Professor Purple Lying Low in Utah
This is the first DJ profile where I didn’t know the person beforehand. It’s also the first DJ who has an “air name” and wishes to keep his anonymity sacred.
I found Professor Purple through the Twang DJ Yahoo group, where like-minded air personalities post their playlists. I always liked the music he was playing, and after reading his answers below I think I’d like hanging out with him too.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at and what were they like?
Professor Purple: I started at KSCU, a college station in Santa Clara, California, in about 1995, as a substitute DJ and then as a regular doing a “specialty” show, which basically meant anything that wasn’t indie college rock. When I left California, one of the requirements was that my new home had to have a non-commercial station where I could continue life as a DJ.
My new home turned out to be Moab, Utah, and the station was KZMU. I’ve been doing radio there for about 18 years. I have adopted the DJ name of Professor Purple. KZMU is a non-commercial station that is not affiliated with a college or NPR. All our funding is from listeners and local underwriters. All the on-air crew are volunteers. The programming, which is wildly eclectic, is free-form. No one tells me what to play; it is all down to my sense of (sometimes) good taste.
What is your show called and how do you describe it?
My show name is “Amarillo Highway,” taken from the Terry Allen tune of the same name. It’s on from 9 a.m. to noon Mountain Time every Tuesday. The show stream can be found at kzmu.org. I usually have two shows archived on the website. The music I play is neo-insurgent left-wing alterna-twang multi-ethnic North American hillbilly honky-tonkin’ music. Except North America sometimes includes the Caribbean Basin, Celtia, Australia, and Polynesia. Basically it includes whatever music I like that can live in the very big tent of rootsy peoples’ music, and that my listeners want or need to hear.
How do you define Americana music?
What Americana means to me is a category that, in my usage, includes classic hillbilly, Western swing, mountain string music, honky-tonk, blues, trad jazz, early Hawaiian music, jugband, Cajun, country rock, and any other music that would be at home on a back porch somewhere. If the music is subversive of the prevailing orthodoxy, that is a big plus. I want to stir up the slowly ossifying layer of silt, musical and otherwise, that accumulates over time.
How do you prepare for your shows?
I start by building piles of CDs. The piles include CDs making their debut on my show, new CDs that are in rotation, old CDs that, for one reason or another, have caught my attention, and CDs from artists who have had birthdays in the week prior to the air date. I roughly organize the piles into sets. While not a hard and fast rule, I do three sets an hour. The first hour tends to be new material, the second hour older and artists’ birthday material, and the last hour a mix of the two. The roughly organized material is about three times more than can get played on the air. I then start winnowing down, selecting artists and then tracks from their CDs, and then sequencing them into sets. I come into the studio with the show pretty well organized.
Do you have theme shows or sets or spotlight certain artists?
I sometimes do sets that are thematic. I have been keeping lists of songs that fit a particular theme for many years. At times, the theme suggests itself as I am organizing the show; sometimes I use tunes from a theme list. For our twice-a-year on-air fundraisers, I usually do a whole theme show. Recent themes have included body parts, UFOs, or food. These are always lots of fun for me and the listeners.
How much new music do you play and how much of it is by independent artists?
I can play 40-50 tracks in the three hours I have. About half of these cuts are from new CDs. The rest are old, where old can range from the 1920s to the 2000s. I love highlighting the raw energy of trad jazz, mountain music, or Western swing from the ’20s and ’30s. It’s a rare show that doesn’t have music from every decade, from the 1920s to the 2000s. I play lots of independent artists, many more than I play major label artists.
Being on a major label is almost, but not quite, a kiss of death as far as I am concerned. I love nothing more than discovering an artist who self-releases a really great album. Free The Honey, Hillfolk Noir, and Sarah Shook & The Disarmers all come to mind as recent examples. I’d encourage independent artists to send CDs or digital files to me at either Professor Purple, HC 64 Box 2503, Castle Valley, UT 84532 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music and how did you hear about it?
The first albums that turned me on to roots music were from the late ’50s and early ’60s and included reissues of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, and Kitty Wells. This is what was on the air in south central Oklahoma in the ’50s. As I learned more, I got into folk music of the mid-’60s, bluegrass and acoustic music, country rock, blues, Celtic, and other back porch musics.
Later I was fortunate to live within the signal of KPFA in Berkeley, California, at a time when Chris Strachwitz, Phil Elwood, Mary Tilson, Ray Edlund, and Tom Diamant all had music shows. They turned me on to a huge amount of global roots music and have been role models for what I want to do as a roots music DJ.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre and what artist define Americana music for you?
Favorite artists from any genres include Laurie Anderson, The Firesign Theatre, J.S. Bach, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys … Artists that define Americana music for me include Terry Allen, The Flatlanders, Hayes Carll, Freakwater, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Dayna Kurtz, Phil Lee, Bob Wills, Leadbelly, Professor Longhair, and too many more to mention.
Where do you see Americana/roots radio going in the future?
I hope that in a world of Pandora and other algorithmically driven music there will always be a place for human-powered radio, where interesting music is selected, sequenced, and curated by DJs who love connecting musicians with listeners. I don’t see Americana radio becoming more of a commercial success than it is, but that may be due to my focus on independent artists, small labels, and edgy material on a decidedly non-commercial station.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Some of my favorites from 2015 include Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell, Chuck Hawthorne – Silver Line, Pokey LaFarge – Something In The Water, Todd Grebe & Cold Country – Citizen, Zane Campbell Zane Campbell, Grant Langston – Hope You’re Happy Now, Rodney Rice – Empty Pockets and a Troubled Mind, Jeremy Pinnell – OH/KY, The Joshua Incident – Red, Joe West & the Sinners – Jamie Was a Boozer.
What do you love about what you do?
Being retired and doing a free-form show means that I can spend 12-18 hours a week listening to music I love, figuring out how to present it in an engaging way, and connecting the artists with an audience that appreciates independent music. Playing music for friends and neighbors is about as good as it gets.
Do you have anything else you wish to share?
I am a hermit and enjoy spending large chunks of alone-time in a scenic part of the world. The picture that accompanies this article is what I see from my house. Enough said.