Voices Unearthed (some great news)

I’m really excited.

This May is huge for lovers of oral history, like me–and for anyone with an interest in American culture, identity, literature, music, history, social movements, or art–thanks to a couple of major releases, out now. First, a previously unpublished book from Zora Neale Hurston–Barracoon, the true story of the last survivor of the last American slave ship–finally hit the stands on May 8. And today(!!) the Studs Terkel Radio Archive has unleashed unto the world a new website with nearly 10,000 hours of radio interviews from 45 years of Terkel’s legendary Chicago radio show.

I am beside myself, and can’t wait to dig into it all.

Hurston and Terkel were two of the first writers I fell in love with, and there aren’t many artists whose voices and visions have made a larger impact on my own way of understanding the world. Both of them were devoted to sharing the stories of “ordinary” people,  believing fiercely in the epic quality of everyday lives. Both advocated a grassroots, street-corner, front-porch, backstage approach to history, centering on those women and men who might otherwise be invisible, voiceless, marginalized, or forgotten. Both were champions of the spoken (and sung) word, the power of the human voice, and the hidden poetries of our day-to-day talk. And while both celebrated humanity in all its forms, with an eye always on the universal, both were uniquely and utterly American. A sense of place pervades their work–for Hurston it’s her native South (particularly Eatonville, Florida) and her adopted Harlem, while for Terkel it’s Chicago–but both artists capture in the sweep of their work a wide range of American experience, complete with all the complexities and contradictions, heartbreaks, struggles and beauty that that experience entails.
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Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” tells the story of Olalule Kossola–or, as he was called in America, Cudjo Lewis. Born in West Dahomey, Africa (today’s Benin),  Kossola was kidnapped in 1860 and illegally smuggled to America aboard the Clotilda, the last of the trans-Atlantic slave ships. He was enslaved for five and a half years on a south Alabama plantation; after Emancipation he and other survivors of the Clotilda established their own, independent community just north of Mobile, a place they called Africatown. Hurston traveled there in 1927 and 1928, and over the course of multiple visits she recorded Kossola’s story in his own words. Hurston was unable in her own lifetime to find a publisher for the book that resulted, and all these years later her original manuscript (edited by Hurston scholar Deborah G. Plant) is finally seeing the light of day. It’s a slim book, but a major contribution both to the historical record and to the literary canon.

The bulk of Barracoon presents Kossola’s story in his own words, an approach Hurston believed was essential for the project: contemporary publishers urged her to rewrite the story in her own voice but Hurston refused, insisting that the narrative belonged to Kossola, in his terms. Hurston’s voice is itself a crucial piece of the work, though, as she frames Kossola’s storytelling with brief descriptions of her visits to his home. They eat peaches or watermelons or crabs together and talk; he tends to his garden; she drives him here or there or offers him a hand with his day’s work. Some days he is gregarious and warm; other conversations are tense and brief. Hurston observes the awful weight of heartbreak and homesickness that shapes Kossola’s life, and she honors his need, some days, not to talk at all. I’m only midway through the book, and already Barracoon is proving invaluable for its presentation of Kossola’s unique voice and experience–from Africa through slavery to Emancipation and beyond–but it’s a treasure too for anyone with an interest in Hurston herself: a creative force whose mission, process, and personality inform all aspects of this book.

Then there is Studs. Over the course of a long career he published numerous books of oral history, most famously the landmark Working (subtitle: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do)–a book which I first encountered as a teenager and which, like Hurston’s Mules and Men, had a huge impact on the sorts of things I’d one day want to write about myself. In other books Terkel tackled the subjects of race, death, class, music, the movies, the Great Depression, World War II, the American Dream, social justice, and more. But alongside all those remarkable books he was building an equally impressive body of work through his radio talk show, broadcasting for nearly half a century on Chicago station WFMT. Nearly 2,000(!) hours of these broadcasts are now available at the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, which unveiled its new website today–and which promises many more hundreds of hours to come. The wealth of conversations here is staggering: Terkel talks to civil rights leaders, musicians, authors, historians, filmmakers, anthropologists, scientists, actors, activists, and a whole host of other culture makers. As in his books, he shares the voices of the unknown and unsung; but here he also speaks with an enormous cast of iconic personalities, engaging in conversation some of the most influential figures of the last century. I’m looking forward to listening to interviews with (for starters) Muhammad Ali, Dizzy Gillespie, and my cousins Cliff and Virginia Durr. Then there’s the 1965 interview with Tom Wolfe, who died yesterday; in it Wolfe discusses his just-published first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. Additional interviews are still being added: I hope that soon we’ll be able to hear Terkel’s talks with Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, Pete Seeger, Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy, and others. There are, of course, lots of musicians here: like Hurston, Terkel had a deep love for music–in particular for blues, jazz, and folk song–and his work, like Hurston’s, is informed at every step by music. But take a look around the archive, yourself, and see what jumps out. There is plenty here to explore.

