A Man Out of Time
There are two kinds of DJs: those who work their banter in around the records they play, and those who treat those records as filler for their self-aggrandizing shtick. Country radio is dominated by the latter, most of them expatriates from rock stations who live to hear the sound of their own voices. In the other camp — on Nashville’s WSM, AM 650, home of the Grand Ole Opry — is Eddie Stubbs, someone for whom hillbilly music has no camp value at all.
“Here’s some deep catalog country, one of the most incredible records I’ve ever heard,” beams Stubbs, cueing up an unreleased 1961 recording of Skeets McDonald singing the Harlan Howard shuffle “In The Corner Of My Mind”. Stubbs often plugs his favorites, which — given the fact that he knows just about every hillbilly record ever made — are legion. He isn’t selling anyone a bill of goods here, though: Once Tommy Jackson’s fiddle, Jimmy Day’s steel, and the hair-raising harmonies of McDonald and Johnny Paycheck kick in, listeners know that the DJ is merely stating the obvious.
“That’s it, ain’t it,” Stubbs gushes, back on the air. “A two-minute, 37-second clinic on country music. Nothin’ but the honey. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
The 37-year-old Maryland native spins vintage honky-tonk and bluegrass records, and tosses off bon mots like “deep catalog” and “nothin’ but the honey,” four nights a week from the lobby of Nashville’s Opryland Hotel — hardly the place you’d expect to hear the likes of Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe and Connie Smith, unless you’ve got a thing for Muzak renderings of their biggest hits. But each of these greats, along with Wynn Stewart, the Osborne Brothers, Grandpa Jones and an obscure solo Ira Louvin cut, is on Stubbs’ playlist tonight.
Stubbs, you see, is a true believer, a keeper of the flame who faithfully programs “two shuffles and one bluegrass number every hour”; who knows the best stylus for plumbing the grooves of an old 78; and who’s fond of referring to WSM as “The Air Castle of the South,” the station’s sobriquet during its golden age a half-century ago. Ensconced behind the studio mike, Stubbs — clean-shaven and clad in a white shirt and conservative tie — could easily pass for a Baptist preacher, especially when he starts reeling off obscure birthdates and session credits as if they were Biblical apocrypha.
Or when, off the air, he expresses his dismay — consternation tantamount to moral censure — at the way “hot new country” radio ignores honky-tonkers Vern Gosdin and Gene Watson. Or at the way the media touts one diva after another as the new queen of country music when Kitty Wells, the woman who owns that crown and always will, is alive and, at 79, still tours and sings on the Opry.
If Stubbs’ fealty to classic country sounds like so much tilting at windmills, well, it is — especially with Music Row, drunk on its recent crossover success, trading in adult-oriented pop. And yet Stubbs’ devotion to hard-core honky-tonk is no less quixotic than his decision to move to Nashville in 1995 to take a job playing fiddle with Kitty Wells, Johnnie Wright and the Tennessee Mountain Boys. (The Johnson Mountain Boys, with whom Stubbs had played since 1978, had recently disbanded.) Less than a month after hitting town, Stubbs had landed an on-air gig at WSM. Three weeks later he was auditioning, and eventually won, a slot announcing on the Opry.
Stubbs still hosts the show he’s had on Washington’s WAMU-FM since 1990, taping and overnighting it each week to the station in D.C. But with his lexicon of refreshingly unmannered witticisms and his encyclopedic knowledge of country history, Stubbs is fast becoming a WSM institution, someone who’s done as much to expose a new generation of listeners to the verities of classic honky-tonk as the neo-hillbilly renaissance that Greg Garing, BR5-49 and Paul Burch staged on Nashville’s Lower Broadway during the mid-’90s. In the process, Stubbs has also become the voice of WSM’s 50,000-watt, clear-channel signal for many Opry regulars and old-timers.
Which is hardly surprising, especially when, as he does tonight, Stubbs unearths an LP with the Hank Snow recitation “Old Doc Brown” from the WSM stacks. Most young DJs would only play the Singing Ranger’s maudlin eulogy for laughs, or to prove how hip they are for knowing that Snow’s single inspired the Flying Burrito Brothers’ equally mawkish “Hippie Boy”. But when, like the man out of time that he is, a tearful Stubbs tells his listeners how the song reminds him of the family doctor he had growing up — a man who would “go over you from head to toe for five to ten bucks” — his sincerity is never at issue. If that isn’t deep catalog, or just plain deep, then I don’t know what is.