|I was born in downtown NashvilleMusic Cityon a hot summer night in the early 1950’s, and I’m guessing it was before the advent of air conditioning, because somewhere in my memory, I can feel that hot summer night blowing in through the hospital window. And with that warm breeze, I can almost hear the twang of Hank Williams’s hillbilly guitar, wafting in from the Ryman Auditorium, a few blocks away.
While my pre-school friends were busy collecting the little yellow and red 78 RPM records about Smoky the Bear and riding on merry-go-rounds, I held out for Buddy Holly discs and some of the rockabilly 45s coming out of my hometown, as well as from our Tennessee sister city, Memphis. I had early Elvis records as well as records by Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers and The Big Bopper, but I also had a lot of undiscovered rockabilly tunes such as “Little Cheerleader.”
Here’s how that song went: “There’s nothing sweeter than my little cheerleader, doing the high school yellHey! With her tight-fitting sweater and my high school letter, man, she really looks swell!” I wish I could tell you that I found these lyrics off the internet, so I could reference the writer, artist and copyright info, but actually, I found them by trolling my memory banks and pulling a file from over a half century ago. My point isthere was always music drilling into my memory.
I grew up doing my homework to the music of the Beatles, Stones and Motown playing in the background. In my late- and post-elementary school years, the transistor radio was king and the AM Top 40 DJ was the court jester. My particular favorite was (Nashville radio station) WKDA’s “Wild Child” Bill Berlin, and later, when I was able to stay up all night listening to the radio, “Captain Midnight”Roger Schutt. The later it got, the crazier Captain Midnight became; between songs by Bob Dylan and the Dave Clark Five, he would challenge wrestler Tojo Yamamoto to come down to the station and wrestle him in the middle of the night. As far as I know, Tojo never took him up on his invitation, but the picture it painted in my imagination was dramatically hysterical.
Then, as the sixties ended and a new decade came along, the music changed. A few months before I graduated from high school, the Beatles called it quits and WKDA abandoned Top 40 for a country formatit was a Nashville radio station, after all. It was almost as if the Beatles and Top 40 had graduated along with me and my Nashville high school class. Taking its place was a new music formatFM “Underground Rock.” Patterned after the “free form” progressive radio that DJ Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue had engineered and encouraged in San Francisco in 1967, it only took a few years for the idea to waft eastward across the country to Music City. Plus, the time was right...the creaky old FM band, that had previously been used solely for the broadcasting of symphonies and “beautiful” music was ideal for the stereo rock that had been ushered in by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper,” and the Beachboys’ “Pet Sounds.”
Suddenly, the soundtrack of my life was a lot richer, and not so constrainedthe three-and-a-half minute pop classics were replaced by album tracks, some of them lasting the entire side of an album. By then, I was in college, and the music piped into my dorm room was straight out of Woodstock.
By then, the late night FM DJs were as unique as Captain Midnight, only a lot more cosmic. My personal favorite was a DJ on a station out of East Tennessee’s “Tri-City” area, and his show was called “The Kramer Outrage.” He would play a block of deep album cuts by Traffic or The Allman Brothers, or Dr. John, and then say something like, “Look...there’s something crawling on the wall...” This would be followed by another half hour of deep cuts and then he’d say, “Wow, man...now it’s over my head...” Finally, toward the end of the evening, he’d say, “It’s getting real close, man. It’s...it’s...it’s...” and that’s the last we’d hear from him until the following evening. After the rigid programming of the sixties, Underground Rock was musical anarchy at its best. But, alas, it was not to last. The radio consultants soon appeared on the scene to storm the castle with their pitchforks and torches in the form of programmed playlists and free form radio seemed forever doomed.
So, my college friends and I abandoned radio. We picked up our guitars and banjos and dulcimers and started creating our own musicsongs not confined to three-and-a-half minutes. One of the tunes that my friends and I would playusually in a ten-minute jam sessionwas a song that I had written in ’73 or ’74 called “Robin.” I had been inspired by Robin Lee Graham, who sailed alone around the world in 1965 at the age of 16. His journey was chronicled in the pages of National Geographic and I eagerly followed his exploits, impressed by his skill and tenacity, and felt that his story was a metaphor for our generation and its search for meaning.
The song “Robin” became the soundtrack for my friends and me and our times together. Throughout the years, we sang it in concerts and around campfires, in churches and in bars, in shacks and in mansions. And as for free form radio, it wasn’t dead, after all; it was only dormant, just waiting for a mediumlike, say, the internetto reignite it.
I was delighted to discover the hundreds (if not thousands) of free form radio stations available on the internet. It was a throwback to the days of Captain Midnight and the Kramer Outrage, only the possibilities had expanded exponentially. Now, there’s something for everyone.
I even discovered a station under the “Eclectic list” on iTunes called “Campfire Radio” that reminded me of the times my friends and I sat around the campfire singing “Robin.” So, I sent them an MP3 of a recording of us from many years ago, gathered around singing on a warm summer evening, accompanied by guitars, fiddles, pots and pans, and crickets. Now, when I want to remember those times, I can go to their website (www.campfireradio.net) and type in a request for “Robin” and, in a few minutes, I’m transported back to that night in the mid-’80s, singing a song written in the mid-’70s about the quest of an adventurous teenager from the mid-’60s.
And, I still do my homework with the radio blasting in the background, only now, instead of equations or essays, I work on logos, ads, brochures, and SouthernReader. Every once in awhile, when I least expect it, I hear the opening strains of “Robin,” and for a brief moment, we’re all still young and healthy and the ’90s are still on the distant horizon. And, in that flicker of a moment, our only concern is where we’re going to park our sleeping bags to dream about that next port of call and what tomorrow will bring.