Rockies on the radio: Boulder’s E-Town sets roots music to a grassroots cause
You won’t find E-Town on a map. No Colorado road signs direct tourists to Boulder’s environmental opry. In fact, E-Town doesn’t even have to be in Boulder. Nick and Helen Forster happen to live in town and record most of the radio program’s shows “live at the historic Boulder Theater,” with listeners tuning in to more than 100 radio stations across the country each week. The bluegrass band Hot Rize, of which Nick is a member, built its base in Boulder about 20 years ago. But the radio show is aimed at a much broader community.
“People say E-town really represents Boulder, but we are intentionally generic,” says Nick on a Sunday afternoon in September before Son Volt’s soundcheck. This particular show is one of E-Town’s on-the-road events, even though it’s just a few blocks away, at the Boulder High School auditorium. “E-Town is a place that invites a common-sense approach. It’s about finding a place that is universal,” Nick says.
Now it its eighth year, E-Town has recorded about 250 shows and hosted more than 150 musical guests, from Rickie Lee Jones to Ricky Skaggs, Sarah McLachlan to Michael Martin Murphey. Interview subjects have included Ralph Nader, Dave Barry, Michael Moore and Jimmy Carter. The show has grown from Nick inviting musician friends such as Lyle Lovett and Sam Bush into a regular media stop for performers and writers.
“More and more people are including E-Town in their promotional tours if the record falls inbetween the cracks — which is where we live,” Nick says. Some guests may have more mainstream success than others, but “they all bring some kind of truth to the table.”
“We try to keep our eyes open for people who are passionate about something that is under-reported by the media,” Nick says. “Another thing we try to do is broaden people’s perspectives.” That’s where the diverse mix of guests comes in. When Angelique Kidjo and Willie Nelson performed together, “Willie Nelson fans dug African music, and [some of them] had never heard it before.”
E-Town tries to balance gender, vary bands with solo acts, and present stylistic diversity. Of course, touring schedules also need to match. It’s not always ideally heterogeneous, Nick says, pointing to the night’s lineup of Son Volt and Josh Rouse. But Rouse’s sparse, ’80s-pop-influenced folk and outgoing personality provided an interesting contrast to Son Volt’s full country-rock and Jay Farrar’s sparse answers to Nick’s questions.
Supported by ticket sales, national and local sponsors, grants and donations, E-Town claims to be the only nationally-distributed non-profit radio program not affiliated with any organization or university. The staff of eight full-time workers is supplemented with volunteers and an additional 10 employees who work the day of the show. E-Town tries to keep both ticket costs and radio station fees affordable. For a ticket price less than other concerts, audience members get the opportunity to experience twice as much as the hourlong show edited for radio.
Although both had musical backgrounds, the Forsters were novices to starting a radio show from scratch. Helen, a former owner and co-producer of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, had some stage and radio experience. With Hot Rize, Nick had been on several radio shows, and the band hosted its own show on local community radio station KGNU. The couple married in 1991, “on the only weekend we were both in town at the same time,” soon after they had started working on the E-Town project together, Helen explains.
Instead of establishing themselves locally and then seeking stations across the country, they started promoting the show nationwide almost immediately. “Ignorance is bliss, because E-Town probably wouldn’t exist if we had done it the traditional way,” says Helen.
“We taped our first show, and I went down to a public radio conference pretending we had a series. NPR took the series, but they provided only the distribution, not any money. We had the burden of producing a 13-week series.” They didn’t remain with NPR, and decided to go independent. “We had a few false starts,” Nick says. For a few years they lived off their savings.
The Boulder Theater, an art deco landmark near the county courthouse on the downtown pedestrian mall, also survived a rocky past. When a previous owner wanted to sell, E-Town joined a coalition of several local groups that proposed a city initiative to preserve the theater for community use. That initiative failed, but a new owner kept the building a music venue and home base for E-Town.
Nick can point to two experiences that placed him on the road to E-Town. When he was about 12, he went to see Pete Seeger performing in Cold Spring, N.Y., at an event to promote a campaign to clean up the Hudson River. Protesters who disagreed with Seeger’s leftist politics disrupted the concert, marching with a banner that read “Don’t Clean Up the River. Clean Up the Country — Get Rid of Commies Like Pete Seeger.”
Nick recalls how Seeger’s wit combined with music diffused a tense situation. Seeger asked the philharmonic orchestra to play “The Star Spangled Banner,” and all the marchers who were protesting had to stop and remove their hats. “He used music to attract people, and draw a reconnection to the Hudson River,” Nick recalls. “And then I saw how music could totally change the outcome.”
A few decades later, Nick toured Eastern Europe with Sam Bush. In 1990, “just when the Iron Curtain had toppled,” Sam Bush & Friends — including John Cowan and Laurie Lewis — performed American roots music in parts of the former Soviet bloc.
“It was a pretty good cross-section, from Little Feat to Ralph Stanley…music tied to some kind of tradition,” Nick says, still impressed by the range of people who would come to see American musicians perform and meet them at parties after the shows — communists and emerging democratic leaders, military leaders, students, artists and poets.
“I also saw the rumored environmental devastation of Eastern Europe firsthand. I hadn’t been an environmentalist, but I saw a glimpse into a dark future if the United States wasn’t careful. I came back with the idea to use music to draw people and include a call to action.”
But the E-Town approach isn’t a Lake Wobegan for tree-huggers. The listener-nominated “E-chievement Award” honors people who clean up highways as well as create educational programs for youth.
“Environment is everything outside of you,” Nick says. “If you can enhance the lives of fellow citizens, that’s making an environmental impact.”
Helen expands upon that thought. “It’s really about building community, and reminding people we’re not as disconnected as we think. The goal is to bring people back to community, to offer a safe haven, a place to get grounded — and have fun, too. Judging from listener response, it’s working, and that feels good.”
Helen grabs some food before gathering additional information for an interview. Nick chats with singer-songwriter Josh Rouse and his touring band members, recalling how he and mandolin player Sharon Janis first met at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, when she was a 9-year-old performing with her family’s band. After Nick catches Son Volt’s soundcheck, he suggests Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues” to close the show. Everyone is agreeable and practices while the sound crew scurries around, and tries a test run of a phone interview with an award winner who opened a music school for children.
Selecting the closing number, which most radio listeners only hear for the first verse or two before the fadeout, is a challenging piece of each show that Nick enjoys.
The finale is usually fun for performers as well, although Forster recalls the Modern Mandolin Quartet was an intimidating match for local band the Samples. Willie Nelson and Angelique Kidjo “found a Jimmy Cliff tune they both knew, and it worked out great.” If the interview guests also are performers, the finale may include an added bonus, such as a Bob Dylan impression by Michael Moore.
Nick has enjoyed the chance to collaborate with a variety of talented musicians. “For me, it has been a great evolution musically,” he says. As a kid he listened to the Weavers and Jelly Roll Morton, then moved on to the Beatles, bluegrass, western swing and honky-tonk.
He can’t point out one show as his favorite, but he can name a few of his favorite performers who haven’t yet been on the show: Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
Although Tim O’Brien no longer lives in Boulder, Hot Rize is still performing and bringing along their alter-ego pals Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers. Nick is keeping busy on projects such as producing and recording with Kate MacKenzie (for which he was nominated for a Grammy last year).
“E-Town has helped me connect the dots musically,” Nick says.
A few hours later, after the audience has filled the auditorium seats, Nick’s familiar electric guitar solo kicks off the show. The mayor of E-Town looks vaguely like Wendell Mercantile of the Trailblazers — but with better taste in clothes — as he welcomes citizens to this week’s show.