Playing the Classics

"Country music is like Spam," claims disc jockey Rich Beall. "A lot of people don't want to admit to it, but they sure do like it." He pauses before adding, "Some people just don't want to come out of the closet and say, 'I like classic country.'"

While Beall doesn't reveal his opinion of America's favorite canned meat, he's eager to talk about the classic-country blend he plays for his employer, KYGO-AM/1600. For the past six years, this humble kid sister to Denver's number-one-rated station--KYGO-FM/98.5--has embraced the vintage country shunned by its better-known sibling and today's country-music industry in general. As a result, the station is an oasis in the midst of a radio wasteland.

Let mainstream country types hang their hats and corporate hopes on the latest hunks and hillbilly wannabes coming out of Nashville; the folks at KYGO-AM prefer to pledge their musical allegiance to the earlier, grittier predecessors of current country megastars. Garth, Billy Ray and Wynonna may be the big stars of the Nashville Network, but it's Merle, Hank and Loretta who receive the most air time on KYGO-AM.

KYGO-AM's trend-bucking seems like a recipe for the sort of commercial disaster that would put the executives at Jefferson Pilot (the media conglomerate that owns the outlet) in a tailspin. But even though it's part of a highly competitive radio market, KYGO-AM is proving to be the little station that can. In the latest batch of Arbitron ratings, it finished an impressive thirteenth among the nearly fifty stations in the metro area.

As Patsy Cline's "She's Got You" plays in the background, Beall offers an explanation for this success. "What we play here at KYGO-AM is soul music. Country music is soul music. It's the feeling of reality.

"You hear a lot of rap music," he continues, "but how many people have done crack or shot anybody, or done something like that? But in country music, how many of us have suffered the loss of somebody we really love? How many of us have regretted treating Mom bad? How many of us have gone out and done something stupid in a bar only to wake up hurting or regretting?"

If KYGO-AM's playlist is any indication, quite a few of us. A typical stretch of music on the station features a stirring, entertaining mix of songs about heartbreak, lost love and the pitfalls (and joys) of drinking to excess. Throw in a few laments about cheatin' hearts, a truck-driving anthem, a gospel number or two and an occasional ditty about prison or family, and you've filled an hour or so with some of the finest sounds on the Denver dial.

Program director Chuck St. John is the man behind this refreshing brew of American roots music--but he credits KYGO-AM's listeners with giving him an assist. "We get a lot of requests for the 'deep-meaning' oldies--the tearjerker, cry-in-your-beer numbers." Still, what makes the station's sound work, in his opinion, is "the fact that there's nobody else playing anything like this."

Indeed, the musical catalogue from which St. John and his staff select is far deeper than those used by most new-country stations. Five decades deep: Bob Wills, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Jeannie C. Riley, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Ray Price, Webb Pierce and Lefty Frizzell are among the artists that can be heard regularly on KYGO-AM. You'll also receive smaller doses of more recent, less compelling acts such as Alabama and the Oak Ridge Boys, plus a hefty portion of fine tunes by Dwight Yoakam, George Strait, Vince Gill and other modern traditionalists.

Autographed photos of several such new-country practioners decorate the interior of KYGO-AM's broadcast booth. One of the inscriptions asks: "Hank Williams Sr. on the radio? In the '90s? Yes!" And what if Hank were here today, trying to make it in the watered-down Nineties country scene? Beall replies, "He'd be playing to a select few people--drinking beer and feeling bad."

Maybe not. After all, most of KYGO-AM's fans keep tuning in to hear the oldies, not the latest smashes. But although the station's target audience is the forty-and-up crowd, St. John (who also hosts the outlet's morning shift) points out that plenty of young folks are listening as well. "It's amazing the number of people in their twenties who come up and say, 'You know, I really like that old music,'" he notes.

Members of Denver's growing "y'all-ternative" music scene are among KYGO-AM's youthful boosters. "It's not like I listen to only old music," says Slim Cessna, whose band, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, is one of Denver's C&W standard-bearers. "But KYGO-AM is about the only radio station offering anything worth listening to." Kurt Ohlen, leader of the Dalhart Imperials, a combo that specializes in rockabilly and Western swing, is another KYGO-AM aficionado. "As far as country goes, they're the best thing going because they play the old stuff--and that's far better than the latest 'hat' on FM," he says. "The music that comes out of Nashville now, it has no bite, no edge. It's lame."

Cessna agrees. "Garth Brooks isn't much different than Toto or Journey--except he's got a pedal-steel player and an accent. It's like the worst music you can imagine."

Beall shares at least some of these sentiments: "It's formula. That's the state, I think, of country music right now." St. John is not quite as critical. "There's still a lot of good new stuff out there," he insists, "but it seems like it's turned into a country-rock thing." In Nashville's frenzy to break the next big thing, he goes on, "something gets lost in the rush."

When asked if hit-oriented country radio could survive an occasional song by the genre's founders, St. John smiles. "They could probably get away with it, but we don't want to tell them that," he says. "We want to keep that to ourselves."

For his part, Beall isn't nearly so circumspect. Even when he's programming commercials or the afternoon news, he can't stop talking about the music he loves to play. As he sees it, "The generation we live in longs for a less complicated, purer time, and I think that's what classic country music provides. It's fun, it's simple, it's loving, it's hokey. It's everything you like!


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