Good Taste From the Roadhouse With Greg Vandy
I introduced myself to Greg Vandy at this year’s Americana Music Conference in Nashville, back in September. I knew he was cool because I saw him at all the good shows over the week and then at Arnold’s “meat & three” Country Kitchen. Then I find out he’s from the highly regarded KEXP in Seattle. He obviously has good taste.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio and at what other stations have you worked?
Greg Vandy: I started in college at KUGS-FM in Bellingham, Washington. I did a punk rock show, then a reggae show called “Now Hear This!” I was the Special Events Coordinator (booker) too, and brought Gil Scott Heron to the remote, nearly all-white campus in 1988. Now that’s a story!
I also worked at Sound Of Brazil in NYC in the mid-’90s for Larry Gold, and I volunteered and did some on-air fills at WWOZ when living in New Orleans in the mid-’90s. I currently curate at Pickathon music festival, for the Lucky Barn (an interview/session stage) and book all the DJs on-site. Pendarvis Farm is a magical place. It’s the best fest, in my opinion.
Where do you work now and what hours, show name, etc.?
How do you describe your show?
It’s an American Music show — old and new.
How do you prepare for your shows? Do you have theme show?
I plan out the show in advance. It takes about 4-6 hours of prep, including the social media stuff and some writing. I have in-studios on occasion (lately- Margo Price, Courtney Marie Andrews, Allah Las, Easy Leaves, Drive By Truckers) and I do about 6-8 annual theme shows — Halloween, Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving folk, MLK & the Songs of Freedom, Very Vintage Christmas in Jazz and Blues, Soul Freedom (4th of July), and my most popular show, ’70s AM/FM Summer Gold, in which I play all the hits from basically 1970-1974. There is not a better era in pop-rock-soul music. I’ve also done specials on Harry Smith, American protest songs, why NOLA matters, “Psycho! PNW Garage Rock,” and Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Songs, which spawned my new book, 26 Songs in 30 Days.
How many new releases and independent artists do you play?
A lot. I’m very much interested in playing new bands and artists, because there are so many. I play about 70 percent new music. But on certain shows, I play a lot of old music — mostly themed shows.
Most of the music is indie, but what — really — is that anymore? I don’t play too much major label stuff, unless it’s older, heritage music.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music? When, or how did you hear about them?
I don’t know. I suppose I was always interested in roots music, but didn’t know it. I’ve always liked old soul and rock. I think it was when I lived in New Orleans — I became aware of roots music and how the music informed the culture, particularly brass bands and gospel music. History lives in NOLA music, and continues to this day. I was able to see it firsthand and it made a big impression on me.
From there, I learned alot more about the blues, R&B … and then when I moved to New York City, I discovered country music, ironically, and No Depression magazine. Roots music made more sense to me in those environments. I met people who knew a lot about music in those places.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
Staple Singers, Rolling Stones, Link Wray, Professor Longhair, JJ Cale, early Johnny Paycheck, Neil Young, Doug Sahm, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, CCR, Nina Simone, Howlin’ Wolf, the Meters, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, The Clash, T Rex, Patsy Cline, Woody Guthrie, Blind Willie McTell, Hank Williams.
How do you define Americana music?
I try to avoid the term. To me, “Americana” translates to white music, and I play a lot of blues, soul, and gospel. I’ve yet to hear anybody say, “That’s some fine Americana!” when [I’m] putting on a Muddy Waters record.
It’s also, like most genre terms, limiting and a straight-jacket for artists. Unfortunately, it sounds like music for dads, or generic singer-songwriter stuff. I totally get why [that word is] used and helpful for some, but what I want the term to mean, and what I think it’s suppose to mean, is the music in between the genre categories: The good music between country and folk, between rock and the blues, or between gospel and jazz, or whatever. That’s where the good music [is].
It was true in the past and that’s where it it is today — young people re-inventing older sounds for their own purposes and for their generation. The folk process … that’s always how it is. The re-issues of 1960s and ’70s outsider music and rootsy stuff has really helped to inspire new music.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
I think [the future is] positive for non-commercial radio. Commercial radio? Not so much. I think people are beginning to understand the value in real DJs playing the music they care about. Curation from people feels different than an algorithm.
I’m happy for Nashville and WMOT and WKNA, in terms of two stations going “Americana” and providing Music City with it’s own music.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Daniel Norgren made his American debut performance at Pickathon this year and it’s was amazing. He played some hill-country type, nearly African guitar songs, then a squeeze box tune called “Black Vultures” (which is on my new podcast), and then he moved to an old, upright piano and played a Randy Newman-like song called “People Are Good.” Everybody loved him. He played three times in three days and the crowd grew each performance, and there was a buzz about him. He’s from Sweden.
I’m also excited about Promised Land Sound, Easy Leaves, Kevin Morby, Margo Price, Steve Gunn, Banditos, Kacy & Clayton, Nick Waterhouse, Parker Milsap, Daddy Long Legs, and I’m looking forward to the next one from Hurray for the Riff Raff.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
My weekly radio show is my creative outlet. I like doing it and it keeps me current. I’m the kind of person who needs to share what I find, and what I like. There’s a lot of music to wade through these days, and I enjoy exposing it.
What are your most memorable experiences from working in the music industry?
Well, there’s a lot, and they’re mostly long stories. But bringing Gil Scott Heron to Bellingham is a crazy story because he was a mess. Creating the set list for the Heptones, for a reunion show in NYC, was pretty good (I asked for all the Lee Perry songs [and] they did them). Getting one of only three interviews Jack White did on his last tour was great. Interviewing Mavis Staples at Pickathon in 2010 and making her cry in front of a live audience was kind of amazing. And seeing Jimmy Smith at Jazzfest in 1994 during a thunderstorm is unforgettable.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests or anything else you wish to share?
I love mid-century modern design and swimming pools. I love New Orleans and eating Southern food. I hope to start a “branded tourism” business idea, starting with an Air BnB in my mid-century Seattle home. Look for that!