Big Kev: A Big Americana Presence
Let’s start the new year with an old radio friend and a real fan of the music: Big Kev Ploghoft from WLVR in in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. What I love about Kev is that he always has something to say about everything. Happy New Year!
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio and what other stations have you worked at? What were the stations like?
Big Kev: After going to the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, Ohio, to learn the basics of recording engineering, I started by doing some radio shows — metal, classic rock, and sports — at Montclair State College on WMSC-FM in Montclair, New Jersey. I was there from 1986 to 1988 while I was also an intern for Alan Holmes at WNBC in New York City, before they sold off the radio division. Then I did voiceover work and character bits on WMCA in NYC. I was also the music director for WPDQ-FM in Freehold, New Jersey, doing rock radio and broadcasting to the Jersey Shore in 2001 … I sure had a lot of fun and freedom there!
Then, from 2001 to 2007, I became music director for WLVR-FM in Sergeantsville, New Jersey. It was a classic country station that my pal Fred Boeing started, to turn [it] into an Americana station, and they brought me in to help. In those five years, we made WDVR one of the top stations in the Americana format.
While at WDVR, Burr Beard asked me if I would like to do a show on his station, WXLV-FM in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and help do for them as I did for WDVR. I was officially named MD of WXLV (Roots 90.3) from 2007 to 2011, when the signal and tower was sold to a religious network.
Where do you work now?
I am the music director for WLVR-FM 91.3 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where I started doing programs in 2010 before I left WXLV. My anchor show, “The Roots Rock Revolution,” is broadcast every Saturday morning 9 a.m. to noon ET. I also have two programs on the Wildman Steve Radio Network. The “Big Kev Show,” which airs Wednesday evenings at 9 p.m. ET, … [and] “Ameri-Kinda Weekly,” which is sanctioned by the Americana Music Association as it is a weekly recap program of the Top Ten and Most Added albums of the week from the AMA Radio Airplay Chart. It airs on Saturday afternoons at 4 p.m. ET and rebroadcast on Monday evenings at 10 p.m. ET. “Ameri-Kinda Weekly” also airs on WLVR Monday mornings at 9 a.m. ET.
How do you describe your show and how do you define what you play?
I like to think of my show as a throwback to late ’60s/early ’70s radio, where you’d hear everything thing from country to blues, to rock, to pop … the whole shebang! You HAD to listen ’cause you never knew what you were about to hear. To me there is a sound, a feel that a song must have that makes you want to play it. Every song is different and may mean different things to different people, but you know it when you hear it.
How do you define Americana music?
Americana music? I don’t even like calling it that. Sure, there’s a definition in Webster’s, but I’ve come to calling it Ameri-Kinda.
If you know the story and history of this format/genre, then you know it was created out of the alt-country and singer-songwriter community because “Hot Country” was going the Garth/Shania route and artists like Robbie Fulks, Rosie Flores, and Dale Watson weren’t going to get the push to mainstream country radio. Some bands like the Blasters and the Del-Lords weren’t really being promoted to rock radio. Then let’s not forget people like Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, and John Hiatt who continued to write incredible songs. … I tend to lean that way. Blues is blues and folk is folk, but where country, blues, folk, and rock all meet is what I always call “roots music.”
What it has become today is 180 degrees from where it started, so I am more of a traditionalist.
“Don’t mean a thang if it ain’t got that twang!”
How do you prepare for your shows? Do you have theme shows or sets, or spotlight certain artists?
I don’t do much prep. I check to see birthdays and if its a heritage artist then I might do an hour set, otherwise just a track or two and a mention. [I do] anniversaries of groundbreaking things. If an artist is playing in the ‘hood [and] I wanna give ’em a shout out, shit like that.
Otherwise, I like the spontaneity and just see where it goes, and play off the listeners or the day’s events.
As for theme sets, I love doing them! Every week I give away the station’s Album of the Week by playing “Go Figure,” where I’ll play five songs in a row that all have one thing in common and, to win, you gotta figure it out.
How many new releases do you play? Do you play many independent artists?
