Long John’s “Tubby Tunes”
I’ve known Long John for a number of years, radio people being somewhat clannish, and we share a fascination with radio and old school ’70s “progressive country” songs. He’s a bit of a outlaw who now has his own low-power station! I never did get his full name.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio and what other stations have you worked at?
Long John: I started spinning records at school dances around 1960, when my cousin gave me all her 45 rpm records. I later went to KYA in San Francisco to see what a radio station looked like. I wanted to go to Oz and peek behind the curtain, to disect and understand the process of that magical medium called “radio.” In the 1960s I hung out at the original underground station, KMPX, with Bob Prescott, watching and learning. In the 1970s I met Norman Davis, who was doing late nights at KSAN, and had my first taste of speaking on the air. My first radio gig was a summer at KDVS, at UC-Davis, and then UC-Berkeley’s KALX in the late 1970s. I did an all-night show called “Night Space.”
For several years my radio interests were dormant while I worked in Marin County doing high-tech work, but then I went back to college to learn TV production and landed an internship at KTIM-AM, when Norman was program director of “KTIM, 1510, The Big Band Blend.” I worked doing TV and video for a few years, including at KFTY TV, KRCB TV, and Fat Films (making hot rod movies). I’ve always drifted away from the hubbub of the Bay Area, seeking a more sublime existance in the rural parts, so in 1989 I was living up north in Cloverdale and heard of a station starting up in the little town of Philo, in Mendocino County. I went to the station, talked with Sean Donovan, who was leading the effort to put noncommercial KZYX on the air, made a demo tape, and came on board just before the station went on the air, and that’s where I came of with the show name “Tubby Tunes” … it pays homage to both KFAT in Gilroy and Warner Bros.’ “Looney Tunes.”
In the mid 1990s I was living in the outskirts of Santa Rosa, tending a flock of about 125 chickens, and came on board at KRCB-FM, where I had a Wednesday night slot with “Tubby Tunes.” In 1999, I bought land in northern Mendocino County and joined KMUD-FM, a noncommercial station in Garberville, which is in southern Humboldt County. KMUD has a large signal footprint due to several repeaters, so it’s heard along Highway 101 from Ukiah in the south to past the Oregon border. I provided suggestions for the configuration of a new on-air studio (currently Studio C) and also served on the board of directors as secretary.
Where do you work now?
Around 2010 I hatched a plan to start a radio station with my buddy and radio partner Weird Harold (KFAT, KMUD). It was looking like the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA) was going to be passed by Congress, and that was the genisis of KPHT-LP. Weird Harold and I partnered up at KMUD to spread the “Fat Sound” around. Weird Harold was previously KMUD’s first program director. At KPHT-LP, in Laytonville, I’m the president, GM, and chief engineer. Weird Harold is my vice president, PD, and music director. KPHT-LP is a low-power FM station made possible by the Local Community Radio Act. We formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit company. We know every screw, wire, and nail in the KPHT-LP studios because we built it from scratch. The hours are many; I’ve been on the air during the dinner hours, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. In a few weeks I’ll take the noon to 3 p.m. slot, leading into Weird Harold’s afternoon drive time “Tunes From The Chicken Coop” show.
How do you describe your show?
I call it “Genuine Highway 101 Outlaw Boogie Music Deluxe,” since US Highway 101 has been a common denominator with KFAT, KHIP, KMPX, KSAN, KTIM, and KRCB, all located on Highway 101. We play uplifting, foot-tapping, no depressing songs (don’t bum out the audience). “Tubby Tunes” is a blend of old and new, plus LOTS of humor, like an updated KFAT (I have most of the stuff KFAT played). Like KFAT, I define “Americana” in wide terms, including country, rock, swing, blues, western, folk, and zydeco. It all depends on what might fit in at any given moment. There are no rules, no restrictive playlists, and no regrets. The late David Babcock of San Francisco’s KGO once called my show the Dr. Demento of country music.
How do you prepare for your show, and do you have theme shows?
Preparation is minimal. Sometimes I might put a set or two together the night before, other times it’s just me and a bunch of songs I compiled into a large set of CDs and take to the studio. I like to play uplifting songs, and I use a progressive tempo in my sets. It’s a lot like sex: start slow, build up, and end fast. Radio sex for the ears. This is freeform radio at its best. Large amounts of humor is essential! I don’t have themes in general, but every year I produce the “Tubby Tunes Holiday Music Massacre”: It’s all nontraditional, funny, and weird holiday music. December 2016 was my 28th annual “Tubby Tunes Holiday Music Massacre.” In the past I’ve given the same wacky treatment to Halloween.
How many new releases do you play?