For years I’ve wanted somebody to write a good biography of Studs Terkel; of all the unborn books waiting to be written, this is the one I’m most eagerly awaiting. Hopefully someone out there will get on that soon. In the meantime, we can keep ourselves busy and inspired with this incredible archive, and with Hurston’s Barracoon. I’m grateful to every person who had a hand in bringing either of these projects into the world.

I think pretty soon it’ll be hard to imagine how we ever managed without them.

Jug Bands!

“Wake up, mama, hear your rooster crow. One at your window, one at your door.”
— The Birmingham Jug Band,
“Wild Cat Squawl,” “Getting Ready for Trial,” and “Giving it Away” (rec. 1930)

A couple of Saturdays ago Birmingham Mountain Radio was beset by technical glitches, and my radio show hit the airwaves late — and even then in fits and starts. Because I didn’t want any of the music to get lost (I’d devoted the hour to one of my longest-running musical loves, the jug bands of the 1920s and ’30s) I cleaned up the broadcast and, while I was at it, added an extra half hour of music and history. I’ve uploaded it to the internet, here, so you can hear it anytime. Check it out.

As I explain in more detail on the show, the jug band craze of the ’20s and ’30s had its real start in Louisville before it found its greatest expression in Memphis. Other communities across the South could boast their own jug bands, and a handful of those bands made records. The extended version of Saturday’s show includes a couple of tunes from our own hometown group, The Birmingham Jug Band. I didn’t say much about this group on the air, so I thought I’d fill in a few blanks here.

One of the band’s members was Bogus Blind Ben Covington (Bogus Blind Ben, because he wasn’t really blind–how about that?), a banjo player and medicine show entertainer who also recorded a small handful of sides as a soloist. Mississippi bluesman Big Joe Williams claimed to have played in the group and cited Bessemer, Alabama, harmonica player Jaybird Coleman among the band’s other members; blues scholars have debated the accuracy of that claim ever since, and I won’t wade into it here. The remaining players come to us only as a string of evocative, shadowy nicknames: there was “Dr. Scott” and “One-Armed Dave,” a jug blower called “Honeycup,” and a washboard player known simply as “New Orleans Slide.” (How about that?)

An aside: right after I graduated from college, I got my first writing job as a freelancer for the All Music Guide, contributing artist bios and album reviews that still circulate, for better or worse, around the internet today. If you seek information online about the Birmingham Jug Band, you’ll end up looking at the couple of paragraphs I wrote a couple of decades ago. I learned a good deal while writing all those old bios, but I’m embarrassed now by a fair amount of the writing. Oh, well: I just reread the Birmingham Jug Band bio and it’s not so bad.

Here’s some of what it says:

“Of all the jug bands of the ’20s and ’30s, the Birmingham band had one of the most distinctive sounds on record, though their repertoire was significantly less diverse than that of groups like the Memphis Jug Band or Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Probably the only full jug band from south of Memphis to record, the group had a more rural sound than its contemporaries, reflecting the aesthetics of the country string band as much as the popular jug band. The group’s eight recordings are characterized by a prominent lead mandolin and equally prominent harmonica; gruff, heavy vocals; and a throbbing rhythm enforced largely by the insistently pounding jug. Also recording in the same Atlanta studio that day was King David’s Jug Band, another little-documented group; together, these two outfits produced some of the liveliest and most intriguing records from the height of the jug band era.”

I will certainly stand by that last statement: these are great records, rowdy and raucous and entirely infectious.

(A further aside: for the jug band bio I was awarded fifteen dollars and a byline. I was living in Asheville, North Carolina, at the time and waiting tables for a regional restaurant chain that described itself as “an upscale Applebee’s.” My income was supplemented with a few other money-making schemes, besides the All Music gig: I substitute taught, delivered the Yellow Pages, and put new strings on guitars and banjos at a bluegrass-minded music store. With two other friends I produced one issue of an oral history magazine, before we all moved on to other places and projects. For fifty dollars a month I rolled the trash cans at my apartment building to the street twice a week, and for another fifty I did the same thing at another building nearby. It was almost always sunny and I rarely thought about the future.)

