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A moment of silence

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Red Shipley has passed.

Don’t know who Red Shipley is? Then you don’t live in the DC area or central VA. And if you do, then you’re not a fan of old time country or bluegrass.

Shipley was the host of Stained Glass Bluegrass a show devoted to gospel country/bluegrass music, that ran on the local NPR station WAMU every Sunday morning, from 1982 until last month when WAMU moved all of their bluegrass shows over to HD Radio, and devoted its normal programming to repeats and national programing.

DC used to be an odd little town. Home of Duke Ellington and one of the first black mayors, it was christened ‘Chocolate City‘ by George Clinton. DC is also just outside of the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. In the 50s and 60s, DC was considered by some to be the folk capital of the US. Its location, where the south meats the north east, combined with the growing federal government, meant that it was a meeting point where the sophisticated intellectual folkies of the NE could run into the real deal, plain spoken, folks who had inspired the folk revival. Combine this with a thriving black community, and yes, DC used to be an odd little town.

This dichotomy was probably best shown on the radio. If memory serves, one radio station separated 88.5 FM from 90.1 FM. 88.5 was WAMU, an NPR station that devoted 3-6 PM M-F (one of the most sought after time slots in radio) to a show called Bluegrass Country up until sometime in the late 90s or early 00’s (I confess, I wasn’t paying attention when WAMU first betrayed its loyal bluegrass fans). I remember getting into bluegrass around ’96 or ’97, thanks to the wonderfully fun Leftover Salmon, and WAMU played a big part of that.

To be honest, I never listened to SGBG all that much. Occasionally I’d catch part of it and when I did, the radio dial would just rest there for as long as possible. I remember driving down to Warrenton, VA one Sunday morning to see Salmon play on a flat bed truck in front of the court house (that was a fun show), or may be it was the drive down to Charlottesville, VA to see Salmon’s guitarist/singer almost get arrested for encouraging people to slide down a muddy hill (that was also a fun show), either way, I spent the first part of the drive seeing just how far WAMU’s signal would last. As I recall, it made it a surprisingly long distance before giving out to static. And as I also recall, listening to Red was a wonderful way to greet Sunday.

Up a couple of skips on the dial was 90.1, better known to its fans as Jazz 90. It was run by the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and was quite possibly one of the greatest jazz radio stations to ever grace the air waves. I remember getting into Jazz in the early 90s. I asked a friend of mine how to get into a genre which seemed so daunting to a new comer like me. His advice was simple. Listen to Jazz 90. When you hear something you like, write down what the DJs tell you. 90.1 was another station that I would just randomly tune into only to have the dial just sit there while I listened to some great music. Sadly, Jazz 90 was the first of the two stations to go. The victim of budget cuts in the mid 90s, the station was sold to CSPAN. I’ve had a mild dislike of CSPAN ever since.

Putting the two stations side by side like this, I’m struck by their similarities. The most obvious example is the DJs. Both stations hired amazing DJs. Listening to these stations you got the sense that the DJs really loved the music they were playing. Not just that, but that they loved every song they played. That shows weren’t just thrown together, but that there was a real attempt to uncover gems that might have otherwise been forgotten. May be it is just because I didn’t know anything about either genre when I listened to the stations, but every song was new to me. And I never heard the same song twice. And it was all amazing.

More then just the music though, the DJs themselves were special. They all had this relaxed way of jamming a ton of information into a short span of time. Jazz 90 didn’t just tell you what album a given track was on, but told you every person who played on that track and what they were playing. So if you heard a track, and really liked the trumpet solo, you knew what artist to look out for the next time you made a trip to the record store, even if it wasn’t their album.

The bluegrass boys over at 88.5 were just as full of knowledge and nuggets of information. If you wanted to get into either genre, all you really needed to do was listen to those two stations with a pen and paper and you’d go broke buying a ton of amazing music.

While it will always be the DJs that I remember fondly for both of those stations, they have another thing in common. Both were public stations that created music that reflected this once wonderful little town. On one hand you have the black urban sounds of jazz, on the other the rustic sounds of bluegrass and early country. As the city grows, it has begun to loose that sense of history. Now with both stations, for all intents and purposes, gone, DC is a little bit further from what it used to be.

Written by Matt

October 8th, 2007 at 10:06 pm

Posted in other,Thoughts