Riding The Rhythm Highways with St. Louis’ East Side Slim
This week, we’re going to circle back to a St. Louis public station that seems to be doing a good job of keeping good radio on the air. It always interests me what artists the people mention as favorites or influences. East Side Slim caught me off guard when he mentioned the Pointer Sisters!
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio?
East Side Slim: The only station I’ve been associated with is KDHX in St. Louis, which is an independent (truly independent — no association with NPR or a university or such), community-focused and -funded radio station celebrating its 30th birthday in October 2017. How great is that? The DJs at KDHX are actually programmers. They choose all the music for their shows, and they come to be on the air in various ways. Some are recruited to fill a perceived genre need (or lack of genre, actually). Some are experts in their music of choice and petition for shows, and still others work their way up through the volunteer “chain.” The latter applies to my personal experience.
I’m one of those cats who went from nonpaying listener all the way to programmer (DJ) chair. I arrived in St. Louis in 1989, only a couple years after 88.1 KDHX began. I found the station one day during a channel scan, and couldn’t believe what I had found — oh, my good fortune! I listened for a couple years without helping the station financially, then began to donate money during their periodic pledge drives (oh, the guilt!). Eventually I felt my monetary gifting wasn’t enough, so I began volunteering as a phone operator during the pledge drives and along the way meeting and getting to know KDHX staff, on-air personalities, and other volunteers.
Next step forward, one of the regular DJs at the station (who became my mentor there in short order) ran into me at a blues concert and asked me out of the blue if I’d like to be a guest on his show sometime and program all the music for that episode. We didn’t really know each other at that point, other than running into each other at all the same soulful blues events, but my answer was “YES, of course I want to do that!” So, for a while I guest-hosted on his show a couple or three times a year, eventually becoming his assistant on his show each week. I would answer the phone, pull music, type the playlists, and eventually program large portions of each week’s music. (Turns out he had a grand plan in mind: to “train me up” in hopes I would over his show when he retired).
After going through the required technical training, I was knighted (deemed an official sub DJ), and I served in that capacity for about 18 months while still being a show gofer. Then one fine day I was blessed with a telephone call: On the other end of the line was a KDHX staffer, offering me my very own show. I’ve been holding down a full-time show now since August 2013. I’m not sure if listeners to our radio programs fully comprehend how much joy and satisfaction we, as DJs, get from sharing the music we love so very much with the listeners.
When is your show on and how do you describe it?
I currently sit in an early morning slot in our schedule, broadcasting every Thursday morning at 5 a.m. sharp ’til 7 a.m. The show is Rhythm Highways with me, East Side Slim, on KDHX St. Louis — the gem of the Midwest, babies! In addition to hosting my own show, I throw my hat into the “subbing” ring from time to time. I find it helps to keep me fresh (as I am focusing on my own show every week), and it helps me to keep doing deep dives into my music collection, rather than only focusing on the music that will fit the needs of my own program.
I describe it as blues, soul, rock and roll, jazz, swing, and everything. My show is blues-based, but I explore the American songbook as it grew out of the blues, so just about anything that I can relate back to the blues is fair game for me. Blues is the root, the rest is the fruit (Wilie Dixon). I typically have at least 50% firm blues content, a couple sets of soul-ish music, and a rock and roll set (my mama loves that rock and roll, so that set is dedicated to Big Mama Slim), and hard gospel quartet music always has a chair at the Rhythm Highways table.
And when I say blues, I mean all of it — from the early 1920 right up ’til today. I like to spin acoustic and back-porchy sounds earlier in the morning, and all things electric later on, although I do tend to shy away from guitar “screamers,” as running scales just doesn’t do much for me. It’s all about taste, tone, and soul for my ears, and for my own soul.
How do you prepare for your shows?
It’s funny, but I get asked about preparation quite often by listeners when I run into them out and about town. I put in about six hard hours a week preparing for my show. Yes, I’m one of “those guys” who probably overprepares, but that works well for me. The thing is, in truth I’m always preparing from my show, as all music I listen to is with an ear toward the possibility of working it into the show next week. So it’s difficult to put a firm number of the amount of time needed to prepare any one show.
So, I’m always listening to music, always thinking, “That would be so cool to share with my listeners,” that sort of thing. Much of the time I’ve heard 3 to 5 songs during the course of the week that I feel compelled to share with folks, and then I build the remainder of the show around those songs. I look at my 2-hour show as having eight distinct sets, every quarter hour or so, and work them as you would making mixtapes. Each segment needs to work, to make sense. I’m never just flippin’ and spinnin’ any old records. Never!
