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The Last Round-Up?

The WAMU bluegrass purge threatens to silence legendary country DJ Jerry Gray.

It’s one of those mostly unsung happenstances: the way a DJ snags a place in your heart and wins your loyalty. For many longtime locals of a certain age—the sort who say “Warshington” and have memories of a family farm in the not-so-distant past—The Jerry Gray Show on 88.5 WAMU-FM defines a Saturday afternoon as surely as the evening sun setting in the west. For them, Gray is more than a favorite radio personality. He is an old and dear friend.

Last month, Father’s Day weekend just wouldn’t have felt right without Gray’s annual tribute. As usual, the 66-year-old brought in suitcases full of records from his personal stash, and the result was the typical stew of humor and pathos, of down-home fun and melodrama bordering on the maudlin. There was Merle Haggard reminiscing about “Daddy Frank the Guitar Man,” the blind patriarch of a dirt-poor family band. There was Tom T. Hall describing the bitter “Homecoming” of a journeyman musician who hasn’t seen his father in years. And there was Gene Autry’s “Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine”—the 1931 million-seller and the ultrarare 1934 sequel. Then there were the usual wildcard novelty numbers such as Sheb Wooley’s manic “That’s My Pa.” Nobody plays Sheb Wooley records anymore, at least not out in public. Nobody except Jerry Gray.

As always, it was the personal asides that made the program vintage Jerry Gray. As the strains of the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Red River Valley” faded away, he mentioned that he had chosen it in remembrance of his dad, a former D.C. fireman who couldn’t play a note or carry a tune but loved country music just the same. “It was his favorite,” said Gray. “As the family band was sitting around playing, before they got too far into it, he’d ask for the ‘Red River Valley.’”

Introducing a medley of train songs, Gray offered the anecdote-rich commentary that has endeared him to his fans for the last four decades, the die-hards who swear that there’s no better storyteller on Washington radio. “Those of us lucky to grow up with the steam engine, we could watch the trains roll by and wave at the engineer. We used to do that in Riverdale, [Md.,] when the train came right through the middle of town. You’d get cinders in your eyes if you didn’t look the other way.”

The program ended with Gray’s standard closing: a few gospel numbers, including a somber Red Foley recitation: “Good Night Papa.”

The next Saturday, when WAMU listeners heard Gray plugging his upcoming Father’s Day special, they realized that it was a taped rerun of the June 9 show from two weeks before, and they smelled a rat. Only a heart attack, such as the one he had suffered in the broadcast booth back in 1989, could stop Gray’s weekly ride into the music of the Old West. They wondered if the long-standing rumors had been confirmed, if management had finally taken aim at the bluegrass boys who’d ruled Washington’s airwaves for three decades.

Their fears were confirmed when WAMU officials announced in mid-June that they’d scrapped weekday drive-time bluegrass programming, shared by Gray and DJ Ray Davis, in favor of syndicated news shows that run at the same time on rival National Public Radio station 90.9 WETA-FM. A new one-year contract that the station had offered Gray stipulated that he would tape segments for a 24-hour bluegrass feed on the WAMU Web site and keep his live Saturday-afternoon program. He wasn’t biting.

“What they wanted was to tape a bunch of stuff for the Internet, and then they could make money off it for the next 10 years,” Gray says. “They wanted to get a lot of my stuff in the can, pay me a pittance for a year, and then get me out of there. I told them I’m not going to just give away my record collection. I’ve got stuff I’ve been collecting since junior high school, and a lot of it doesn’t exist anymore—it’s invaluable.”

As any regular listener of The Jerry Gray Show well knows, this is no empty boast. Gray’s eclectic 13,000-record collection, dubbed “Gray’s Gallery of Grand Ole Gramophone Greats,” features a slew of impossible-to-find out-of-print gems that may never get reissued on CD. Lost treasures such the MGM yellow-label single of the original “Feuding Banjos” by Don Reno and Arthur Smith, the 1955 song that inspired Deliverance’s “Dueling Banjos.” Or The Great Race album by Dick Curless, the Baron of Country Music, found by Gray at a record shop near Prince Edward Island, Canada, the same region Curless hails from. The title track celebrates a legendary race between an 18-wheeler and diesel locomotive. “I get a lot of requests for that,” says Gray. “People just love that song. Some guy from Maine dropped me a note and said he knows where that took place. He said trucks and trains used to race all the time.”

Gray’s supporters, who helped make The Jerry Gray Show one of the station’s biggest money-earners come fundraising time, have bombarded WAMU with angry calls and e-mails. Their demands are simple: that the station live up to the motto emblazoned on the faded old WAMU bumper stickers you see on cars around the D.C. area: “88.5: MUSIC IN THE AMERICAN TRADITION.”

