Nelson Gullett from Knoxville’s WDVX, Home of the Blue Plate Special
When considering the handful of radio stations across the country that play various kinds of roots music, WDVX in Knoxville aways comes up near the top of the list. So this week I talked to their music director, Nelson Gullett.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at, and what were they like?
Nelson Gullett: My first radio job was as an undergrad at Morehead State Public Radio (WMKY) in Morehead, Kentucky, in 2000. We aired local and NPR news along with classical music during the day, and we did Americana music four nights a week with some blues and bluegrass programming on the weekends. I started out working in the news and sports department, writing and delivering local news broadcasts. I even had a couple of stories featured on national NPR casts.
When I stayed at Morehead for grad school, our music director, Paul Hitchcock, targeted me to host one night of our local Americana show. When I initially declined, he assigned me to run the station during our airings of Mountain Stage and E-Town. I guess his plan worked, because I heard Kasey Chambers on one of those shows and fell into a rabbit hole built around Kasey and all the artists and songwriters she featured on the Barricades & Brickwalls CD. That disc was my introduction to Buddy Miller, Lucinda Williams, and Gram Parsons, among others. I hosted my first “Americana Crossroads” show the following semester, and became the full-time host of that show a couple of years later.
Where do you work now and what hours?
I moved to Knoxville in 2006, and I’ve been working at WDVX in some capacity ever since. Currently, I’m the Americana music director and I host two shows on Wednesday nights. I start at 6 p.m. [Eastern time] with “This Week in Americana,” an hour full of new and upcoming releases, Americana news, and a brief rundown of the weekly Americana radio charts. We air our Tennessee Shines concert, hosted by Paige Travis, at 7, and then I’m back in the studio from 8-11 p.m. — sometimes 11:30 or midnight — for “The Americana Pulse.” Each week, I pick a classic album and feature at least one track from it each hour of the show.
I also produce a 30-minute songwriter interview series called “Three Songs” that I run at 9. In “Three Songs,” I talk to artists about the inspirations and processes behind two of their songs and let them pick a third song to discuss from an artist they admire. Artists I’ve featured include Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Kacey Musgraves. I also host a monthly concert series at the station called “First Friday Live.”
How do you describe your show and how do you define what you play?
The main thing I try to do in my show is bring the listener along with me as I try to connect the past and present of Americana music. The classic album is kind of the backbone of the show each week, as I might use it to build sets of music that highlight themes or session players or producers from the album. For instance, If I feature a Willie Nelson record, I may play a set of songs from various artists that feature Micky Raphael in one hour. Another hour might feature a set of songs about different kinds of “Strangers” — red-headed or otherwise.
I love the creative challenge of picking an album and building themes each week, and I always learn something new when I’m researching the show. My favorite thing is to try to pass some of that knowledge onto the audience.
How do you define Americana music?
I find myself describing it to people as an alternative to mainstream country music, but I mostly take an “I know it when I hear it” approach. Mostly, it has to feel “real” to me, for lack of a better term. I try to listen to what an artist has to say just as much as how the music sounds. Overall, I guess I look at Americana as a songwriter’s genre that has to maintain some footing in one of the roots of where the music came from. For us, that could be bluegrass, blues, or country. It could also be folk music with origins from Greenwich Villiage to the Laurel Canyon. My challenge as a programmer is to meld all these different sounds from a such a wide-ranging format in a way that makes sense to myself and my listeners.
I also pride myself on stepping outside the genre from time to time if I can do so in a way fits the flow of my show without going too far afield. On one recent show, I played tracks from XTC and Weird Al Yankovic in a show that featured Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited as my classic album. Somehow, I think it worked.
How do you prepare for your shows?
It helps to have a day job that allows me to mostly sit at a desk and listen to music while I work. I find myself forming playlists in my head throughout the day as I go along.
How many new releases do you play? Do you play many independent artists?
I do the full hour of new releases at 6, and I always kick off the 8 o’clock hour with a couple of tracks from a new release that I find particularly interesting. I try to sprinkle in as much as I can through the rest of the show as well. Sometimes it’s hard to play as much new stuff as I want if they don’t fit into my regular segments or classic album sets. I’ve been known to stay on the air past my end time just fit in a few “currents” that I couldn’t squeeze into the show. Ideally though, I aim for about a 50/50 mix of “current” and “catalog.”
Independent artists are always welcome. I’m not sure where this format would be without them. Knoxville also boasts a strong local music scene. A lot of those artists are staples of our playlists and live shows as well.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music?
The first big one for me was that Kasey Chambers record. That album didn’t just send me on a record-buying spree. It also inspired me to buy a ticket to see Kasey when she played the Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia, a few months later. She shared that bill with Laura Cantrell, Dar Williams, James McMurtry, and Rodney Crowell with Kenny Vaughan. I was hooked after that, for sure.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre and what artists define Americana music for you ?
My all-time favorite band is R.E.M. I grew up in a small town that didn’t have access to much music outside of what was played on Top 40 radio. R.E.M. was the first band to break me out of that. I also really love a lot of music and artists that came out of the early days of alt-country. Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, Old 97’s, Jayhawks, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, etc.
Current favorites include everyone from American Aquarium to Lake Street Dive, to most of the artists in the Dave Cobb discography (Isbell, Simpson, Stapleton, Ortega). Josh Ritter just made a really great record. Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe are really blending the lines between country and Americana. Scott Miller has always been a favorite, too. I could do this all day, probably.
Where do you see Americana radio — or Americana music — going in the future?
This is a tricky question, but I think Americana music as a format will continue to grow and evolve as it has for most of the last 20 years. I’m always amazed at the young talent that keeps coming through the ranks and putting their own spins on the music of the past and keeping it fresh. Most of us in Americana radio are in a great position to share this music as it comes along because most of us are independent and have control over our programming. As long as there are artists out there willing to take chances with their music and turn their influences into new and interesting sounds, I think there will be just as many DJs and programmers at Americana radio willing to put those sounds on the air.
At WDVX, we also do a lot with live music. We host a live concert every Monday-Saturday at noon called “The Blue Plate Special.” It’s free to attend, and we broadcast every show. We have a handful of other regular live shows as well. On average, we broadcast roughly 15 different live acts every week. It’s helped us build an incredible library of live music and has really helped brand us as a radio station.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Looking ahead to 2016, I’m really excited for Margo Price’s debut record. New ones from Hayes Carll, Lucinda Williams, Lake Street Dive, BJ Barham, and Dave Cobb’s Southern Family project would also be on the list of discs I’m looking forward to.
My Top 10 records of 2015 came from Courtney Barnett, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, John Moreland, Lilly Hiatt, Jason Isbell, the Honeycutters, American Aquarium, Josh Ritter, and Chris Stapleton.