Kay Clements: Americana in Alaska’s Back Country
I first met Kay Clements back in the 1990s at the Strawberry Music Festival and we became fast friends, bonded by a passion for music and radio.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio, and what were the stations?
Kay Clements: Radio grabbed me when the town I was living in decided to start a radio station. [It was] 1995 in Point Reyes, California. I got right in on that, and even before we got it broadcasting, I started building a music library. I had a lot of great advice and help from Mary Tilson, who had already been at KPFA for years, and she suggested I go to the 1997 In the Pines conference with her. It was the best conference and I did meet lots of the promo folks, labels, and artists — some of whom are still working the room and some who have moved on. But that was a pivotal happening, not to mention total fun.
Being at a station that was just beginning, I learned all the nuts and bolts of radio from the ground up, as well as all the administrative and legal hooha that goes with it. I was totally hooked and I stayed at KWMR for 15 years as the manager and the music director. I was hosting two programs when I left: “Roadhouse Twang” and “Free Range Pickin’.”
During that time, I also did some very fun shows with my friends around the North Bay: Mary Tilson at KPFA and Robin Pressman and you, at KRCB. Then I moved to Alaska in 2011 to manage KHNS. That sort of put the kibosh on going to Nashville, but until then, I don’t think I had missed an Americana conference since that first one in 1997.
Where do you work now and what hours? What’s the name of the show?
I manage KHNS in Haines, Alaska, so I’m at the station full-time. We have a strip of music across the week called “BackCountry” and I fit in there pretty well, usually hosting a few times a month. Since we have a small staff, I am sometimes called on to fill in for the morning or afternoon shows as well.
How do you describe your show and how do you define what you play?
I describe what I play as country, but I describe country as hick, hillbilly, honky-tonk, rockabilly, and songwriters I love.
How do you prepare for your shows and what thoughts go into preparing your sets?
I keep a few of my favorite new releases in my orange Cal Trans bag that has been with me as long as I’ve been doing shows. Then I usually scan my shelves and start pulling based on what strikes my fancy. Once I’m in the studio, I stack ’em up and start working the CD players. I don’t tend to play any vinyl. CDs are just easier.
So I start making my segues based on what I’m playing and hearing, and [what I] think is the next best song to follow. Sometimes I spotlight an artist but I’m not much for themes. I enjoy when other DJs do themes, but it’s just not a natural fit for me. I’ll start out thinking I’m going in one direction and it’s the time in the studio that steers the bus. I guess you could say that, while it looks like I pretty much pull and play, I prepare by paying attention all the time to new music and following links and names to find out what they’re doing, who they like, [who they] play with, and what else they’ve put out.
How many new releases do you play? Do you play much old stuff? Do you play many independent artists?
Every show is different. Some are 80 percent new releases, some are 20 percent. It depends how excited I am about what is in the bag or in the stress rack in the studio, which has a moving selection of new music. It also depends on what segues are calling out. In terms of relatively new or from the last 50 years, I mix that up a lot.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music and when? How did you hear about them?
My brother used to babysit me by putting a stack of 45s on the hi-fi and I would sit and listen for hours to Dion, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Brenda Lee, etc.
I grew up in southern California, so as I got older I was very into the music coming out of LA in the ’70s, like Linda Ronstadt, the Blasters, CSN&Y. I listened to Wolfman Jack and KROQ and KRTH. Then I checked out of music altogether and was traveling for a few years.
When I checked back into music, it was when I moved to Point Reyes and we put the station on the air. Before we got our license, we were the audio behind the local cable, so we had all kinds of time to get used to being DJs.
My first show was with a friend who had lots of bluegrass music. I was nervous so I would dress up as different vintage country stars to get out of myself a little. It worked. By the time we were broadcasting live, I had my own show and I was getting much more comfortable at being a DJ, which is kind of interesting as I’m not very outgoing by nature. I just love sharing the tunes and artists I think deserve to be heard and are great to hear … which is all terribly subjective, of course.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre? And what artists define Americana music for you?
Too many to count, and no one artist defines Americana for me. … I’m always checking out what is new from Bear Family, El Toro, and Ripsaw, discovering lost gems. And, as the music director at the station, part of the FAR chart, and a member of AMA, I get turned onto new stuff all the time. One thing I do miss, being in Alaska, is the lack of access to music venues. I got spoiled [living] in the Bay Area. [There are] so many venues and festivals, and then going to conferences … it was amazing to be immersed in music for days at a time.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Brennen Leigh. I think she is really talented and always look forward to what she is doing. I like that the Alvin Brothers are working together again. I like Sarah Shook and Disarmers, Tami Neilsen, Carrie Rodriguez, Cactus Blossoms, James Hunter Six, John Lilly, Bellfuries, Del Rey, and all of the Bay Area music like the Suzy and Eric Thompson, and now Allegra Thompson, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, Tom Armstrong, and so many more.