Nearly a month after WAMU changed its programming, the controversy is still raging. On Tuesday, Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), a staunch fan of Gray and Davis, lodged a protest on the House floor, pointing out that taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be used to support two public-radio stations duplicating news shows in the same market. He expressed disgust with WAMU’s treatment of his favorite DJs, who weren’t even allowed to say goodbye to their listeners. Coble ended his fiery speech by declaring that in rural North Carolina where he was raised, station officials would have been taken out to the woodshed and disciplined severely.

Others are just getting warmed up. The 800-member Arlington-based Coalition to Save Bluegrass at WAMU is contemplating legal action to get Gray and the bluegrass lineup reinstated.

Meanwhile, Gray, temporarily unemployed, remains stoic about the brouhaha. During a recent interview, as Gray sat on the back deck of his modest rambler in Aspen Hill, Md., he seemed more interested in his tomato plants and impatiens than in his sudden break with the station he’d seen grow from a fledgling college-radio outlet to a public-radio powerhouse in the fiercely competitive Washington market.

“The boss isn’t always right, but he’s still the boss. Who can I be mad at? I went over there on a handshake 30 years ago, with an idea for a program that nobody in commercial radio would even think of taking a chance on, and they let me do it.”

His old-fashioned grace in the face of conflict notwithstanding, Gray has plenty to be peeved about.

The elimination of bluegrass from the coveted drive-time slot and the shabby way it was carried out—Gray was given all of a weekend to mull over his contract—are prime examples of the brazen hypocrisy of a station that trumpets itself as noncommercial public radio for the Washington community. The presence of bluegrass on WAMU’s airwaves for the past three decades has echoed the music’s rich history in the D.C. area. Bluegrass is as vital a part of Washington’s home-grown cultural tradition as go-go. Yet, like go-go, bluegrass has remained mostly unmarketable to a mass audience. Which is all the more reason for a supposedly noncommercial outlet like WAMU to give it a place to breathe.

But WAMU is no different from any other corporate broadcasting behemoth, apparently more interested in peddling a brand-name image than offering diverse programming. In defense of their decision, station officials have cited listener surveys that say 90 percent of WAMU’s daytime audience bolted when the sound of banjos hit the airwaves.

“The majority of our listeners really objected to bluegrass being aired during the afternoon,” says Chris Naylor, director of public affairs for the station. “This is Washington, the nation’s capital, and people want news on during drive time.”

Gray says this defense is a smoke screen. WAMU bigwigs, he says, want a makeover—and bluegrass doesn’t fit the new image: “People still can’t get away from the idea that bluegrass wasn’t popular or it didn’t raise money. It doesn’t have anything to do with that. The ratings and the money were great. What they’re after is a station identity. People have got to be able to push that button any time of day or night and not be surprised. It’s got to have a definite, unswerving identity, and the commercial radio people learned that years ago.”

Despite all the hooey about “listener-supported public radio” served up during WAMU’s fundraisers, the station’s real aim is to attract a bigger audience for Arbitron. And not only to attract more people but also to attract more affluent people. It’s the same game they play over at WETA, which has also slashed afternoon music programming—in its case, classical—in an attempt to gain better ratings. And hillbilly music—no matter how slick contemporary bluegrass is, no matter how many millions of copies of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack have been sold—will always sound like po’ folks to those in management.

So WAMU bluegrass fans now find their music quarantined mad-cow-style to the graveyard shift on Saturday and two Sunday-morning shows. However limited the airplay, at least some old-time picking remains on the radio. Davis is still in negotiation with the station. But not Jerry Gray. The real cost of this debacle has been the disappearance of an irreplaceable native voice on the local airwaves.

When Gray took his DJ job in 1972, he was in the same sort of predicament he’s in now, in flight from the market-imposed conformity of commercial radio. Back then, it was Top 40 country that was the enemy. The graduate of D.C.’s McKinley Technical High School had caught the country-music bug on visits to his mother’s hometown in Virginia’s Northern Neck, where his granddad and uncles played a string-band repertoire that ranged from Charlie Poole to cowboy songs to Hank Williams to Western swing. They were working-class folks who performed as a hobby, for the sheer love of the music.

“I didn’t learn to like country music from listening to the radio,” Gray says. “I learned to like it listening to them, so I’ve always associated it with decent people.” He became a fan of Connie B. Gay’s Town and Country Time in the ’50s (“So pull up a nail keg and join us, neighbor”), popular among Southerners who’d migrated to the Washington area during the war years.