Rhythm Highways has a mission statement of sorts, one that is not to play all the same old artists everyone already knows about and to put the focus on under-recognized artists and artists working hard right now, traveling the roads to get live music into your ears and soul.
How mant new releases and independent artists do you play?
I tend to feature a lot of new music on my show, because there is still so much great, cool roots music being made. In fact, so much so that it’s hard to find all of it. I certainly discover new things all the time by listening to other radio programs and from hints and heads-ups from friends. And the old stuff, of course I still play it.
The recording industry as a whole doesn’t really want to touch most of the roots artists we all love so much — not unless there’s a pot of gold under the rainbow. In the internet and home recording age, there’s no lack of wonderful projects to discover, ones where the artist retains ownership, those are really the ones that I want to air. Oh, and non-North American artists. There is an abundance of wonderful blues and roots music emanating out of South America (Brazil, especially), Europe, West Africa — dang, from all around this great big ol’ world. I try to feature at least one of these artists each week (and sometimes it ends of being several per week).
I also do one set each week that has evolved as a gospel/spiritual feature, especially for the bands/combos of the Golden Era and that influence: Pilgrim Travelers, Swan Silvertones, Rev. Cleophus Robinson (from right here in St. Louis), Gospel Hummingbirds … and on and on. Soul for your soul, babies!
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
Honestly, this is something that I’ve thought about over the years. Some people might be surprised, but it was George Thorogood & his Delaware Destroyers! I grew up a groove guy; in fact, I still focus first on a song’s groove, its melody, and then lyrics tend to come into play after that. It’s just the way I’m wired. But Thorogood covered all those artists with such exotic sounds and names (and gave liner note credit to them!): Seriously, names like Ellas McDaniel, McKinley Morganfield, Chester Burnett … and the sounds! This was prior to college age, while just a kid. But then I landed in St. Louis, from growing up up north, and my mind exploded with the soul and roots and blues and old-timey and bluegrass and everything else that was going on here. I did mention that St. Louis has a music scene second to none, didn’t I?
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
That’s like trying to choose a favorite child. I’m a blues guy, most certainly, so let’s start there. Howlin’ Wolf. That’s the guy right there, especially when he was performing his songs, rather than some of Willie Dixon’s slightly silly offerings. JB Lenoir. Frankie Lee Sims. Earthy artists, nothing phony about ’em, real-deal stories and emotions. Soul music, so many favorites, but O.V. Wright is way up there, as is Wee Willie Walker, who is still performing today and has released two amazing albums the past two years in conjunction with the Little Village Foundation folks.
I’m very happy to settle into a Bakersfield country thing, especially if the music of Wynn Stewart is involved. Let’s not forget the Americana segment, either. Jake Xerxes Fussell, amazing talent with a new album due any day now; Patrick Sweany (almost impossible to categorize, a 4-hour artist — meaning it’s worth driving 4 hours to get to one of his shows). Guy Forsyth can do no wrong. I love the gospel sounds of Rev. Cleophus Robinson every bit as much as the rock and roll sounds of Sarah Borges or Dan Baird. Oh, and the Faces (you keep the Rolling Stones, I’ll take the Faces).
What artist defines Americana for you?
For Americana proper, rather than only blues, I’d have to go back to where a lot of people go — and that’s to The Band. Levon and the fellas, that’s where Americana as we know it really began, or at least I think so. They were really the first to mash up any music genre they wished and turn it into an accessible sound to the rest of us. And their musicianship was unassailable, which comes out of the bluegrass and old-timey fields (talk about cats who can play!). The fact that it really was blues-based cannot be lost in that equation, either, and that was Levon’s doing.
Anyway, two things I’ve been listening to a lot of lately are The Pointer Sisters’ first three albums, and also to the British pub rock movement. The Pointer Sisters’ early albums were Americana albums, or at least would have been had the term existed then. Jazz, hard country, tin pan alley, blues, NOLA funk, and many other sounds make up their oeuvre at that time. I understand there may be doubters, but fret not, all you Thomases, it’s true. Then there’s the pub rock movement, which was really nothing more than a “back to the roots” movement, which folks at the pub just happened to love. The Band was highly influential to those bands, as was American band Eggs Over Easy (which was influenced by The Band). Country and twang sounds were a huge part of that movement, as was a return to an emphasis on songwriting from a personal standpoint.
