The “Y’allternative” of Joe Swank
Joe Swank has had his hands in all aspects of radio — as a DJ, programmer, and a label rep. From reading his responses to my questions, I can see that he values the freedom of being an independent promoter and a public radio DJ.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio and the music business?
Joe Swank: My first radio job was 1986 – 1989 at WDDD in Marion, Illinois, working overnights on a commercial country format, running Music Country Radio Network satellite feed. I was eventually pulled in as a morning show player.
I returned to radio in 1992, as co-host of a hard rock morning show at WTJY in Taylorville, Illinois (Now WQLZ). I was eventually moved to the 10 p.m. – 2 a.m. slot with a hard rock and heavy metal specialty show. My favorite commercial gig was probably WTJY, as I was on the second floor, with a full window that looked down on the town square, where the kids cruised. I played something they liked, they would all flash their headlights going around the square and I would stand in the window and encourage them. It was perfect for a show playing Pantera, Ozzy, Nine Inch Nails, etc.
When I was MD at WTJY, I would get the calls from the promoters and would hang up and ask my partner in the office, “Who the hell gets paid to call people and talk about records all day?” I was intrigued.
Around ‘94, I became the short-lived MD/PD/Morning Show host for a three-station cluster: WKCM/WLME in Hawesville, Kentucky. Around 1995, I moved back to Carbondale, joined my first band, and started doing a morning show and weekends at WOOZ, New Country. Commercial radio was not paying the bills — and I kept getting in trouble for deviating from the playlist — so I left commercial radio and started doing my Y’allternative radio show at community station WDBX in Carbondale, Illinois, from roughly 1996 until 2001.
My then-girlfriend and I were looking to move somewhere new, and I saw that North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area had Yep Roc, Sugar Hill, Mammoth, Redeye … multiple music labels. I decided I was going to go get a job in some indie label warehouse in North Carolina, and utilize that position to figure out the music business for my band, from the inside.
I moved to North Carolina and started interning at Redeye Distribution, and eventually a radio promoter position at Yep Roc became available. I didn’t know anything about doing promotion, but I had a good decade-plus working in radio, and I had a band, so the difference was taught to me by exiting radio man Mark Schatz, as well as Yep Roc owners Glenn Dicker and Tor Hansen, both of whom had experience in doing radio promotion in the past. Once I was in, I was hooked. The more you figure out, the more you want to figure out, and I eventually resurrected my Y’allternative show on WCOM in Carrboro/Chapel Hill, North Carolina. That was probably 2004 – 2007.
Then came Chicago and Bloodshot Records, where I worked from 2008 – 2014. No radio or band for that era. Bloodshot was one of the greatest experiences of my life, as far as seeing what is possible when you take everyone into consideration. Nan and Rob are the most amazing business owners I have ever met. They are transparent, honest, and kind, and in it for the greater good. I’ve never encountered any operation quite like it.
In 2014, I moved back to Carbondale, Illinois, to start Swank Promotions. I re-convened my Y’allternative show on WDBX, where I eventually joined the station board, as well as the programming committee. That is where I sit as of now.
How do you describe your show?
I bill it as Americana, alt-country, and roots music, but I basically try to hit anything that has country elements in it, ranging from old Jimmie Rogers, Eddie Noack, and Merle Travis, up to and through more rock-intensive acts like Jason & the Scorchers, Slobberbone, and Drive-by Truckers. It has to have some sort of country element.
Why Tom Waits and Randy Newman fit into that, I’m not sure, but they do. I think it’s the same storytelling element that draws me to folks like Tom T. Hall and James McMurtry. It’s just piano instead of a 6-string.
How do you prepare for your shows? Do you have theme shows or spotlight certain artists?
I keep an Excel grid of everything I have played, sorted by artist and date. My only real goal is to try to not repeat an artist two weeks in a row, or not repeat a specific song for at least four months (not counting new cuts). I have about 40 core artists I can always go to, and another 30 artists that are good for at least a half-dozen cuts that are worth playing. New stuff keeps working into the mix.
