Keeping the Dead Alive with Tim Lynch
I’ve gotten to know Tim Lynch from seeing him at festivals and emcee-ing at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. I immediately liked him for his passion for music, and I quickly learned he brought that same enthusiasm and dedication to all his endeavors.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at, and what were they like?
Tim Lynch: I started at college in upstate New York, at WONY in Oneonta. While there, I tried my hand in commercial radio at a Top 40 station and discovered that radio to me has to be free-form. I’m not a Top 40 guy! I managed the University of Hawaii station, KTUH, while in grad school there, and dabbled in a short-lived experimental commercial station that let listeners vote for and against songs, [and I also] worked as a broadcast engineer at a TV station in the islands.
When I moved to the Bay Area, I was out of radio for a while, so to share music I wrote about it for PauseRecord.com, Jambands.com, An Honest Tune magazine, and other online and print outlets. I joined a low-powered FM (Radio Free Berkeley) until I finally broke in to KPFA, where I still am today. I also had a great three-year gig when the legendary KPIG had a San Francisco AM studio. I ran a show from their SF studio on Saturday afternoons that featured three live acts for 40 minutes each that I booked, hosted, and engineered. I did everything except sell the ads. That was an awesome gig.
Where do you work now?
I host Dead to the World on KPFA, Berkeley, California, Wednesday nights from 8 – 10 p.m. It’s a non-commercial station that is grandfathered into the commercial part of the FM dial. We’re also simulcast on KFCF Fresno and have a repeater in Santa Cruz, so we reach a wide swath of northern and central California over the air, as well as via web streaming. I also sit in for as many of my roots music colleagues as will have me, just as often as I can.
How do you describe your show?
Jam, groove, and ‘grass. It’s part live Grateful Dead recordings and part the music that inspired them and was inspired by them. So it’s mostly roots music and jam. I especially like things that defy easy genre categorization.
How do you prepare for your shows? Do you have theme shows or in-studio guests?
All week long, I try songs next to each other in different combinations until I find things that bear repeated listening. More often, sets have a theme rather than whole shows. I do love shows previewing festivals, though — they’re especially fun.
Often it’s not so much a theme that motivates a set as much it is a flow of feelings. Every set should be an adventure of its own through the larger journey of a show. When you only have 120 minutes a week to program, you don’t have time for a throw-away tune. I also invite artists to play live as often as I can.
How many new releases and old stuff do you play?
I’d say it’s 50-50 old and new for me. I love tradition but I also think there’s an endless font of good new music being created that folks need to hear. Independent, signed, I don’t care. It just has to be good. I’m honored that listeners allow me to curate some of that for them, to guide them to things they might not have heard yet, as well as to old favorites and back catalogue stuff.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
Like so many of my generation it was Old & In the Way and Will the Circle Be Unbroken. From there I found Norman & Nancy Blake, John Hartford, and New Grass Revival.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre, and what artists define Americana music for you?
The beauty of Americana as a category is that it isn’t one genre. It’s anything with a basis in American roots musics, right? I’ve long loved what Leftover Salmon does, blending bluegrass, rock, Cajun, a touch of reggae, jazzy things, and even a bit of punk into their “poly-ethnic Cajun slamgrass.” Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, and the Infamous Stringdusters are similarly inspired — roots with rock. Sam Bush once said something like “when the bluegrass people think you’re playing rock and the rock people think you’re playing bluegrass, you’re on the right track.”
I love the old stuff but I also recognize that the old stuff was innovative. Bill Monroe is the father of bluegrass precisely because he didn’t limit himself to playing existing styles of music; he blended genres to create something new. Some of those old bluegrass units were the punks of their day.
How do you define Americana music?
Part of what the Grateful Dead did helps to shape Americana. Think American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, for example. So does Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, The Band, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, David Bromberg, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin. Stuff [that makes] you wonder, “Is it rock, is it country, is it folk?” But then if it could be defined it wouldn’t be alive anymore. Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Elephant Revival, and Front Country are among those bringing new things into the music, keeping it vital, growing, vibrant, alive.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
Well that’s a little scary, actually. People are trading high fidelity for portability and it’s not a good trend. FM radio over a decent sound system sounds pretty damn good. Satellite radio and streaming services lack that fidelity, yet people seem perfectly willing to make the trade for convenience. Streaming, as everyone is learning, is also really bad for artists. Algorithms will never be as good as a curator with good ears and a heart.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
I really like Session Americana with Jefferson Hamer’s Great Shakes, Yarn’s This Is the Year, Fruition’s Labor of Love, and Elephant Revival’s Petals. But I could go on all year. That’s why I do radio!
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
I have frequently called myself “the luckiest man in Bay Area broadcasting.” Not because I make any money at it – I volunteer at KPFA – but because I’ve gotten to meet and spend time with musicians whose music has meant so much to so many. Whether squished into a tiny studio with me playing live (as all seven of the Flatlanders once did), or as an emcee at a couple of festivals, I’ve met so many legends and great people.
Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon once showed me what a packed Telluride Bluegrass Festival looks like from the stage right before they went on. Mavis Staples gave me an unexpected big hug after I made sure the young audience at High Sierra knew who she was.
I’ve had [David] Bromberg playing live on the air several times, as [well as] David Grisman, Bela Fleck (with and without the Flecktones), and Peter Rowan.
The Peter Rowan-Tony Rice Quartet playing for an audience of 20 of us on the show was especially memorable. All of the living members of Grateful Dead have come on the air at one time or another. I’ve sat next to Richie Havens while he played, and met Odetta. Irma Thomas and Elvin Bishop were on together serendipitously, explaining what it was like to play in segregated rooms back in the day. I got to chat with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady (of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane), as well as Buddy Miller and Buffy Sainte-Marie, among others, just a couple of weeks ago at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
And that’s without thinking about it very hard. There’s lots more. I’m a lucky man.