Forward Into the Past 

Going back in time to get forward in ratings

Going back in time to get forward in ratings

Something new and exciting is happening on country radio in Nashville—and much of it is 30 years old or older. It involves one of Music City’s most venerated radio stations, and its rallying cry is a catchphrase spreading among country-music enthusiasts throughout Middle Tennessee: “deep catalog.”

The phrase belongs to Eddie Stubbs, fiddler for the bluegrass group the Johnson Mountain Boys, announcer for the Grand Ole Opry, and, until recently, part-time WSM-AM deejay. Before he moved to Nashville last year to play as a sideman with Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright, Stubbs hosted a famous public-radio country program, The Eddie Stubbs Show, on Washington, D.C.’s WAMU-FM. Over the past year, on his hugely popular WSM Saturday-morning broadcast, Stubbs has tapped into an audience starved for classic country music—not just the Top 10 hits of 10 years past, but several decades of obscure singles, old request-line favorites, and even album cuts buried deep in an artist’s catalog of recordings.

On July 8, WSM-AM showed just how large it believes that audience is. It made Eddie Stubbs the station’s weeknight jock from 7 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday.

Part historian, part low-key raconteur, Stubbs is giving disenfranchised country listeners an antidote to the logjam of hat-of-the-month acts on Top 40 country radio. Without consultants to dictate his playlist or labels breathing down his neck to break new artists, Stubbs is free to provide five stubbornly unpredictable hours of music each shift. “You play a lot of music I don’t care for,” one listener told Stubbs, “but I never know what’s going to come next.”

That may be the show’s chief virtue. During a typical set—assuming there is such a thing—you might hear Waylon Jennings’ 1972 hit “Good-Hearted Woman” played back to back with Skeets McDonald’s 1960 single “This Old Heart,” which features a young Johnny Paycheck on harmony vocals. Then might come “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide,” a 1951 bluegrass tune by Johnnie & Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys, or Billie Jo Spears’ lusty 1975 hit “Blanket on the Ground.”

Instead of driving listeners away, the offbeat hard-country mixture is drawing an audience, in much the same way old-time honky-tonk has lured new listeners to Lower Broadway. “We’ve had only positive response,” says WSM-AM program director Kyle Cantrell, who says he’s been stopped everywhere from on the street to backstage at the Opry by fans of Stubbs’ new show. “We always hope to educate younger people to the music—that is a mission of ours.” Even though Cantrell insists that Stubbs’ show isn’t part of a format shift to older country music—the station’s “original country favorites” format spans everything between Garth Brooks and the Carter Family—there’s no denying the growing presence of artists like Jimmy Martin and Bashful Brother Oswald during morning drivetime play.

“I believe I play nothing newer than 3 years old,” says Eddie Stubbs with unabashed pride. Each night, he broadcasts from the lobby of the Opryland Hotel, where visitors frequently drop in and wave or deliver requests. (The strangest of these was a woman who plastered her flesh against Stubbs’ studio window and begged him to play Neil Diamond. Politely but firmly, he refused.) On the subject of his varied playlist, he’s fond of quoting Opry veteran George Hamilton IV, who told him, “There’s room for all of us [on country radio]. Don’t throw the parents out with the bath water.”

Cantrell is well aware that boosting Stubbs, the Opry’s Friday-night announcer, can only boost the station’s flagship program, which has suffered declining attendance and even rumors of a reduced performance schedule in the offing. “We want the Opry to be healthy,” Cantrell says, “and having an Opry announcer [on during weeknights] certainly helps.” Stubbs, who grew up listening to the Opry’s faint signal in Gaithersburg, Md., is the best advertisement the Opry could have: His enthusiastic plugs for the weekend shows are frequent and genuine.

What holds the show together, other than the remarkably consistent quality of the songs, is the warm, intensely knowledgeable presence of Stubbs. His obvious love of music and willingness to take dedications—and make connections with his listeners—are the hallmarks of radio at its finest in any genre. And his taste is impeccable. “Now here’s some deep-catalog Johnny Paycheck from 1967,” intones Stubbs, cueing up Paycheck’s four-star barroom lament “Jukebox Charlie.” Moments later, Paycheck’s drawl issues from the speakers: “Hello, Joe—I’ll have the usual.” The trebly steel guitar cuts through the stillness of the Nashville night like falling stars.

If Stubbs’ evening slot takes off the way his Saturday-morning show has, WSM-AM may have received a mandate from country listeners. Last November, Stubbs was given SM 650’s well-listened 6-10 a.m. slot on Saturday mornings, an old-time-country show previously hosted by Cantrell himself. Stubbs retained the show’s format; if anything, he went back even further into the station’s archives, blowing the dust off ancient bluegrass and honky-tonk records that hadn’t been heard on the Music City airwaves for years. When the Arbitron ratings for the first quarter of 1996 were released last spring, WSM-AM’s Saturday-morning show was second only to WSIX-FM among all listeners, garnering a 12.8 share and an average audience of 27,300. What’s more, the ratings showed that listeners tuned into Stubbs’ broadcast 45 minutes longer than WSIX—longer, in fact, than any other Nashville station on Saturday morning.

At a time when country radio is being assailed on all sides—largely for paying lip service to traditional country while crowding the likes of Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Willie Nelson off the airwaves—Eddie Stubbs and WSM-AM are to be commended for expanding its horizons. WSM, after all, is the station that lured aspiring country singers to Nashville by exposing them to the Opry’s wide range of performers and songs. By giving increased airtime to Haggard, Jones, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and other giants known more by reputation than experience, WSM is once again reminding listeners—including, no doubt, many young country hopefuls—that what matters in the music is not short-term chart success but lasting substance, be it vocal, instrumental, lyrical, or melodic.

“I don’t ever want real country music to die in this town,” Eddie Stubbs says, as Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” throbs mournfully in the background. From the steely edge in his voice, you can tell he plans to carry the flag into battle himself.

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