Well, now that we’re starting all over again at KPHT-LP, we don’t get much new music yet. We’re asking artists to please send their CDs to KPHT-LP, PO Box 1202, Laytonville, CA 95454. We don’t do Top 40 country, so we’re selective on what we play.
Do you play much old stuff?
We treat the overall sound of KPHT-LP as a legacy format based on KFAT-Gilroy, and as such, we are curators of a unique flavor of gonzo radio. We go back as far as the late 1920s. Bob Wills is an obvious choice, but so are Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, Milton Brown, Adolf Hofner, Noel Boggs. Many folks are not familiar with “old music” because it’s not played on the radio any more, so it’s my job to turn people on to things they’ve not heard before. These old songs are the “roots of our radio genre.”
Do you play many independent artists?
Yes, the independent musicians are the bedrock we depend on. For every big-time “star” there are 1,000 independent artists learning their chosen craft, and some are doing very well.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
I’m not comfortable with the term “roots music.” Somebody once asked Johnny Cash what he though about “alternative county.” His reply was “Alternative to what..?” It’s all music, good or bad … everybody uses the same musical notes.
I first got into traditional country & western music listening to the radio in the Mojave Desert, then closer to home came KVRE & KFAT. It’s as if musical floodgates were opened and a deluge of unheard (non-Top 40) music was unleashed. The same approach KMPX and KSAN took with freeform rock music was transplanted to the countryside and given a set of overalls and western hat. Hard to say what the first album was, maybe Outlaws or Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger.
What artists define Americana music for you?
Again, I define “Americana Music” as a wide-ranging nonformat format. Willie Nelson, Tom Russell, Ian & Sylvia Tyson, James McMurtry, Cactus Brothers, Jack Smith & The Rockabilly Planet, Steve Earle, Marty Stuart, Utah Phillips, Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, Townes Van Zandt, Austin Lounge Lizards, Alvin Crow, Cornell Hurd, Kentucky Headhunters, Riders in the Sky, Sourdough Slim, Michael Martin Murphey, Bill Kirchen, Southern Culture, Crabgrass Cowboys, California Zephyr, Chuck Wagon & The Wheels, Carl Perkins, Commander Cody, Rock LaRue, Bob Luman, the Hellcasters, the Blasters, Billy Lee Riley, Buckwheat Zydeco, John Hartford, Asleep at the Wheel, Rev. Horton Heat, Roy Buchanan, Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Roy Rogers, Peter Rowan, Rick Shea, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Sundogs, Rosie Flores, Gene Autry, Harry Dean Stanton, Heidi Muller, Wylie & The Wild West Show, Lonesome Strangers, Lacy J. Dalton, Cat Mother, Doo Doo Wah, Guy Clark, Joe Weed & The Vultures, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, Hank I, Hank II, Hank III, Loretta Lynn, Lukas Nelson, David Bromberg, Bobby Boyd, Bob Woods, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Johnny Horton. Sooner or later they all fit in.
How do you define what Americana music is?
Back in the early days this type of radio was often called outlaw country, progressive country, and freeform country, but it’s not just country. Included is country, blues, rock, western, comedy, rockabilly, swing, folk, zydeco, and parodies. Like KFAT, I define “Americana” in wide terms, including country, rock, swing, blues, western, folk, and zydeco. Americana is not just folk songs and banjos … or soft fluffy ballads.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
It will continue to grow in popularity. It’s now the largest-selling music genre. People are tired of the same old same old on the radio dial. If a radio station owner wants Top 40 formula radio, all they need do is buy a jukebox and a chimpanzee to push the buttons. We’re way beyond that.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
I like April Moore & Ranch Party, a local act from Garberville. This young lady could take Mashville by storm, but the good news is she doesn’t want to, keep your eye on her. They play in NW California. Poor Man’s Whiskey is also making a big splash.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
The radio listeners … absolutely! I know I’ve done my job when somebody says they love what they hear, or say they hadn’t heard a particular song in a long time, or say they’ve never heard a song but they like it. That’s my reward. What also keeps me going is finding music I’ve looked for for over 30 years and buying it via the internet, such as “Set My Chickens Free” by the Hub City Movers (Merle Haggard did a cover of it). I’m still trying to find “The Spirit Waltz” by Dave & Jude, and we still don’t know who did the Medfly Waltz song played on KFAT. Searching for rare and obscure tunes can be a blessing and a curse at the same time.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests you wish to share?
Interests: BBQ, photography, ghost towns, backroads, small mom & pop cafes and diners, history, deserts, audio amd video editing, and kissing pretty women. It’s much easier to boogie forward than to boogie backwards.