Forty Years of Country Music and “Related Forms”
I personally can credit KFAT radio for much of my musical education back in the 1970s. The station not only played great music, they had a sense of humor, which is not heard on music radio much these days.
Sully Roddy was one of the funnier KFAT DJs, and I’m glad to see her sense of humor is still intact.
Where and when did you start in radio and what other stations have you worked at?
I first went on the air to do news, not music. I was an uppity woman in college — I was very political. I marched in anti-war demonstrations and rallied for women’s rights. I joined student government and helped establish a child care center on campus, things like that. I actually enrolled in Foothill Community College’s radio broadcasting courses to do politically oriented newscasts. Then, having solved all the world’s problems, I turned to playing music — a big mix.
KFJC had lots of 1960s country albums until the night a student with OCD threw them all in a dumpster. He felt they were cluttering up the place. I was one of only two people at the station who listened to country music, but I thought, “If this music were presented in a progressive format, people my age would realize how wonderful it is.” When I heard about a station in Gilroy, California, that was going to do just that, I thought, “That’s me.” The station, of course, was KFAT-FM. I still miss that station! I was there from 1975 to late 1979.
I was in my early 20’s when I worked at KFAT, and too young to realize that really wonderful jobs would only come around every 10 or years or so. At least, that’s how it’s been for me. In 1989, ten years after I left KFAT, Lee Logan hired me at to do a free-format roots-based show at KSAN-FM. KSAN was the country powerhouse of the Bay Area, but Lee said he trusted my knowledge of music and let me play anything I wanted. Wow! He took a gamble, and told me to play anything I wanted.
My show, “All Kinds of Country” (I’m so bad at thinking up names), was on every Saturday and Sunday. I learned so much at KSAN — everyone on the staff was so talented and experienced. And I discovered record service!
I was there until some corporate clown took over as GM and decided to appeal to a younger audience by replacing the air staff with 20-something shock jocks! As Bugs Bunny would say, “What a maroon.” Ratings plummeted and the station was sold.
I kicked around, working here and there — sometimes on the air and sometimes not. Then I got my next “ten year” job programming something new: internet radio. In 2000, I began programming internet radio stations for Spinner.com in San Francisco. I picked the music for about eight stations, including country, Americana, bluegrass, Southern gospel, rockabilly, and Cajun and zydeco.
Spinner was the sister company of Winamp. The founder zipped around the office on a Razor skateboard, dressed in cutoffs and T-shirts. He’d sold the companies for big bucks to AOL, and used part of the money to buy art: a six-foot tall statue of a llama made of barbed wire. I wanted to keep that job until I retired or died, whichever came first. The people in my department were all music fiends. We all liked different types of music, but understood one another. When AOL merged with Time Warner, we were laid off.
Realizing that I needed a good job more than once a decade, I went back to college and became a special education teacher. I love working with kids, and I’m fascinated by how differently people’s minds work. But also found that, when it comes to weird work environments, KFAT had nothing on most public schools. Schools are much weirder than radio stations, I was surprised to find. I now have my own small tutoring business. If your child has trouble reading, call me.
Where do you work now?
After being off the air for 13 years, my friends hounded me into applying for a shift at KKUP-FM, Cupertino. It’s a small, listener supported station with all live, local programming. I’m part of a small group of jocks who take turns doing the Swing Boogie show on Saturday afternoons, 3-7 Pacific time. KKUP now streams live. I also fill in for friends on occasion: Mary Tilson on KPFA and Peter Thompson on KALW.
Last month, I catapulted myself fearlessly into the age of computers and bought a domain: www.sullyroddy.com (another clever name). I plan to post archived shows, write album and show reviews, and have a blog so we can chat. Maybe the publication of this interview will spur me to finish it and get it up on the internet.
How do you describe your show?
As vaguely as possible, in order to leave myself plenty of room to play whatever I want. Usually I call it “country music and related forms.” Recently I found myself saying (on the air) “music and related forms.” It was a slip of the tongue but I kind of like it. Musically, it closes no doors.
