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Around the Nation
Wed August 25, 2010
N.C. Live Radio Show Part Of A Fading Tradition
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Here's one good old broadcast tradition that's still going on. Every Saturday morning, musicians in Mount Airy, North Carolina, gather at a historic downtown theater. They've been doing it since 1948 when AM radio station WPAQ began airing a live show called the "Merry-Go-Round."
The program features regional old-time and bluegrass music. And today, the "Merry-Go-Round" is one of the last shows of its kind on the airwaves.
From North Carolina Public Radio, Jessica Jones reports.
JESSICA JONES: It's almost time to go on the air and radio host Tim Chadwick settles behind a rickety table on a stage before about a hundred people. As a big On Air sign flashes nearby, Chadwick welcomes the crowd.
Mr. TIM CHADWICK (Co-Host, "Merry-Go-Round"): And the guests on our first portion of today's "Merry-Go-Round" are my own friends and a great old-time band on stage right now. Here they are, folks, the Mountain Park Old Time Band.
(Soundbite of applause)
JONES: One of the band members steps to the front and begins to tap a graceful Appalachian dance to get them started.
(Soundbite of music)
JONES: Old-time music like this was brought to the region by Scotch-Irish settlers. It's the forerunner of modern bluegrass and country. And the "Merry-Go-Round" is the only live show in existence where aficionados can hear it, along with bluegrass, every Saturday without fail.
Band members Roger Stamper and Mark Handy say it's an honor to be on the program.
Mr. ROGER STAMPER (Member, Mountain Park Old Time Band): It's like being a part of history. I mean, it's just another opportunity to take part in a tradition that's been around for practically forever.
Mr. MARK HANDY (Member, Mountain Park Old Time Band): Yeah. If this dies, then the music dies. Because, you know, it's broadcast, and people that hear it, they take it home with them and then they pass it on to somebody else.
JONES: Old-time and bluegrass music is taught mostly by ear. And decades ago, some people worried the tradition would die out. So WPAQ's founder, Ralph Epperson, devoted hours of programming every week to his favorite music with local news and religious shows to fill in the gaps. Experts today say many stations had similar formats.
Mr. ALAN JABBOUR (Founding Director, American Folklife Center): They might have run some things that they got from a network, but a great deal of what they programmed was local.
JONES: Alan Jabbour is a musician and founding director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. He has also played his fiddle on the station.
Mr. JABBOUR: What's distinctive about WPAQ is that it kept doing that while others sold out to conglomerates who introduced produced packaged forms of music that were sort of centrally created and disseminated out to the provinces.
JONES: Two other live music programs that survived, the "Grand Ole Opry" in Nashville and "The Wheeling Jamboree" in West Virginia, moved on to a modern country format.
But to the delight of musicologists nationwide, WPAQ's "Merry-Go-Round" has remained the same. They've come for years to hear local performers like legendary fiddler, Tommy Jarrell, who appeared on the show in 1976.
(Soundbite of radio show, "Merry-Go-Round")
Mr. TOMMY JARRELL (Fiddler): Well, I'm going to play the "Joke on the Puppy." Lot of folks call it "Rye Straw." But old man Pitt McKinney, the old Civil War veteran, he called it the "Joke on the Puppy." Yeah. All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of music)
JONES: Today, those recordings are a treasure trove for old-time musicians who trade copies at fiddle conventions and festivals. The University of North Carolina has a complete collection in its archives, thanks to the late Ralph Epperson.
Kelly Epperson is his son.
Mr. KELLY EPPERSON (General Manager, WPAQ): My dad had most all of these recordings in the basement of their house. There was a landing halfway down the steps, completely full of some of these old WPAQ recordings it'd drive my mother crazy. She didn't want anybody to come in the house and especially to come in and see the basement.
JONES: Kelly Epperson is now WPAQ's general manager. Despite economic pressures, he intends to remain true to his father's vision to promote the old-time and bluegrass music of the region.
Mr. EPPERSON: There's never ever been a consideration here, to drop the "Merry-Go-Round." It'll always be here on WPAQ, as long as there's an Epperson running this place.
JONES: That's good news for fans of the show. The station began streaming its signal online a few years ago. Epperson says he receives letters and emails from listeners as far away as Japan and Australia.
For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Greensboro, North Carolina.
(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.