was going to be a programming staple, but the program director, Mike Morgan, knew he would have to produce local content as well.
“He was the only one that had enough records to fill a one-hour show and his music was bluegrass,” he explained. “So, the first show that went on the air at KUMR was “Bluegrass for a Saturday Night.””
Mike Morgan left the station in the early 1980’s and that created a conundrum for station management because “Bluegrass for a Saturday Night” was the number one local program. They asked Bledsoe to fill in and he has been warming that DJ’s chair ever since.
He’s retired now, but still emcees bluegrass festivals around the country, such as the large show in Gettysburg, Pa. and corresponds with a wide network of bluegrass family—fans, promoters and musicians. But home is where the heart is and he speaks fondly of emcee’ing shows at Bill and Mona Jones’ “Bluegrass Pickin’ Time” over in Dixon. “I will continue to do stuff like that,” he said.
The Rolla Daily News took the opportunity to sit in with Wayne Bledsoe on his last night as emcee of the popular bluegrass show and asked him for his thoughts about all things bluegrass.
RDN: For the last fifty years, the musical expression of traditional bluegrass instruments may not result in what is known to be traditional bluegrass music. Bela Fleck’s jazz inflections, the Dillards foray into pop harmonies and lately, the Avett Brothers folk country style come to mind. What’s your take on the way bluegrass has morphed outside of traditional bluegrass arrangements?
WB: I’m very broad-minded. There are people that I’m closely associated with that will not accept bluegrass unless it’s like Bill Monroe or the way Flatt and Scruggs did it. There has to be a banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass—with a certain type of lyrics to the song and played in a specific fashion. But if a band says they’re a bluegrass band, I accept them as a bluegrass band. Several [bands] I’m working with now are pretty far out there.
RDN: Does bluegrass music have to include “high lonesome” harmonies to be considered bluegrass? (“high lonesome,” to this reporter, refers to a high-tenor harmony vocal that expresses the feeling anguish or longing).
WB: No it doesn’t. There are singers now that have absolutely marvelous voices, such as Allison Krauss. This would shock most people to know, but she has more Grammies (the music award) than anyone, for any kind of music, in the world. She’s got 28, the last I counted and she’s not that twangy, high lonesome sound.
RDN: I want to throw a couple names out, and you tell me what you think of them. “Nickel Creek.” (band that started out as kids - Chris Thiele, the mandolin player, now hosts “The Prairie Home Companion.”)
WB: I think Nickel Creek is probably one of the most talented bands I’ve ever heard. They were the nicest kids I ever met. (Bledsoe tells a story where he was attending a large two-day bluegrass concert in Calif. He was camping on the grounds and he was awakened by bluegrass music coming over the P.A. at 6:30 in the morning. “I just couldn’t imagine who’d be playing on the stage at 6:30 in the morning, waking me up out of a sound sleep.” He said he got up and walked to the stage area only to find a band of young kids playing up a storm onstage. “They were pre-teens and they were really good.”)
RDN: “Bela Fleck” (innovative banjo player)
WB: Bela Fleck is the most gifted banjo player I know of. He is the only person that could do what he’s done and that is to take the banjo and turn it into a jazz instrument. He had to go to New York to find guys that could play the kind of music he wanted to play. I know his band really well—all African Americans. He went to a show they were doing in New York and he (Bela) asked them, ‘Would you guys be interested in jamming with me a little bit?’ One of them answered, ’I’m not so sure—what do you play?’ He said “banjo,” and they all started laughing! They said ‘We’re jazz musicians and you want us to play with a banjo?’ They said ‘We’ve got to try this—yeah, well come along with you.’ The guys said when he started playing the banjo, they knew instantly, ‘this is gonna work.’ Bela Fleck sold more jazz recordings than anyone at one time—with the banjo.
RDN: “John Hartford” (multi-instrumentalist bluegrass musician that passed away in 2001, known for his new bluegrass direction in the 70’s, but loved the traditional style. Known for his big hit “Gentle on My Mind”)
WB: He was a man that did what he wanted to do—and I’m convinced he would do it, even if know one showed up. He loved dancing and fiddling at the same time. It was wonderful to watch him perform.
RDN: “The Dillards” (local to the region, Salem-Eminence and best known as the bluegrass group the Darlings on the popular Andy Griffith Show)
WB: Their success was truly based on being a “band.” Doug was second-to-none when it comes to playing banjo and Rodney was a good singer, but the two of them did not quite meld together as they should have. What made them meld together was Mitch Jayne on the bass and Dean Webb on the mandolin. Now when you put the four of them together, it was pure magic.
(He says the Dillards used to travel around in Calif. with suitcases of cash because they weren’t paid with a check in the places they played. Bledsoe relayed another story about the time the band was visiting their record company headquarters. Their shoes and socks were soaked from a downpour before the visit, so they took off their shoes and socks in the record company lobby. “That plush carpeting must have felt pretty good to their bare feet as they wandered past offices, record company personnel sticking their heads out of their offices to see what the deal was. They were just country boys from Salem!”
RDN: Is bluegrass part of an era that is ending right now?
WB: Bluegrass is going in a little more sophisticated direction. Internationally, it is probably doing better than it has ever done.
RDN: What to you mean more sophisticated?
WB: The artists are more highly trained. Take Bela Fleck. He can knock you out the most incredible bluegrass song you’ve ever heard, but he can turn right around and play jazz that you probably couldn’t even comprehend what he was doing on the instrument. Choose any instrument and you’ll find artists that can play it like it’s never been played before—and they work it into their music [arrangements].
RDN: So what you’re telling me, is bluegrass is coming out of the woods
WB: Oh, definitely!
RDN: What bluegrass song rings true for you on a personal level?
WB: ‘The Old Home Place’ (The Dillards)—but I’d have to give that some thought. Bluegrass is special to people because it deals with real life problems. Frequently, they’re situations I can relate to. There are so many bluegrass songs about love won and love lost—who hasn’t gone through that? There are many songs that deal with special events—funerals, for one.
(Bledsoe said he has been asked many times to dedicate songs, during his show, to families and loved ones that might fit the sad or happy occasion). These songs convey feelings and meaning for people that don’t know how to express them for themselves.
Wayne Bledshoe’s program, “Bluegrass for a Saturday Night” on KMST 88.5FM will be missed by many. No longer will his listeners hear that warm, smooth delivery, the encyclopedic knowledge of the music and those who played it yesterday and today. But the genre of bluegrass will probably remain long after the lamplight near Wayne’s console was turned out at 10 p.m. Saturday for the last time. It will continue to be enjoyed streaming over cell phones and at festivals. And as long as there are happy or lonely homes and apartments where dads, moms, sons, daughters and singles can’t express their feelings, they’ll let the music do the talking.