The now-worldwide reach of Washington-area bluegrass music, dear listeners, was made possible by one generous radio station, new digital technology and, in no small part, longtime Falls Church musician Randy Barrett.
The fiddler and banjo player (day job before retirement: journalist), who has released three CDs of original compositions, is today president of the D.C.-based foundation that keeps Bluegrass Country Radio streaming to an astonishing array of fans.
Since its launch in 2017 “on a wing and prayer,” Barrett says, the station that was spun off from WAMU-FM has charmed listeners nationwide and in Latin America, Europe and Japan. Its 24/7 offerings expanded from classic bluegrass to current-day artists to “Americana,” or “strong old-time content” with American roots music that, uplifting to Barrett, appears fresh to young people.
The intro was cued up in 2016, when nonprofit public station WAMU, based at American University and a headquarters for bluegrass since 1967, began its shift to the talk radio that in today’s market delivers greater revenue. “They were looking for a new home for bluegrass, an organization to hand over their intellectual property,” Barrett recalls. “To their credit, they didn’t want to just shut it down.”
That property consisted of 70,000 digitized songs (now up to 100,000), deep archives and unique historical recordings of interviews with luminaries from that soft, percussion-less, harmony-showcasing genre that goes back to the 1930s with such founding acts as Kentucky’s Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.
Nine local music-lovers, who now make up the foundation board, began raising the donations needed to “upgrade the technology and hire a program director” for the new niche station, now with a “tiny” $150,000 annual budget. “It was clear it needed to be primarily volunteer-run, and we weren’t sure it would work,” Barrett admits. “To their credit, enough deejays stepped up,” and the operation of hosts and engineers is now 90 percent volunteer. The sole paid employee is program director and afternoon on-air host Chris Teskey, of Frederick, Md. The rest employ modern software bandwidth to work remotely, save for a small office in the WAMU building.
“The timing was in our favor,” Barrett adds. Online “streaming was just beginning to get understood by the world, and if we had tried it a decade earlier, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Bluegrass Country registered its 88.5 HD2 frequency on the high-definition band. “HD was world’s worst-marketed technology,” Barrett says, agreeing that, though it is now available on most recent cars, “it’s not easy to set. But once you’ve got it, it’s excellent quality.” About a third of Bluegrass Country listeners are on HD, the rest on the app or the website streaming. “Luckily we caught a wave.”
Today’s schedule slots feature WAMU veteran Dick Spottswood (“he’s forgotten more about bluegrass than you or I ever knew,” Barrett says), along with rebroadcasts of the old shows by Eddie Stubbs, Gary Henderson and Lee Michael Demsey. Modern theme shows include its popular Stained Glass Bluegrass, Brad Kolodner’s Old Time Jam and The Celtic Cut with Winifred Horan. Add in syndicated offerings such as Banks of the Ohio, Riders in the Sky, American Routes, Bluegrass on the Bay, Mike Kear’s Music from Foggy Hollow (from Australia), the Thistle and Shamrock, and The Trail Ride.
The Bluegrasscountry.org website provides an updated schedule of Bluegrass festivals in the U.S. and Canada, plus an overseas addendum.
A friendly competitor is Bluegrass Junction on Sirius XM Radio, which has advantages in satellite reach, Barrett acknowledges. But that station relies sometimes on computerized programming. “We have more depth and a bench of human deejays we have a strong belief in, though we see any bluegrass radio as good.”
Barrett, whose 2019 album “Shake, Rattle and Roar” survived the pandemic to win airplay, still performs live with the group Big Howdy, having won three Washington Area Music Awards. After 25 years in Falls Church, he and his wife downsized last month and moved to Alexandria.
He and the team are “gratified at the support we get from young listeners, many of whom are still discovering the niche,” he says. He has fun surviving and proving the initial skeptics wrong, helping Bluegrass Country “pass the baton.”