I essentially play all my favorite songs; a mix of lots of different styles and genres. The first set of my last show started off with Dwight Yoakam, then went on to Buck Owens, the Byrds, the Roys (a bluegrass duo), Tiny Moore and Jethro Burns, Otis Redding, Lil’ Band O’ Gold, and Clifton Chenier. I think of music more in terms of color than genre. When I hear music, or think of numbers or letters, I see colors, texture, and movement. Bluegrass, for example, tends to be a light yellow-orange. Groups like BeauSoleil and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are jewel-toned shapes — purple, jade, and burgundy, against a black background. Country tends to be orange. I don’t plan sets, I just haul in a bunch of CDs and jump in, keeping the music moving.
I play lots of old music and as much new music as I can get my hands on. It doesn’t matter to me if an artist is on a label or records music in the back room. I clear my mind of those considerations. I empty my mind and just listen. It’s realize that’s not very business-like.
In the ’60s folk music era, I listened to folks like Mimi and Richard Farina, and became aware of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 double album Will the Circle be Unbroken was a revelation. It introduced a whole generation to Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter, Vassar Clements, Brother Oswald and Merle Travis. It was a world-changing album. I was on the air at the college station when it was released, and practically wore out the grooves.
I was also in college when I purchased my first actual country album: Dreaming My Dreams, by Waylon Jennings. You could say I was in a transitional period, musically. I bought that and the Tubes’ “White Punks on Dope” at the same time. The guy behind the counter gave me a strange, flat look and commented, “Interesting choice.” He seemed hostile, but I never knew if it was the Tubes or Waylon that ticked him off.
How do you define Americana music ?
Folks complain that the term “Americana” doesn’t really define anything. But that’s exactly as it should be. “Americana” is just a catchphrase — shorthand that saves us from spending a long time explaining the music we love. It can be helpful to artists and broadcasters who are looking for listeners, that’s its main value. Americana is basically American roots music, but it can be anything. How about African township music? That would fit right in. But it would be tragic if we started chosing artists on the basis of whether they were “Americana” or not. That would defeat the whole purpose. There are really no boundaries in music from one genre to the next, only transitional zones. Musicians know that. That’s why they’re not purists — they’ll play anything that strikes their fancy.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
I’m almost afraid to name my current favorite artists, I’m afraid I’ll leave someone out and offend them forever. The Tuttle kids of Palo Alto knock me out. Molly, Sullivan, and Michael Tuttle are astonishing musicians. Granted, I’m prejudiced, because they’re my nephews and nieces. But you take a listen to them and see if I’m not right. They play together in The Tuttles with AJ Lee, and Molly has her own band, and also plays in a quartet called the Goodbye Girls. Go watch them on You Tube. If they’re not everything I say, I’lI will happily write you my personal check for 10 million dollars.
What inspires you or keeps you going?
Being surrounded by music is like being in a different world — a beautiful world. It’s a wonderful place to visit. It gives me so much energy and hope. That’s what keeps me going. It’s just a pleasure.
What are your most memorable experiences from working in the music industry?
Yikes! There are so many!
San Jose was part of a country music circuit for decades, beginning in the ’40s or ’50s. Even into the ’70s folks like Ernest Tubb, Tex Williams, and Kitty Wells would tour the area, playing in little clubs. I got to see them perform and meet them. I also saw Les Paul, Merle Travis, and Patsy Montana. I’ve heard Taj Mahal at a tiny club in San Francisco, and saw Doc Watson and David Holt in Redwood City. I’d just had a dream about Doc Watson: a dignified person — I think it was an angel — explained to me that the music of Doc Watson was a blessing, and that it “healed people’s heads.” I believe that’s true. I adore Doc Watson.
I was also able to interview a lot of great musicians. My interview with Mark O’Connor stands out in my mind. I used to see him when he was a phenom in the David Grisman Quintet, in the 1980s. I knew he was a prodigy. When I met him, he was very nice, but also seemed kind of other-worldly. “Fey” is what the Irish would call him. Acting on a sudden impulse I asked, “Do you ever see colors when you hear music.” He said, “Yes, all the time,” and he began telling me exactly what color different notes were. He had very specific associations. I’d learned that seeing colors like that was called synesthesia, but I’d never talked to anyone about it.
Mark O’Connor also said it was hard for him to pay attention sometimes, because of the music that’s constantly playing in his head. I asked if he heard music at that very moment. He said yes, and hummed the tune for me. I thought of the old days, when Irish country people warned their children that if they listened to the fairies’ music, it would change them forever. I’m beginning to think that that’s the absolute truth.