Passing Tributes

One year ago today we started this site with the hope of shining a light on what we saw happening to public radio stations across the country. Whether it was the sudden canceling of popular shows, the fallacy of HD radio, or the creeping influence of national groups such as NPR, we wanted to point out the disservice being done to the supporters of their respective public radio stations. And, for myself anyway, one of the worst aspects of it all was the homogenization of the programming at local stations. Since many stations were dumping local programming for the cheaper national feed, some of the first casualties were the local DJs who added so much local flavor and personal knowledge to their stations. The difference can be remarkable, and there have been two such examples of this in the past few weeks alone. Though both are tinged with sadness. . . .

On Monday, March 21st, it was announced that legendary pianist Pinetop Perkins had died at his home in Austin at age 97. Pinetop was one of the last of the old Delta blues artists, a veteran of Muddy Waters’ band and several others. That night Larry Monroe did a tribute to Pinetop on his recently revived Blue Monday show on community-funded KDRP in Dripping Springs, TX (see the set list and a downloadable recording of it here). A look at that set list will quickly show that not only did Larry play extensively from Pinetop’s personal catalogue; there are also songs from his many peers and collaborators. This type of in-depth tribute requires vast personal knowledge of the subject, as doing Google searches or playing cuts from “Greatest Hits” CDs just won’t cut it.

As remarkable as that tribute was, though, one could possibly say that such tributes are commonplace — they take place all over the country whenever a legendary figure dies. Some tributes may be noticeably better than others, but a blues show doing a tribute to a blues legend is hardly noteworthy. With that in mind I’d like to point to the latest tribute, this time on Larry’s Phil Music Program for April 7th, and this time the subject was Calvin Russell, who died on April 3rd.

Calvin WHO did you say? That is probably the most common response anywhere outside of the Austin music scene or in Europe, where Calvin was extremely popular . I really can’t do justice to describing Calvin or his music; best bet is to go to his website and get treated to something totally unique. But in short, Calvin was a grizzled old guy in a trademark battered hat with a voice that sounded like years of hard living, but also tinged with what could pass for hope. He had some great videos in the ’90s and he had a national hit in France for his song “Crack in Time.” But one thing Calvin definitely was not was any kind of a legend here in the States. He was widely respected by his fellow Austin musicians, both for his songwriting skills and his performances. But even here he only played small clubs. But another peek at that set list and downloadable archive for April 7th ( http://www.larrymonroe.com/archive/ ) will show how Larry dedicated the same effort to showcasing a lesser-known artist such as Calvin as he did to the national treasure Pinetop Perkins. The same cuts from the personal catalogue mixed in with tracks from other artists to highlight the passing of someone great. The greatness of an artist isn’t measured in how well they are known, or in how many records they might have sold. It’s more in their ability to affect the people that they touch, both with other artists and with the fans lucky enough to discover them.

Once upon a time, one of the main tenets of public broadcasting was that they were to serve the under-served. And to make the listeners in their local communities aware of the treasures around them. When those same stations turned their backs on their local scenes in favor of cheap national feed and the Almighty Dollar, this was one of the predictable results. I imagine that somewhere out there in NPR land there was mention of Pinetop Perkin’s passing, maybe even a sample played from his last CD. But if there was a national tribute to Calvin Russell’s passing then I’ll eat my leather hat. As for the local level, during Larry’s tribute I checked the set list over at his former station, KUT-FM — not a single song by Calvin. Instead there was the usual AAA rotation that the station managers imposed some years ago  (see “Not a Playlist,” here).

Sometimes it’s the little things that really point out the big problems. And for me this is certainly one of those moments. Every day, all around us, in communities across the country we are losing artists such as these. And who is going to mark their passing in any kind of meaningful way? Does your public station devote time to the lesser-known artists in your area, both while still performing and after their passing? If not, then there is a total breakdown of their duties to the community. While I enjoy such programs as All Things Considered and Morning Edition, I would gladly throw away all of the NPR programs for just one hour focusing on the wonders around me. Here at this site we will keep fighting to get that message out. We hope you will continue to support us in that mission.

—Rev Jim

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2 Responses

  1. […] to Pinetop Perkins and Calvin Russell. See our article on those “Passing Tributes” (https://keeppublicradiopublic.com/2011/04/11/passing-tributes/). The vision shown by the people at KDRP is exactly what may save radio as an art form as well as […]

  2. Ain’t that the truth, how long has this been going on? I remember it when I still lived in the hinterlands of Central Texas, happening on KUT, some 20+ years ago…… it’s a creeping process, seen across the country, notably in California. I am thankful that LM found a new home to broadcast from. He has been one of the leading DJs in a number of genres, educating as he goes.

    The changes that this society… social, economic, political, and cultural are a real trial by fire, just as earth-shattering if not more than what has preceded our time.

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