This week, our featured broadcaster is from the central valley of California — Sacramento, to be exact. Like other DJs I’ve featured recently, Paul Hefti and I have never met, but after reading about his taste in music and influences, I’m sure we could talk for hours about music and radio.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at? And what were those stations like?
Paul Hefti: I started in radio during graduate school at the university of North Dakota in Grand Forks. We had both an AM and FM (KFJM) station that broadcast the typical crazy quilt of NPR programming in the ’80s. I worked with a few very talented staff people who helped me become a confident on-air person. I learned so much about everything — from classical music, bluegrass, and jazz to production — and eventually ended up with a vanity show called “Progression,” where I played my own mix of mid-’80s eclecticism. I next worked as drive-time announcer at a AAA station (WKXE-FM) in White River Junction, Vermont. It was essentially a freeform commercial station where we picked all of our own music except for a few current tracks each hour. All the announcers were huge music buffs of various ages and interests. The program director there was really way in front of the AAA curve. It was a great station with a passionate audience.
I was then a program director in Corpus Christi, Texas. KEDT was an NPR station with a focus on classical music and news. The station was in financial ruin and my major success was getting some desperately needed fresh air blown into the tired programming grid. From Texas, I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. I turned from radio as a career to volunteer production and hosting with a weekly world music program. In time, I programmed a morning drive time show of diverse music at KRCL, a community station that has been keeping Utah honest and interesting for over 30 years.
Where do you work now and what hours, show name, etc.?
For the last 15 years, I have hosted a weekly show on The Voice of Sacramento, KUBU 96.5. The name Semi-Twang comes from a band from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that I loved, who were defunct in 2000 when I started the show. They have since reconvened and I hope they view the name as a tribute to them. Semi-Twang is a weekly show broadcast on Thursday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. and rebroadcast the following Friday morning.
How do you describe your show and how do you define what you play?
Semi-Twang is, as the name suggests, twangy some of the time. I love all kinds of music but dabble mostly in the Americana, alt-county, singer-songwriter, and roots music vein. I also sprinkle power-pop and, recently, a fair amount of retro-sounding R&B/soul into the mix. I tend to focus my show on almost exclusively new music. It gives me a reason to listen to lots of current music and not fall victim to relying on the tried and true. As a kid with a limited album-buying budget, I loved the new release night on WSPL-FM in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I would routinely tape those albums, whether I knew what it was or not, just to broaden my horizons. I like to think of Semi-Twang as “new music Thursday.”
How do you define Americana music?
Americana, to me, is music influenced by country, folk, bluegrass, blues, R&B, swing, even jazz — the American music tradition. I have enormous respect for people playing honest music [who are] drawing on the past in a new and interesting way. A guy like Richard Thompson, to my ears, is as much Americana as a band like Los Lobos. It is more of a feeling than a category. American roots music is just a springboard.
How do you prepare for your shows?
I listen to music constantly, both actively and passively. I program things that catch my ear, and try to create sets based upon similar styles, lyrics, moods, and instrumentation. I will occasionally spotlight a “heritage artist” like Willie Nelson if there are reissues, or if an artist or band is playing in town.
How many new releases do you play? Do you play much old stuff? Do you play many independent artists?
Semi-Twang is largely dedicated to new music. I play indie artists, as well as those still on the major labels. I shy away from what I consider “butterfly, flutterby” artists. It is very easy for anyone with a guitar or computer and a notebook of poems to release an album today. For every good indie CD release, there are probably another 25 that are not worth hearing twice. I know that playing so much new music can be a gamble because most people are just not wired for new things. This is not commercial radio though, and I am not getting paid.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music? When or how did you hear about them?
The first band that really caught my ear playing what could have been considered Americana, or at least roots music, was Creedence Clearwater Revival. I knew some of their singles as a kid, but really started to appreciate John Fogerty in the very early ’80s. Interestingly, the artist who undoubtedly turned me onto country music was Dave Edmunds. His albums were chock full of songs pointing me toward NRBQ, Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers, Moon Martin, and so many other great artists. I think Dave Edmunds is an unheralded genius. He and Nick Lowe made a bunch of great records — far too few of them.
It always surprises me that I learned about, or at least gained interest in, classic country music from two English blokes. Americana to me, is first and foremost, roots music. I loved the Blasters and the Stray Cats. I then become aware of so much great music and tradition when I lived in Texas at the end of ’80s. People like Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore were virtually unknown outside of Texas at that point.
