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Steve Wildsmith

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Country music’s new Blount County home: 850 AM

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wkvl

It’s no secret that Jeff Barbra is no fan of what’s considered mainstream country music these days.

He’s good buds with Larry Cordle, the man who wrote “Murder on Music Row,” about the death of traditional country music. His band, The Drunk Uncles, are standard bearers of the “Kill Nashville Pop” movement, a grassroots organization dedicated to bringing back “real” country music to Nashville. So it was with great joy when, roughly a year ago, he discovered a radio station right here in Blount County that made him grin.

“I grew up listening to this same old format,” Barbra told me of WKVL-AM 850, transmitting from a station that’s little more than a year old and located at 261 Gill St. in Alcoa. “It reminds me of the old WGAP from 30 years ago.”

The station was once owned by WIVK, who gave it to the University of Tennessee. UT sold it to local preacher J. Bazell Mull, who in turn sold it to Horne Radio. The current owners are Jim and Johnnie Sexton, former owners of Knox Air who share Barbra’s fondness for the country music of yesteryear. They discovered the station was for sale roughly 18 months ago and decided to pursue it.

“Jim’s retired from the airline business, and this little station came up for sale and was having transmitter problems,” Barbra said. “Jim’s the kind of guy who likes to tinker with things, and he loves country music. He aw this station as a way for him to go mess with the technical end of things and a way to put on traditional country music full time. So it’s a labor of love for him.”

Not long ago, Barbra was going over the state of the finances he and his wife, local music teacher and fiddler extraordinaire Sarah Pirkle, share in their Barb Hollow household. Playing music is a good gig if you can get it, obviously, but it doesn’t keep the lights on during lean times. He’d already been trumpeting the station’s old-school format, so he dropped Jim Sexton a line one night and got a reply the next afternoon. The two set up a meeting, and Barbra was brought on board to sell advertising and work the promotional angle for the fledgling outfit.

“I’m coming from a different perspective, from a musician’s standpoint, and I explained to those guys how many younger folks are listening to this station,” Barbra said. “They’ve gotten a lot of feedback from older folks, but there are a lot of younger folks tuning in. The only alternatives are the bigger stations playing the new country-pop, and they’re wanting the real deal.”

At 50,000 watts — the maximum allowed for an AM station by the Federal Communications Commission — WKVL stretches across East Tennessee and into the Carolinas, and Barbra said the Blount County station has the potential to serve as East Tennessee’s version of WSM-AM, the Nashville station that broadcasts the Grand Ole Opry.

“We have the same wattage that WSM puts out, and my vision is to make this the WSM of East Tennessee, which it can be,” he said. “This is where it all started anyway before they took it down to Nashville.”

Already, Barbra is bringing on board some sponsors who appreciate the music AM 850 plays. This week, Morelock’s Music owner Matt Morelock and local lit-rocker Phil Pollard are coming in to cut a commercial for Morelock’s downtown Knoxville music store, a 60-second spot the two wrote themselves.

“That’s what’s cool about this station — even the commercials are funny and good,” Barbra said. “This whole thing has a hometown feel, and that was a big selling point for me to contact them. I think that’s so important, man, to stay in touch with the hometown people.”

Soon, Barbra and Pirkle will launch their own show on the station. Tentatively titled “Jeff and Sarah Live,” it’ll be a one-hour program devoted to showcasing local musicians that will air at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays.

“For example, Sarah’s been teaching for a long time now and has students who are full-grown adults, out gigging and are just tremendous musicians, and we want to bring them in,” Barbra said. “There are a few people we have in mind who don’t fit on other stations because they might be too country. And we want to bring in some of the older guys from here in Blount County who just can’t make it Knoxville.”

The 11 a.m. time is designed to compliment, not compete with, WDVX-FM, the grassroots radio station broadcasting out of Knoxville with whom Barbra, Pirkle and most traditional country, Americana and bluegrass musicians throughout East Tennessee have had a great working relationship for years.

“I do realize how much and appreciate how much WDVX has done for me and Sarah,” he said. “They’re the reason we have a career today. We want people to be able to tune in to ‘The Blue Plate Special’ at noon every day, but the hour before on Tuesdays, they can tune us in. There’s no competition whatsoever. We just want to do something different and put our show on before they go on the air; that way people can enjoy both.”

When he’s not playing Don Draper for the station, Barbra has his hands full with a number of other projects. The Uncles have roughly 85 percent of their new album finished, he said, and hope to finish recording sessions at Music Row of Maryville before the band performs at September’s Rhythm and Roots Festival in Bristol. A gospel record that he and Pirkle have been working on for several months is 95 percent complete, he estimated, and he’s crossing his fingers that several of their songs getting cut by higher-profile artists will lead to discovery of their songwriting talents by more and more people.

“Off our gospel record, there’s a song Darrell Webb and I wrote that Rhonda Vincent is putting on her live gospel DVD that she’s going to be recording at the end of this month, and Dale Ann Bradley just cut Sarah’s ‘Come Home Good Boy’ for her new album, which is coming out in the fall on Compass Records,” he said.

Written by wildsmith

June 14th, 2011 at 7:50 am