But this was supposed to be a post about jug bands. I’ll leave it at this: I have been in love with jug bands for a long, long time, ever since I first discovered them in high school on a couple of Folkways records. Saturday before last I was lucky enough, even with the technical glitches, to play a bunch of those old songs over the radio. In case you missed it, or didn’t get enough, you can now stream the extended mix anytime your heart desires.

So. Give it a listen. Be well. Thanks.

P. S. I just remembered something else I wrote about the Birmingham Jug Band (I’ve spent a lot of time over the years contemplating this mostly forgotten band): I included them and their instrumental breakdown, the “Birmingham Blues,” in my little collection of “Thirty Birmingham Songs,” published in 2011. This is some of what I said then:

“Almost half of the songs recorded by the Birmingham group consist of essentially the same melody—their “Birmingham Blues” closely echoes their “German Blues,” “Giving it Away,” “Getting Ready for Trial,” and others—but each time and with some variation the band proves it can play the hell out of that particular tune. Other instrumental odes to the city would be recorded in later years … but Birmingham has never sounded better, freer, or wilder than in it does in this blues. (Anyone out there, incidentally, who believes the worn stereotype that the music of the blues is a depressive and mournful thing had better listen to this record and get right.)”

I’ll only add to that that I find all the repetition in this band’s repertoire totally endearing. The lyric at the top of this post appears in three of their eight recordings, running as a refrain through their work. “Wake up mama, hear your rooster crow–one at your window, one at your door.”

You have to admit, it’s a good line.

Girl Scouts, Lost Heroes, & the Soul of Man

One Saturday last April my radio show was visited by a troupe of Girl Scouts; they were working on their music badges, and one of the moms (my friend Marnie) asked me to talk to them about radio and share a little music history. I decided to focus on some of the Alabama music that I play on the show, and as a kind of handout I made them a little zine they could take home: “The Girl Scouts’ Guide to Alabama Music Heroes, Volume 1.”

The girls and their moms and a few dads came, and we talked about Alabama music and zines and radio. I recorded them singing a couple of songs, one of which I played over the airwaves a week later. “Make new friends,” the girls sang, “but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.” After the show, the troupe went on to make new friends at Seasick Records for Record Store Day, in further pursuit of their music badges.

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Troupe 30672 visits The Lost Child radio show, 2017

Originally there only existed about a dozen copies of the zine, and each was the property of a Girl Scout. But last month, for the opening of an art / history / photo show I put together at Crestwood Coffee, I decided to make some more copies for the general public, giving the zine its worldwide, non-Scout debut. If you want one, you can pick up a copy at the coffeeshop or at The Jaybird in Birmingham, or you can email me for one (burgin@bhammountainradio.com). They’re $3 each (plus shipping), or just $1 for Girl Scouts.

The show on the coffeeshop walls, both its content and design, was actually inspired by the original Girl Scout zine. “What is the Soul of Man?: The Roots of Alabama Music” highlights many of the state’s music heroes and traditions, with historic photos and original text. Included are more than a few forgotten heroes a handful of legends, all of whom made substantial marks on their musical communities and culture. It’s a history that incorporates jazz pioneers, old-time fiddlers, blues women, country brother duets, civil rights foot soldiers, rural singers, rock-and-roll harbingers, and more. The show is only up for another couple of days, through Tuesday, March 6, so I invite you to come out to the coffeeshop before it closes and check it out.

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After I take this down I think I’ll continue expanding it for some other location. There are a few segments I meant to get to before it went up, but never did — Muscle Shoals soul, Sacred Harp singing, Gennett Records’ 1927 Birmingham sessions, and so on — so hopefully there’ll be more to come, somewhere down the line.

In the meantime, come check out the current installation while you can. Hopefully you’ll find some history there that’s news to you.

“Have you ever heard any music like this before?”

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Kids, Collinsville, Alabama, c. 1898.

I spent a couple of hours today at the library, working on a project I’ll fill you in on later. I didn’t find a whole lot of what I went to the library looking for, but I did stumble into this happy tangent: photos of music and musicians from the history of Alabama’s DeKalb County.

All of these images come from various installments of the DeKalb Legend, a publication from Landmarks of DeKalb County, a nonprofit devoted to historic preservation. Landmarks put out a bunch of these books in the ’70s, compiling photos that stretch back into the 19th century. Included are all sorts of scenes from daily life, spanning much of the region’s history — but the images that got my attention, one or two of them every hundred or so pages, were those of the county’s musicians and singers. The Louvin Brothers grew up in DeKalb County; so did members of the band Alabama. But these scattered photographs give some insight into the everyday music of everyday people, a glimpse into a narrow geography’s wide-ranging musical culture.