I rarely do theme shows, but occasionally will do four-song themed breaks. I think the only time I have ever focused solely on one artist was when Merle Haggard died. For Kris Kristofferson’s 80th birthday, I played like eight cuts. Same on Tom T. Hall’s last birthday. Mixed them in with the regular mix.
I try to avoid the super hits. I always ask myself “What are the chances any other station will play this?” We have a classic country station in the area, but it’s a satellite feed that pretty much sticks to the big hits. Outlaw music is really good for that. Most of the really good outlaw stuff never saw the airwaves on country radio. Occasionally something from the past will get a resurgence in my mix. When Danny Barnes released his most recent solo CD, I found myself digging back into the Bad Livers and working more of them into the regular mix.
How many new releases and old stuff do you play?
My goal is four new songs an hour. Sometimes I get in more, sometimes less. Any indies that fit the mix are fair game for me. I play a mix that encompasses anything from the 1930s up through today — heavier on the ’90s and 2000s. I dabble in cowpunk and hick-hop for a cut or two here and there. There is a lot of classic country that doesn’t get aired anymore, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens, or Roger Miller. As huge as they were in their day, I don’t hear anyone playing that generation on the air. I try to fill a little of that void as well.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
In all fairness, my dad was into a lot of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Tom T. Hall, so I grew up with an amazing album collection already in house. I picked up on Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and k.d. lang in 1986 working at the country station. I made myself a mix cassette off of those records. The station was playing “Goodbye Is All We Got Left to Say” and “Guitar Town,” maybe “Cowboy Man” by Lyle Lovett. I didn’t realize at that time that it was a movement taking hold. I just knew that most of the stuff I really liked skeezed out the main programmers.
I got Guitar Town and Lyle Lovett from the BMG Album club in ‘86, so those were probably the first I purchased. Several years later, I was still feeling my way around, basically buying any record Steve Earle mentioned in any article, and was talking to a friend in Carbondale about Steve Earle, and he said, “I assume you are a fan of Gram Parsons, and of course Uncle Tupelo?” Apparently my blank stare said it all, because he handed me a copy of a magazine called No Depression and it had the Bad Livers on the cover.
Around that same time, a friend in St. Louis sent me a cassette with two North Carolina bands: Backsliders on one side and 6 String Drag on the other. Those two things were life-changing events. I started buying No Depression every month and my band started working on getting down to North Carolina for some shows. I seem to recall ordering Robbie Fulks’ South Mouth and Country Love Songs and maybe the Bottle Rockets’ Brooklyn Side, based on something I read in that first magazine. We had two great record stores in town, both of whom had a really knowledgeable staff, so once I started getting into that style, they were always waiting for me to come in so they could turn me on to something else.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre and what artist define Americana music for you?
Willie Nelson is probably my overall favorite writer and singer, but Jerry Lee Lewis will always be the greatest songsmith of any genre for me. I learned to interpret songs from Jerry Lee: how to take something and make it your own. I’d say, at this point, my top faves are gonna be Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, and Prince. I’m still a big Steve Earle fan, but haven’t really dug into the last few records. Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam are always great. I find I am drawn to a lot of North Carolina sounds like the Backsliders and Chip Robinson, 6 String Drag and Kenny Roby, Two Dollar Pistols and Rosewood Bluff, Patty Hurst Shifter, American Aquarium, Whiskeytown …. anything Caitlin Cary does or is involved in, is usually pretty great.
Who defines Americana? For me, Steve Earle and the Drive-by Truckers probably sit at the top of that heap. Lucinda Williams, James McMurtry, Robbie Fulks, Uncle Tupelo, Todd Snider, The Gourds, Old 97’s, Bottle Rockets. Off the top of my head, those are the acts that should fit any Americana format.
How do you define Americana music?
Americana is still kind of a very large umbrella. Basically anyone rooted in the core of the music, who doesn’t go overkill on the production aspect [is Americana].