Everything changed for me in the mid-’90s, when bands like the Old 97’s, Whiskeytown, the Gourds, the Jayhawks, Blue Mountain, and Joe Henry were seemingly creating an underground scene. By the time Steve Earle released Train A Comin’, it further seemed like country music and rock and roll were once again becoming joined in a very interesting way. I would like to think that the whole No Depression movement is similar to the days when country rock was exploding both in southern California and in the South in the early ’70s. Both movements left lasting and important effects on contemporary music.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre and what artists define Americana music for you?
My favorite artist without a doubt is Elvis Costello. I love his ability to change direction. He is interesting and satisfying to me, regardless what genre he is pursuing. King of America is, I think, as good a Americana record as one could ever mention. I am also huge fan of songwriters who write either heartfelt confessional or amazing observational lyrics: Loudon Wainwright III, Greg Brown, Ryan Adams, Rosanne Cash, Jason Isbell, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Mark Knopfler, Robert Earl Keen, and Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley from Drive-By Truckers. I also have to mention John Sieger of the original Semi-Twang, who is both a wonderful songwriter and purveyor of Americana, as well as, the Canadian band N.Q. Arbuckle — the best band you may have never heard.
I used to think NRBQ was the best working band in America. They could change gears so quickly and effortlessly. While the latest incarnation of the band is really good, I think Wilco is my favorite live band today. Wilco really does it all, blending fine musicianship with experimentation. Wilco in 2016 is a long way from Uncle Tupelo but, to me, typifies what is great about rock and roll in the first place. I suppose the real conundrum is whether or not Wilco is still an Americana band.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
I think the concept of Americana is built on some of things I have already mentioned: quality songwriting, honest performance, and fine musicianship. It seems artists who are able to put together a deep catalog of music are eventually pigeon-holed as Americana artists. My wife always comments that the typical crowd for Americana shows skews middle-age and male. I don’t know what that says about the genre because I fit the demographic. Are we the last generation to idolize music and musicians? Many Americana artists’ careers are being maintained by grown-up kids who once bought albums by the armload.
I worry that the ability of artists [to be] able to build a career arc like, say, Neil Young or Bob Dylan is probably waning. The opportunity for today’s younger artists to release 20, or even 10, well-received and admired records seems unlikely. With that said, Americana could end up as a format like classic rock where the best music has already been made in the minds of the listeners (and the programmers). A few of the labels like Thirty Tigers, New West, and ATO appear to be launching new Americana artists that have an honest chance of remaining on the radar for years to come. It is necessary, though, for Americana radio to embrace artists like Alabama Shakes and Sharon Jones, and incorporate them alongside the tried and true. Sadly, I just don’t think most young people are as passionate about music as we were.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
The new Dave Rawlings Machine CD, Nashville Obsolete, is amazing. Dave and Gillian Welch are making music that transcends the ages in terms of sound and quality. They typify everything good about whatever Americana is.
The duo from the Twin Cities, the Cactus Blossoms, have a nice retro sound that owes more than a little to the Everly Brothers. Speaking of the Twin Cities, I am very curious to see what Chris Thile does with A Prairie Home Companion and what effect he has on the listeners. I suspect that Chris will be bringing even more new musicians into people’s homes via the radio.
I am so happy that Phil and Dave Alvin are making music together again. Dave Alvin is another standard bearer of Americana. He is a music fan who just happens to be an unparalleled musician. His career is exactly what every young musician should aspire to have.
Jason Isbell just keeps writing better and better songs. I hope he gets to have a 25-album career. Something More Than Free is another great collection.
Adam Levy, from the Minneapolis band the Honeydogs, recently released an achingly beautiful record called Naubinway. It deals with his son’s suicide. All of the Honeydogs records are a worthy addition to any well-curated Americana collection.
Emitt Rhodes is a cult singer-songwriter from the 1970s. He mostly disappeared and is just now releasing a new record called Rainbow Ends. It is a sweet and wispy pop record — think Autumn Defense or Elliott Smith — that is making me want to find and buy all of his long out-of-print stuff.
I was recently in Italy and bought a CD virtually because of the cover. Francesco De Gregori is an Italian singer and songwriter with a long, successful career. He recently translated a bunch of Bob Dylan songs into Italian. This collection, Amore e Furto, makes you realize just how good Dylan’s songs are, even if you can’t sing along in Italian.
Finally, I really enjoyed the last couple of albums by Pokey LaFarge. He is making music that sounds 80 years old yet very contemporary — a mean feat.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests or anything else you wish to share?
Besides music, I love travel, history, craft beer, science fiction, and the Green Bay Packers … not necessarily in that order.