Music is Food and Life for DJ and Performer Tom Gillam
Tom Gillam is not only a recording artist but also a morning DJ in New Braunfels, TX, which is outside of San Antonio and home of the classic honky-tonk Gruene Hall. He also hosts the Cosmic Power Hour on KNBT and still finds time to tour and record and raise a family.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business and why?
Tom Gillam: There were two pivotal things that happened to me as a young boy. The first is at about 5 or 6 my father purchased a real jukebox and put it in our basement. It was rigged so it did not need money, all we had to do was push the correct buttons and the 45s would play. My father filled the jukebox with music that was popular in the mid to late ’60s, rock, country, R&B, a pretty wide scope of music. He and my mom were teenagers in the mid ’50s, so their tastes did lean a little to the “country” side of the dial, but they really loved it all, so my childhood was filled with music.
The second was when I was about 12, my brother and I started to play instruments and started a “band” with the kid down the street from us. My father would have us play at his parties and BBQs because he thought it was cute. I, however, was dead serious about it. My aunt worked at a record warehouse that dealt in “cut out” LPs, albums that hadn’t sold by a certain date and were returned to the warehouse. They would cut the corner off of the cover and sell them in department stores for a reduced price. My aunt knew how much I loved music and gave me a large box of these LPs, picking things she thought I might like or should hear. Although most of the titles were artists that have been forgotten with time, there were a few that, even though at the time they didn’t sell, became iconic. Poco’s Pickin’ Up The Pieces, the Allmans’ Idlewild South, and Johnny Winter’s first Columbia LP are the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Let’s just say I had my real “musical awakening” at 12 years old!
The “why” [of your question] is really a tricky question. The fact is I’ve never wanted to do anything else. My dreams were always of writing, recording, singing, playing and entertaining, and I’m damn lucky I’ve been able to do it all so far. I’m not rich or nearly as successful as I would have hoped I would be by now. My son, when he was about 10 years old and saw me play for a large crowd asked, “Dad, is being a musician the best job in the world?” to which I replied, “Well, I can honestly say it may not be the ‘best’ job in the world, but it certainly doesn’t suck.” I still really enjoy writing and performing as much as I did when I was in my 20s … my knees don’t feel like I like it that much, but honestly I do!
What have you done since then?
My first solo LP was a local Phila release that caught a bit of heat, from there I had my first national release in 2000 called Dallas, which opened the door to the Americana world. After that, touring and recording and releasing eight solo CDs (soon to be nine), four or five with a “songwriter collective”-style band called US Rails with whom I still tour and record.
Where and when did you start in radio?
My radio gig was totally by accident. The reason I moved to Austin was on the advice of two people: Ray Wylie Hubbard, whom I had met through Mattson Rainer, who at the time was the PD/MD and station manager at KNBT-FM (he was the other one). Mattson and I had the same real love for music and could and still can talk for hours on end about it. I have a few friends that my wife calls “music nerds” that are my go-to people when I wanna talk stats and history: radio promoter Al Moss and former ND editor Grant Alden are two that come quickly to mind. I would always run into Mattson at the Americana Music Conference once a year and then he would fly my band to Texas once a year to play his yearly Americana Jam.
I was at a party at Mattson’s house when I first moved to Texas and of course he and I were rambling on about who played what on which album and my wife said, “Mattson, you should give Tom his own radio show so he can talk about all that stuff to an audience and stop boring me with it all the time.” The next day Mattson called and pitched a Sunday night radio show that would deal with what he called Americana’s early years, 1965-1975, the whole Southern California country rock, folk rock, and Southern rock of that era. Originally it was an hour each week on Sunday so it wouldn’t interfere with gigs. About a month in we expanded it to two hours and called it Tom Gillam’s Cosmic Power Hour, even though it was a two-hour show.
I had been doing the show for about four years when I ran into Mattson at the radio station. I have no idea why, but I said, “Hey I’ve gotten pretty good on the mic over the last few years, if someone gets sick and you need somebody to cover a shift I think I could do it.” He told me his morning show guy was going on vacation for two weeks and if I could be in by 6 a.m. I could do the morning show with another one of the DJs helping. Long story short, I jumped at the chance did the two weeks and thought, “Well, that was fun” and figured that was the end. Unbeknownst to me Mattson was the morning guy as his real morning guy quit the year prior and he had to cover the shift because he couldn’t find the right person to do the show. When he returned from vacation he apparently got a lot of calls asking when Tom was returning and saying how much they liked me. He called me a week or two later and offered me the job. After wondering if I could take waking up at the crack of dawn (“How hard could it be?”), the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been on the air five days a week 6 a.m.- 11 a.m. unless I’m on tour. Mattson is extremely understanding and even helpful when I have to tour or take a little time off for my musical career.
How do you describe your show?
The Americana Morning Show is upbeat, humorous, and a lot like me. I fool around a bit and try to entertain within the constrains of good taste and terrestrial radio boundaries. We play a mix of Americana and a bit of Texas Country, but the station has been an Americana station for 21 years, about as long as that word as a description for a style of music has been around. So I would say, we may not have invented it, but what we are playing, no matter what it is, it’s Americana.
My Sunday night show, the Cosmic Power Hour, feature, as it says in our mission statement, the early years of country rock, folk rock, Southern rock, and Americana, all filtered through my ears. I try to not only entertain but educate with lots of inside info about the artists, how they are connected, and how they fit with what you now hear on the airwaves. It’s a lot of fun; I have a ridiculous amount of useless knowledge stored in my brain and of course Wikipedia is my true friend. I occasionally do theme shows but normally just try to create a musical arc over the two-hour window.
How do you prepare for your shows?