I got into this music for the countrier side of things, so the other genres that fall under the umbrella don’t excite me as much as the country-leaning stuff does. Even when I bill my show as Americana, I also tend to throw in alt-country and roots music for clarification. There are a lot of indie rock bands and AAA acts that happen to have a banjo or fiddle that are infiltrating the genre right now, and I really tend to steer away from those groups as much as possible.
I played Steve Martin & Edie Brickell on my show the other night — due mostly to my overwhelming love of Steve Martin — but it just didn’t quite fit. There’s a feeling to the side of Americana that I like, that is rather hard to define, but I tell the general layperson I play “all forms of country music that you won’t ever hear on country radio.” Which of course starts to become an issue as some country stations pick up on the likes of Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson. I don’t mind that kind of crossover. I feel like stations listing themselves as “country” are starting to get the idea that a vocoder and dance music has no place in the format. That goes back to the production element that defines Americana.
Americana records feel like they have more authentically recorded music that can be reproduced without the help of digital elements. There’s a Nashville production method where every note is perfect and the vocals have been pitch-controlled to be exactly where they should be on paper. That makes for a boring record, for the most part. I like to hear someone’s fingers slide along the strings when they are changing a slow chord or a slight anomaly in the vocals. The drums on “Grindstone” by Uncle Tupelo absolutely stumble into the slow part of the song, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. That is one of the things that makes it such a great record: Authenticity.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
As someone who started in radio in 1986, I long for the days of individual ownership of stations. Back when the used car dealer or the local construction magnate owned one station and did what they wanted with it. Radio, in general, is primarily dictated by the charts, which is not the way it’s supposed to work. The good records should dictate what gets played, but many stations of all formats simply look at the current chart and add what they don’t have. As a former programmer for multiple stations and formats, I consider that not only lazy programming, but really kinda just lame in general. I totally understand the time factor as a programmer. Just for my little two-hour show, I listen to at least 8 – 10 unknown discs a week — a fraction of what a commercial reporting station receives. I also understand commercial radio is far more about the commercials, and far less about the radio portion, but years of having that attitude has watered down the product to barely tolerable instead of exciting. That’s how people like Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap were still country stars, when in retrospect, they were obviously doing Adult Contemporary music.
With all the options available to people in this day and age, I feel like terrestrial radio needs to step up its game and leave the status-quo behind. As the Clear Channels of the world start to sell off all these stations they gobbled up a couple decades ago, I think we might see a return to locally programmed shows, more local artists … possibly even radio theater. There are some amazing things going on with podcasts as far as audio theater goes, and I think it would behoove programmers with any kind of freedom at all to start really considering the actual content as opposed to the business-as-usual approach that is faltering. Especially as independently created content, it can be profitable on its own. It reminds me of something an old radio boss told me: “McDonalds isn’t #1 because they are good, it’s because they are consistent.” Sad but true.
Right now I feel like the Americana format is teetering on the edge of clashing with the AAA format. A majority of the AAA folks take on only the already-proven Americana acts like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, or the roots-driven popular indie rock bands like Lumineers or the Avett Brothers, thrusting them to the top of the Americana charts, while artists who lean more toward the original idea behind the format — like Dale Watson or Wayne Hancock for example — don’t have as much of a chance at success, because their music is “too country” for a lot of the stations reporting to Americana right now. Honestly, that was what originally appealed to me about the format, was that someone like Robbie Fulks had a shot at some recognition that wasn’t going to come from any other formats.
The more AAA favorites that pile on the top of the charts, the less chance there is for the more roots-based stuff to get recognition, which was the whole point to begin with. So I guess I am saying I am ready for some sort of alt-country chart? Not sure what the answer is, as I am certainly guilty of following someone like the Old 97’s from their twang-based era into the super pop stuff, and still calling it Americana, but I’d like to see the format twang back up. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the direction it is going. But, we work with what we have to work with. Everything changes.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Two I found in Early 2016 — from 2015 — that I can’t stop listening to are Sarah Shook & the Disarmers’ Sidelong and Silo Road’s Last Call Love. Sarah is from my old stomping grounds in North Carolina and has not only an amazing, trippy voice and a stellar band, she also writes really great songs.