How do you define what Americana music is?
You know, I think defining what is Americana music has become quite difficult, sort of like defining what blues music is. Unfortunately, the Americana tag has become a bit of a catch-all, and a hot one from a marketing standpoint these days. A lot of acts tossed into Americana are really just good old-fashioned rock and roll bands. No big lights, no big stage shows, just artists composing great songs that tell true stories and performing them with passion. That’s what used to pass as rock and roll, right? The way things have gotten to be, Bruce Springsteen would likely be termed Americana if he arrived on the scene today. Ha!
For me, Americana is a music that is based upon, is touched significantly by, older styles of music such as old-timey, “real” country, bluegrass, Cajun, or blues. Those sorts of elements need to be there, as Americana to me is a folk music (no matter how highly amplified or distorted) telling true stories of the human condition — just like old-timey, “real” country, bluegrass, Cajun, and blues do. Americana is not rock and roll, per se, but can certainly be influenced by it. It’s sort of like blues for me: I know blues when I hear blues, but to describe exactly what makes something blues is sometimes difficult — I think of Americana very much the same way.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
Unfortunately, I am not entirely comfortable with the future of radio. Seriously, just take a look at commercial radio. The worst thing that could ever have been allowed to happen was the changes to rules of ownership of stations. The era of mega-corps owning mega-amounts of terrestrial radio stations has essentially ended any sort of local service, especially in rural areas of America. Storms or other emergencies in your area? Good luck being notified, brothers and sisters, best just duck and cover. Folks need to recognize something. Commercial radio exists for one purpose: to play commercials and earn revenue from selling air time for commercials. Shoot, music just serves to get people to turn “your” particular commercials on.
This is why independent stations are so very important today. Having independent radio around helps to ensure a community voice can be heard and can be served. We all need to be good to each other and to look out for each other, and I think independent radio can provide a significant pathway to helping be good neighbors and stewards to each other.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Oh man, where do I begin? There’s so much great new music to be excited about. Well, let’s start local to St. Louis. Marquise Knox is a young blues artist, just turning 26 but with a decade in the business, who continues to develop. His songwriting is now catching up to his vocal and guitar skills. He’s getting attention from folks such as Taj Mahal and Charlie Musselwhite … not much else needs to be said. A young producer/engineer/musician in St. Louis (just turned 30) by the name of Paul Niehaus has worked tirelessly to create wonderful projects for noted St. Louis soul singers, as well as being the music force behind the St. Louis Blues Society’s recent compilations 15 in 15 and 16 in 16, comprised of new songs composed by and played by noted St. Louis artists. Additionally, projects featuring Mat Wilson (Loot Rock Gang, Rum Drum Ramblers, and other projects), Big Muddy Records, and also keep your ears opened wide for the tunes of Tommy Halloran. Tommy is a real-deal songwriter, guitarist, singer, and roots artist, jazzy, bluesy, rootsy — a very talented cat. Oh, and another one: pianist Ethan Leinwand. He was so excited by the trad jazz and blues scenes in St. Louis that he packed up and moved here from Brooklyn a couple years back. He’s been instrumental (pun intended) in a resurgent interest in piano blues in town, especially among young folks. Other pianists beside Ethan have moved to St. Louis because of all his work. Did I mention the fantastic music scene in St. Louis?
Nationally and beyond, the Little Village Foundation’s work, and especially the two most recent Wee Willie Walker albums. Let’s see … Matt Andersen, Igor Prado from Brazil, Anders Lewen in Sweden (all sorts of phenomenal roots projects), and there’s a woman from Austin, Texas, that released a couple beautiful country albums a decade or so ago who sort of went underground, raising her family I think, by the name of Susanna Van Tassel. I air her music regularly. She’s great. I told you. There’s so many people making wonderful music right this very moment. It might be a guy the next block over. But get out and support those folks if you want it to continue.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests you wish to share?
Music is my abiding interest, my passion. Between my 40-hour 8-to-5er and real-life responsibilities and my time immersed in 88.1 KDHX (and music in general), there’s not much time left for too many other interests right now. Is that a bad thing? Maybe it’s time I developed additional hobbies — diversified, so to speak.
May I part with one more thought? It’s how I try to end each and every episode of my Rhythm Highways program: “Folks, have a great day and please, be good to each other.”