In the early ’60s, Gray began DJing for local country-music stations, including WFTR-AM in Front Royal, Va. (“The grandest little station in the nation”), and WDON-AM in Wheaton, Md. His disdain for the charts and formatted playlists got him in trouble wherever he went. At WPIK-AM in Arlington, he played an Ernest Tubb song on his Sunday-morning show and immediately got a call from program director Red Shipley. “He said, ‘That’s not on the playlist,’” recalls Gray, “and I said, ‘You’re absolutely right, but it should be.’ So Red fired me. We’re still good friends, though. I brought him over to WAMU.”

Gray’s singular approach caught the ear of then-WAMU station manager Susan Harmon, who offered him a full-time job to bring his music to a new FM audience. This was an era when WAMU was a strictly local operation, and future star Diane Rehm was a housewife helping out as a volunteer. “When I came here, this station didn’t have any records,” recalls Gray. “I said, ‘I’ve got a record collection, and I’ll supply the music. All you have to do is get out of the way.’”

Gray had an idea for a whole new sort of show: a mix of cowboy songs, traditional country, and Western swing. This was a radical notion for its time. The hot, jazzy Western swing of the ’40s was mostly unheard-of outside its native Texas and Oklahoma. Cowboy crooners had been out of fashion for decades. And hard-core country was still anathema on the airwaves in these years before Waylon Jennings and the outlaw movement made it more palatable.

Gary’s inspiration was the eclectic repertoire of his fiddle- and banjo-playing relatives, who didn’t think much about differences between genres. A musician himself, Gray put that knowledge to work: “I wanted to mesh the three musics, to blend them together so it didn’t pound your ear,” he says. “To play some wild Bob Wills tune and a smooth Eddy Arnold song and have it still make sense, in such a way that there wasn’t any dividing line. I discovered I could do it by theme, by tempo, by what key the song was in, all kinds of things.”

Many have since tried to copy Gray’s playlist, but what these imitators can’t duplicate is the show’s dusty, twilight ambience, which conjured the Old West and those corners of the modern South where the slow, old ways still reign. Like all great DJs, Gray created an entire world that could exist only in radioland, not exactly the past but a realm where Roy Rogers and Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare swapped stories and commiserated. It didn’t matter that some of these singers had long since passed on; Gray conversed with them in the present tense. Taped promos from dead cowboys (“This is the old Arizona cowboy, Rex Allen, welcoming you to The Jerry Gray Show”) peppered the broadcast, ghosts of long ago warming up the room.

It was on the Saturday program that Gray introduced his imaginary sidekick, Clyde the Cow, who remained with him for the show’s entire run. Gray says that Clyde eased the lonesomeness of the DJ’s solitary lot: “I didn’t have anybody to talk with. There was nobody in the studio but me, and I needed somebody to help out, like when I wanted to have some campfire coffee. Half the time he’s laying on the floor sleeping, the idiot.” In nearly 30 years, the show didn’t change a whit—it remained free-form, unscripted radio in the classic conversational style pioneered by Arthur Godfrey.

Although all this garnered Gray a cult following among those in WAMU’s 50,000-watt range—from the West Virginia mountains to the Eastern Shore, from Baltimore to Richmond—the station’s brass didn’t always cotton to his show. It was the comedy records that got the most criticism: the Homer and Jethro songs, Mel Tillis doing his Donald Duck impersonation of Ernest Tubb, the Jerry Clower routines—all intrinsic to the culture from which Gray and his beloved music sprang. “Management types don’t understand country humor, because they don’t understand country people,” he says.

For now, Gray remains in limbo. He has left his record room—stacked floor to ceiling with alphabetized LPs and 45s and German-label boxed sets—the same as it was after his last show. He doesn’t have any reason to go in there, he says, because there’s no upcoming broadcast to pull music for. But he hasn’t lost his sense of humor: He says that Clyde has taken advantage of the situation to head south for a vacation. “Clyde’s down at my son’s place, the Seven Acres Ranch in Fort Worth. He said there’s nothing shaking around town, so he went down to Fort Worth to take a little sabbatical.”

Much as Gray misses his Saturday ride, he’s not going to lose any sleep over it. This is a man who has lived for the past decade with a transplanted heart, and he’s been on the brink of death more than once. That’s the sort of experience that can put things in perspective.

“I could say, ‘They’re wrong, and I’m right’ and get all indignant about it, and I have,” he says. “But then I kick back and remember laying on that hospital bed, and I think, For goodness’ sake, here I am living 10 more years and God’s letting me see a couple more grandchildren. I’ve got more good things going on and more blessings than I can count.” CP