It’s an incomplete record, of course, and we’re left to imagine the sounds themselves. But a dozen such photos from every county in the country would open up to us a history we’ve, at best, hardly heard.

Take a look:

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Photograph captions in the DeKalb Legend offer some details but leave others to the imagination. Here, “two unidentified ladies serenade Jesse B. (Peter) Horton, Jr. about 1902.” Beyond that the Legend simply adds: “Horton died in 1904.”

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“Joe Shields and his singing group at DeShields School — 1910.”

IMG_1146A blurry image from Chavies, Alabama, c. 1915: a big crowd for the “First Sunday in May singing.”

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A “patriotic musical” from 1918.

IMG_1170DeKalb County High School band, 1927. F. S. Thacker, band director, at right.

IMG_1140“Prayer Changes Things”: a scene from the Monroe Tabernacle, a “non denominational church built by Mrs. J. P. Monroe,” pictured here sometime in the 1930s. There’s a lot to look at in this one. I’m interested in the man outside, seen through the window, and in the moments (not pictured) when the boy, more or less center, picks up the small guitar in front of him. I’m curious too about Mrs. J. P. Monroe.

IMG_1129Sacred Harp singers, Mt. Herman Baptist Church, 1949. Leading the singing are Jack Stiefel and Riley Garrett: “the young and the old,” the caption says.

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“An old tradition: fox hunters dancing in the streets of Fort Payne about 1950.”

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“Newly formed band at Frederick Douglass High School in 1952,” directed by Lillie L. Trammell.

IMG_1151A political rally in 1956, Williams Avenue School, Fort Payne. Adlai Stevenson for President: “For All Of You.”

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“Musicians who specialize in modern spiritual music” — posed in front of a historic home in Fort Payne, sometime (undated) in the ’60s or ’70s.

And speaking of the modern — check out teenage rockers the Viscounts, also from Fort Payne, playing the “weekly hootenanny” at the DeKalb Theatre, 1963:
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The second Viscount from the left, by the way, is Jeff Cook, age thirteen; later he and a couple of cousins would form the band Alabama, a group clearly steeped as much in rock and roll as in country.

I’m going to leave you with this: a record the Viscounts (or VT-Counts) cut in 1964, “(This Is) Our Generation” — a 1960s Alabama teenage manifesto I’ve become kind of obsessed with. Give it a listen. I’ve transcribed the text, as I hear it, underneath the link.

Greetings and salutations
And all words indicative to a hearty welcome,
My celestial friends
This is Sweet Daddy Whitley
Talking to you cats and chicks about our generation.
Have you ever heard any music like this before?
This is our generation.
We made it what it is today.
Talk about the good old times
There were no good old times
This is it
There’s no need to wait around
This is it
This is our generation.
And his soul cries out: let me hear some more of that guitar

[solo]

That was the high priest, Jeff Cook, on lead guitar
And in the background you can hear bassman Bailey
The high
esteemed
bassman
And along with him is
Rhythm Ray
the DJ
on rhythm guitar
This age where rockets, satellites
Hot rods
Drag strips

And his soul cries out,
This is our generation

As I count the (ways of life? waves of rye??)
One
Two
They cry out, let me hear some more of that swinging sound

[solo]

That’s soul music
It comes from the heart
And soul
They think they had music a long time ago
This is our music
And before I close I would like to remind you
This is our generation.
This is it.
Live it up.
Smile a while.

*

That’s as good a place as any, I guess, to end this post:

This is it. Live it up. Smile a while.

Thanks for reading.

*

P.S. Okay, one last photo: I have to add that my favorite image of them all doesn’t take music as its subject, but I couldn’t leave it out. The image, which I included also at the top of this post, is labeled only “Collinsville School Boys, about 1898.” No explanation beyond that is offered, other than the boys’ names.
FullSizeRender-1They are, for the record, from left to right: Jesse Green, Victor Hall, Stanley Brindley, Charlie Hall, L. B. Nicholson, Carl Norwood, and Carl Brindley.

May they rest in peace.

Weekend Listening: Frantz Casseus’s “Haitian Dances”

In the 1940s, Frantz Casseus emigrated from Haiti to the U. S. because he wanted to meet Fats Waller.

That’s about as fine a reason to go someplace as I can imagine.

