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Gerald Poulsen, who under the pseudonym Jerry Gray DJed bluegrass and Western music on WAMU-FM for nearly three decades, passed away last Thursday at 78. He died of complications from a 1989 heart transplant, according to his son, Mark Poulsen.
Until 2001, Poulsen spun well-known and rare selections on two programs on WAMU: He co-hosted the weekday-afternoon Bluegrass Country, at first with Katy Daley, and on Saturday afternoons he helmed The Jerry Gray Show.
Poulsen saw the end of his tenure at WAMU as the noncommercial station shifted toward a more news-centered format—-and transplanted much of its bluegrass and country programming over to a Web-only station.
In a July 2001 Washington City Paper cover story, Poulsen explained why he decided to walk away from WAMU:
[Fans’] 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.”
Still, Mark Poulsen says his father was grateful for his 29 years on the air. “He had a very good run there and appreciated that,” Mark Poulsen said. “The radio business can be pretty harsh. There’s not too many DJs in the D.C. market that had 29 consecutive years on-air—-there’s very few that can say that.”
While Bluegrass Country, which Poulsen joined in 1978, specialized in its namesake genres, Poulsen’s Saturday program also included western, western swing, gospel, and other sounds. “Jerry had a good voice. He was funny, he was quick, he was very dry,” said longtime friend Russ Hooper, who attended McKinley Technical High School in Northeast D.C. with Poulsen. “He knew a lot about the music…I think he was perfect for radio. ”
Gerald Ralph Poulsen was born on Oct. 9, 1933 in Washington, D.C. Growing up, he became interested in radio from listening to Connie B. Gay, a WARL country-music DJ based out of Arlington, Va., who also booked shows at D.A.R. Constitution Hall and later founded the Country Music Association.
Music became one of Poulsen’s passions thanks to his love of Gay’s radio show, and also because of his mother’s roots in Virginia’s Northern Neck region. According to his son, Poulsen admired that area’s populace and its preferred musical styles, like bluegrass. “These people were honest and hard-working,” Mark Poulsen said. “That’s what he associated the music with. That’s the audience he envisioned playing music for.”
Poulsen attended American University, and also studied at a private radio academy, according to an obituary in The Washington Post. There, he first started using the name Jerry Gray, Poulsen’s son said, because the school taught would-be radio personalities to assume memorable on-air names.
Poulsen took his first broadcasting job at WFTR in Front Royal, Va. in 1967. In 1971, he joined WAMU at American University and began The Jerry Gray Show. With Poulsen’s sense of humor and showcase of rare records, the program attracted a large following during a period when Washington was known as an epicenter of bluegrass. Poulsen drew his selections from his enormous collection, which contained 13,000 records by 2001, he told Washington City Paper‘s Eddie Dean. In the past decade, Gray continued to acquire more records, his son said.
“Everybody liked Jerry,” said Ed Walker, who first met Poulsen when the two worked on fundraising at WAMU in the 1970s. Walker still works at WAMU, playing vintage radio programs on Sunday nights. “He was a nice person, that’s it. He was a very knowledgeable personality; he knew his subject.”
Poulsen’s humor manifested itself in his imaginary co-host, Clyde the Cow. In 2001, Poulsen told City Paper that Clyde kept him company during his lonely hours in the studio: “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.”
A devout Christian and a member at Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Md., Poulsen always closed his Saturday program with a selection of gospel songs.
In 1989, Poulsen had a heart attack while on air at WAMU, and afterward he underwent a heart transplant. At the time, his doctor projected he had five more years to live, according to his son. But Poulsen kept going for another 23 years.
Because of his heart problems, Gray scaled back his weekday radio work, but remained committed to his Saturday show until it ended in 2001.
Having lived in the same Aspen Hill, Md., home since 1959, he and his wife, Kay Poulsen, sold their home in 2002. They moved near Smith Mountain Lake in Hardy, Va. “I guess when you look at him and Kay together, that’s probably what you would aspire to as for having a decent marriage,” Hooper said.
In the past decade, Poulsen continued attending bluegrass festivals across the country. He was a musician who sang and played the guitar, banjo, dobro, fiddle, drums, and mandolin. During his years in the D.C. area, he played in the bands Lonesome Road Ramblers and Morning Train. He also painted and played golf. Poulsen and his wife moved behind the 10th tee of the Westlake golf course near Smith Mountain Lake.
As his health declined, Poulsen could only manage a few holes of golf at a time, his son said. In the last few years, his hands began to shake—- so much so that playing music and painting became burdensome. “If he couldn’t do it at a high level, he’d just get really frustrated,” Mark Poulsen said.
Poulsen also enjoyed watching old films in the basement of his house, where Mark had built a home theater. Poulsen collected westerns and old serials from his childhood.
Gray is survived by his wife, his mother, two sons and three daughters, his sister, nine grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
As for Clyde the Cow, Mark Poulsen says the imaginary bovine is enjoying retirement in Hardy and spends his days grazing out on the golf course.
Photo courtesy Russ Hooper