Hardcore Country from Canada
For this week’s entry, I thought it’s about time we get a radio DJ from Canada, don’t you think? We might as well get hardcore with Fred Smith.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio?
Fred Smith: I’ve been doing my show Hardcore Country on campus station CHRW 94.9 FM Radio Western for over 25 years. Started out playing vinyl and 8-tracks (CDs were just on their way in) and the station was in a small basement room. The university was known as University of Western Ontario (It’s been rebranded Western University) and it was on 94.7 FM. I was in retail records for 25 years or so and was approached by a regular customer, who was the program director at the time, about doing a country show on the station. Took him a little while to persuade me, though in high school I used to play “radio DJs” in the basement with several friends — one of whom went on to commercial radio.
I’m still at CHRW, have had a few different time slots but have been doing Wednesday nights from 10 to midnight for quite some time now.
How do you describe your show?
I would like to do two hours of alt-country (whatever that is), but as a community station there is an obligation to play and promote local artists, which I enjoy doing. And as a station in Canada, I am subject to CRTC, which is Canadian content quotas — 40 percent of which I have no problem meeting.
A great majority of the music I play falls in the roots category — mostly Americana, Ameripolitan, alt-country, swing, Cajun, honky-tonk, stringband, bluegrass … along with a smattering of jazz, blues, folk, R&B, and rock. I don’t play any rap, heavy metal, or opera to speak of. I only play new [mainstream] country if it’s the song’s okay and it’s to promote a local artist’s CD release or show in town.
How do you define Americana music?
As they say … “I don’t necessarily know what it is, but I know what I like.” I think Dale Watson’s take on Ameripolitan music suits me just fine. I have an affection for old-time country music before it went Countrypolitan, and definitely before it became “new country” —what a misnomer. They stole the name and I’d like to get it back.
How do you prepare for your shows and what thoughts go into preparing your sets?
For the first hour of my show, I play music by artists who are playing in the area. The station is in London — midway between Toronto and Detroit — so the “area” I cover stretches from Toronto and Buffalo in the East to Detroit and Ann Arbor in the West. The further away the show is, the more it has to be “country,” while I stretch the format for local shows and include more jazz, blues, and folk artists. I feature local artists “Live to Air” from the studio fairly frequently. The station has upgraded the recording studio and the resulting recordings are pretty high-quality. The second hour, I play new releases and music from the Freeform American Chart.
How many new releases, old stuff, and independent artists do you play?
I play over 40 percent new releases (quota set by CRTC) and not much old stuff, unless it’s a re-issue or to promote a show. Independent artists make up well over 50 percent of my playlist.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
Merle Haggard. I was working in a record store and after buying the first Chicago Transit Authority’s album I got Hag’s Branded Man album. That led me to Hank Williams and I was hooked for life on country. I like both kinds of music now: country and western.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
I listen mostly to country — Tom Russell and Fred Eaglesmith are a couple of my favorites.
I was exposed to all kinds of music working in record stores and liked the first couple of Elton John records, the Beatles up to Rubber Soul, and the Stones up to Beggars Banquet. I didn’t realize what a great artist Prince was until I was exposed to some his music after his death.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
I get excited every week by new music [and] artists. There’s a lot of great music being brought out all the time. I’m enjoying Kristine Schmitt’s debut CD, Good Dirt, and Petunia and the Vipers’ new CD, Dead Bird On the Highway. I also like Ana Egge & the Sentimentals Say that Now and Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle’s self-titled release.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests you wish to share?
I’ve been retired for four years now and worked for the government after I left the music business back in 1990. I never realized until retirement how much time it takes to do nothing. I enjoy the time I spend preparing the show and am spending some time now promoting local artists on social media.