I try to keep current releases to 5-6 per hour with two re-currents from the last year, and then the rest is all over the place. As for indie artists, it’s probably 20% but you have to remember that a lot of the names now have their own labels, so I am factoring that in.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music?
I guess like for a lot of us, it was the Johnny Cash TV show. I remember falling in love with Linda Ronstadt. Seeing all those diverse acts really opened my ears, as I was brought up in a “rock” household. I learned about Tony Joe White and Kris Kristofferson from the Cash show too.
As for albums, do all the “Laurel Canyon/Troubadour” musicians count?
As for the hearing part, well here’s my story. When I was nine years old, I was blinded by an accident and, for three months, I had to lay in bed and couldn’t really do anything — no TV, no reading, no running, no nothing! Thats when I discovered radio. I listened to all the stations, heard all the music, and loved it all. So that’s where I discovered the music that I continue to enjoy today.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre that influenced you?
That’s too tough! I can do a list of 100 easy, but I’ll do five solo artists and five bands: Hank Williams, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Nick Lowe. The bands are the Beatles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Kinks, Talking Heads, and the Doors.
What artist defines Americana music for you?
Two come to mind. First off, Slaid Cleaves. I have so much respect for this man, for what he did a few years ago, that he could probably kill a man and if I sat on the jury I’d let him go! After a couple of acclaimed albums for Rounder, Slaid could have done anything he wanted. So what does he go out and do? He records an album called Unsung, by all his songwriting buddies that he opened for or played with. When the spotlight was about to shine on him, he stepped back and let it shine on the friends that inspired him instead. As Jim Lauderdale would say, “Now that’s Americana!”
The second one would be the Mavericks. I can’t think of any other band in the last 20 years that have been so consistent in the quality of their music than them. They can slip into a Tex-Mex beat as well as a traditional country waltz. They can rock ya out or make you weep to a beautiful ballad in one setting. Raul Malo’s voice ranks right up there with the best of the best. I’ve known the guys for almost 20 years now and I can say that they love and cherish the fact that they are able to put out their music their way.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
I hate to say it, but its broadcasting to the graveyard. The demo for our listeners is aging along with a lot of the core artists.
I do see a lot of great upcoming talent out there, don’t get me wrong, but this is radio we are talking about and not the music. As you know, radio stations need to make money and its already a hard sell. Of the 80 reporting stations to the AMA chart, over half are considered Triple A stations. Except for a handful of terrestrial stations, I’d say eight that are Americana stations, the rest are part-time programming or internet only. The industry doesn’t want to spend money here anymore because there is no money to be made. It’s a niche market and a station would make more money being the fourth-rated rock station than being the only Americana one. You have to have an adventurous spirit if you like this music because it ain’t easy to find. When you do find it, support that local station that plays roots-type music, because pretty soon it won’t be there and you’ll have to buy a laptop or iPad if you don’t listen through your phone already.
Streaming is the way of the future — people can select what they want when they want it. To paraphrase Patrick Henry, “Give me convenience or give me death.”
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
An album that I am totally digging is Billy Gibbons and The BFG’s new album Perfectamundo — a true masterpiece. I also like what Lindi Ortega’s been doing. Derek Hoke is a cat you should be on the lookout for. I’m looking forward to Hayes Carll’s upcoming record as I have always been a champion of his music. And of course the Led Zeppelin reunion is this summer!
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests?
Besides being a master mason and a JFK assassination conspiracy believer, I have been producing some records over the years and just finished my second record with Houston artist Glenna Bell. Her new album, Lone Star Songs and Stories Straight from the Heart of Texas, is coming out at the end of January. We recorded it at historic Sugar Hill Studios in Houston and with George Reiff in Austin. We had George play bass and Rick Richards on drums as the rhythm section, and I brought in my ol’ pal Johnny Nicholas to play guitar and piano on a track. John Evans helped out on guitars, as did NYC artist Mark Abernathy. Both of them helped produce the record also. If you want to know more about it go to http://www.glennabell.com.