Silo Road is down in Texas — Austin, I believe — and is what I like to call straight-up honky-tonk. Just in-the-pocket great songs, great vocals, great band. I have at least six songs from each album on a mix that has been in my truck for months. I just can’t get enough.
I’m enjoying Sturgill Simpson’s new one.
Shinyribs! I worked the last disc and am working the upcoming disc, but even if I weren’t, I could honestly say it’s one of my favorite bands recording today. Swamp funk from a Texas wildman.
The new Lydia Loveless is stellar. A new Cory Branan [record is] on the horizon. I am a huge Cory fan. Can’t wait to hear that one.
What do you do now and how do you describe your business?
After seven years at Yep Roc Records as the primary radio promoter, and another seven years at Bloodshot Records as their primary radio promoter, I am now going on the second year of running Swank Promotions for myself. I am an independent radio promoter who specializes in Americana and non-commercial AAA promotion. I primarily work with developing artists and core Americana artists, with most efforts directed at AMA Chart reporting stations and larger aggregators.
I tell civilians, when I am trying to explain my job, that I essentially work in the AAA baseball of music. [I work with] road warriors that aren’t anywhere near the six-figure sales mark, looking for some way to turn music into a viable income. I’m in the trenches, trying to boost folks further up the ladder in that direction, working with radio people that are willing to take a chance on new artists. A majority of my work has been with developing artists. It’s an uphill struggle, but I feel like it’s more fulfilling to help someone get a firm footing in the game.
To watch someone like Justin Townes Earle or Lydia Loveless climb higher with each record is really a great feeling. It’s like people are feeling the same way about these records that I am, and I had a part in bringing them to the masses. When I get to bring someone like Kenna Mae or Cree Rider Family Band into the radio world for the first time, and people dig it, it’s a wonderful thing.
Since about half of my clients don’t have a manager, I end up doing some of the default work there as well. At both Yep Roc and Bloodshot, as an employee, you were involved in a lot more than your specified field, so I feel like there are certain cases where I can give direction based on my past experiences.
I was on the AMA Radio Board for nearly a decade. I’ve also released three albums of mostly original material between 1999 and 2009.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
With my history between Yep Roc and Bloodshot, A majority of my work has been with developing artists. It’s an uphill struggle, but I feel like it’s more fulfilling to help get someone get a firm footing in the game.
I don’t talk about my job a lot with folks who aren’t in the industry, but when someone in conversation brings up something like MojoBox by Southern Culture on the Skids or International Orange by Firewater, I will admit to blurting out “I worked that!”
I really want success for all of my artists, and since I am swimming upstream most of the time, it is really gratifying to see them succeed and be happy with the results.
What are your most memorable experiences from working in the music industry?
There are many! Flava Flav mistook me for Rick Rubin. I accidentally shook Chuck D’s fist when the fist bump came around — I hadn’t gotten the memo as of yet. Doing New York with Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3. Doing San Francisco with Liam Finn and EJ Barnes. Getting torn up after the show with Ha Ha Tonka and Murder By Death in Chicago. Getting semi-kidnapped by Ben Nichols to go drink after a Chicago show.
I had this surreal moment in Philly with myself, then-Yep-Roc-boss Steve Gardner, and John Doe, crammed in the back of a cab, seeking a specific cheese steak, with a psychotic Jamaican cab driver who had an early Bluetooth and had probably been up for days on end. He drove like a maniac through some hardcore parts of town, and we not only thought he was talking to us when he wasn’t, which angered him, but we also thought he wasn’t talking to us when he was, which angered him. It was very much like an ’80s wacky one-night movie, running red lights and blowing through Philly. Most importantly, it ended in cheese steaks with John Doe.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests or anything else you wish to share?
I’m still less than two years into running my own business for the first time, so that seems to occupy any hobby time that might’ve existed. My guitar is getting dusty and I’m kind of ashamed of that fact, but if there’s a time to put all your energy into your efforts, it’d be here in the beginning. Hopefully I’ll start getting enough time to get back in a band soon. I really miss performing.