For the morning show, while the focus is mostly on music, I do have a few daily and weekly features to keep the listener engaged. Daily we do a “This Day in Rock History” and “Today’s Goofy Holidays” segment as well as “Weird Question of the Day,” which is a trivia game. I occasionally have guests, artists who are playing in the area or have new releases to promote. Weekly I do a “Remember That Record” segment in which I play 20 seconds of a song from any genre and listeners guess the artist and title for a prize.
My Sunday show always includes the “Cosmic Spotlight,” where I spotlight an LP, and talk about the artist’s or the LP’s place in rock history. I started out playing iconic LP sides but got bored and now find lost gems that people haven’t heard before or in a long time and talk a little about the artists and what happened to them. I also do a weekly tribute to the Grateful Dead called “Lefty’s Pick,” which can sometimes run an entire segment (if it’s a good one) or just one tune and then I surround it with Dead-inspired music (think Chris Robinson Brotherhood) or offshoot bands (NRPS, Ratdog) or even just their musical friends (Jefferson Airplane, CSN, Quicksilver).
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
My roots extend back to the early ’70s, Eagles, Poco, Allman Brothers, and a whole lot more. I’m pretty well-rounded musically, and as far as Americana or what you call roots music, I’m not sure I ever listened to something and said “This will now make all other genres foolish and I shall only listen to this Americana music!” So no, there was never a moment. I like really great things and never bother with the labels. If it touches me, I’ll listen.
As an artist I just write in the musical vein I feel comfortable with. I didn’t find Americana; Americana sort of found me, and I say “sort of” because I’m not totally sure what I do is what is normally called Americana. It’s more rooted in classic rock than in classic country. I have “country” elements, but that’s just what comes out of me. I absolutely enjoy slinging my Gibson Les Paul around a stage with an amped cranked up to 11, much more than spilling my heart out with an acoustic guitar, but I have been known to do that as well.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
Great music is great music, the people who are the top of the heap in Americana are there for a reason; they’re really good and a lot of people like them. The same could be said for any musical genre. You may not like all the people at the top, for whatever reason, but they are there at the will of the people who purchase music, and who is to say I or you or anyone for that matter knows more than anyone else.
Naming my favorite artists from any genre is not something I’m comfortable with. If you listen to my music it’s easy to see who or what influenced me, but the reality is I listen to a whole lot more than that and have for a very long time. I love an artist who can say what he/she wants to in their own voice and has a catchy melody that I can hum while I’m working around the house, and it really helps if they RAWK! That being said, I like listening to my friends’ music, so I will now give a shameless plug to a few of them: Statesboro Revue, Band of Heathens, Zack Walther, Kelley Mickwee, Ben Arnold – there are more but that’s off the top of my head … oh, and I don’t know them but I really like Brothers Landreth!
How do you define what Americana music is?
Defining Americana is a hard thing to do. When it started I called it The Land of the Misfit Toys, music that seemed to not really fit in the narrow scope of popular rock, punk, country, or R&B. Over the years it’s taken on a decidedly “singer-songwriter” slant, which is fine. I can’t define it, like but the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said: “I can’t define pornography (Americana), but I know it when I see it (hear it).”
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
Americana radio will continue to grow and change with the times … if it wants to survive. Radio, I believe it will morph into a more user-friendly, on-demand style along with what it has made its bread and butter on over the years: a playlist of music and some personalities to entertain. I think terrestrial radio will always be needed as long as it’s local. I think, and I may be wrong, but the pendulum is swinging away from faceless, voice tracked, corporate radio to smaller local radio with personalities who are in touch with what the local scene needs and wants. The idea of a local station, with local ideas may just be something unique to a younger audience. Again it may be wishful thinking, but what else can I wish for? As far as I can tell the Beatles will not be getting back together and it’s doubtful Christopher Meloni will return full-time to Law & Order SVU, so I’ve gotta have something to dream about!
What are your most memorable experiences from working in the music industry?
Honestly, I have so many weird, wonderful and memorable stories from working in the music industry that it would take more than this little paragraph to even scratch the surface. Come to Texas buy me a glass of wine or two and I’m sure I’ll keep you entertained for a good 2-4 hours.
What projects are you working on next?
My band Tom Gillam & the Kosmic Messengers will be releasing a new single in November and a new LP in early 2018. There’s no title yet but it sounds like nothing I’ve done before. We are working with a great producer, Ron Flynt here in Austin, who basically said, “Everything you did on your last record (2016’s Beautiful Dream), we’re gonna do the opposite.” So it’s a batch of tunes completely stripped down to sparce arrangements and the focus is squarely on my voice and the lyrics. I’m still not sure that’s a good thing, but the lads and I are quite excited!
I’m also just finishing up a new LP with US Rails and we have a tour of Europe booked for February-March, which is always a good time.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
I have no idea, I really just can’t stop. I love writing and I’m usually knocking around a few ideas in my head. I love performing. It’s one of the two things that I really am comfortable with; the other is being on the radio, I look forward to it every day. I’ve never once in the four or so years I’ve been on in the morning woken up and thought “Oh gawd, do have to do this again?”, and this is coming from a person who had successfully woken at the crack of noon for most of his entire adult life!
I love my wife and my kids dearly but they all know the only time I’m really happy is when I’m on a stage, entertaining and making people happy. Honestly, it’s the one time in the day where I forget who, what, and where I am and become one with the universe. Was that a little too “hippy dippy”? Aw, screw it, it’s the way I actually feel!
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests?
As Peter Frampton sang in “I Wanna Go to The Sun,” “Music is my food and life, don’t take it away.” I live and breathe music, much to the chagrin of many around me, but hey, it’s doubtful I’ll change anytime soon.