Sadly, the two men never met — Fats died about the time Casseus got to New York — but Casseus, a gifted classical guitarist and composer, went on to write and record some beautiful music of his own, adapting Haitian folk songs and styles to European classical traditions. “Frantz came here with the ambition to compose a distinctly Haitian classical guitar music,” wrote the guitarist Marc Ribot, for whom Casseus became a mentor. Casseus released three records on the Folkways label, creative and poignant works steeped in the rhythms, textures, and traditions of his native culture.

Here’s his 1954 album, Haitian Dances, my recommended listening for you on this cold weekend. It’s a short album: you can listen to it back-to-back-to-back, three times in a row, in about an hour. I’ve probably played it six or seven times already today.

P.S. It goes without saying. But thank God for Haiti and Haitians, and for Haitian-Americans — for Frantz Casseus, for example,  and the wonders he wrought in this country, his second home.

Frantz Casseus

Audio Archive: Frank “Doc” Adams remembers…

This weekend marks the five-year anniversary of the publication of my book with the great, much-beloved Alabama jazz hero, Dr. Frank Adams: a master performer, educator, family man, community icon, storyteller, and history-keeper known to many around here as “Doc.” Our book — Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man — tells Frank Adams’s story in his own words, drawing from more than two years of weekly interviews.

To celebrate the anniversary of the book’s publication, I’ve uploaded the first few minutes of the first interview I conducted with Doc, from July of 2009 (in the recording below, I attribute this interview to 2002, not catching my verbal typo). At the time, I thought I’d write an article about Doc and about the history of Birmingham jazz community. Most of all I wanted to preserve some of this man’s remarkable story and storytelling for posterity; beyond my vague ideas for an article I didn’t have much of a plan. But this interview turned into many more interviews, which turned in turn into our book — and eight(!!) years later, I’m still very hard at work on the book that’s grown out of that one, a history of jazz in Birmingham, and of Birmingham in jazz.

Doc died two years after the publication of this book — three years ago this month. It’s a joy to hear his voice again in this recording. I remember vividly the day of this interview, sitting across from Doc in his office, engrossed in his stories and his spirit. I had no idea that we’d record ninety-something more of these interviews, no idea that this recording would become the opening pages of our book. I certainly did not anticipate the friendship and collaboration that would grow out of this first session. For that friendship, above all, I’ll be eternally grateful.

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When the book was finished, Doc constantly instructed me: “Keep the book in front of people.” He believed, and I believe, that it told an important story — a story about more than jazz, and more than Birmingham — and a story that ought to be widely shared. He didn’t want it collecting dust on book shelves but wanted it to pass through as many hands as it could. So I’ll remind you on its anniversary that’s it’s still available from Amazon — and right now available at the best price I’ve seen on it yet. Maybe your library has it, or maybe you can get your library to get it. If you’re in Birmingham, we’ve got it for sale at our new store, The Jaybird. However you get your hands around it, I hope you’ll spend some time with this book and with Doc.

Meanwhile, here’s how this whole thing started: Dr. Frank Adams sitting in his office, age 81, talking about his father and his brother and his mother, and about his first musical performance — a brothers’ duet of “The Old Rugged Cross,” performed for the congregation of Birmingham’s Metropolitan A. M. E. Zion Church.

“That,” he said, “sort of hooked me on music.”

Happy anniversary, Doc.

Remembering Ralph (1928-2017)

Tomorrow on The Lost Child: You might not know Ralph Lewis, but you should. The seventh son of a seventh son, he was born into the Great Depression in the mountains of Madison County, North Carolina. By five or six he was getting his hands around a mandolin and soon was sitting in with brothers Ervin and Blanco, The Lewis Brothers, a popular regional act. When Blanco was killed in WWII, Ralph joined Ervin as half of the brother duet, developing a following around Niagara Falls, New York. By the late forties Ralph had landed in Detroit, where an audience, made largely of displaced Southerners, packed out local venues to hear his mixing of mountain music tradition with a creative, propulsive, high-energy bent: “I was playing rock ‘n’ roll and didn’t know it,” he later said, suggesting an affinity with modern sounds that would last his whole life. He moved back to North Carolina and played in a number of bands before joining Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1974, at a peak in Monroe’s career. After touring the U.S., Japan, and Europe with Bill Monroe, Ralph returned to Madison County, choosing to develop a band with his young sons, Marty and Don.

I first encountered Ralph, Marty, and Don when I moved to Asheville, NC, in the year 2000. Their band, The Sons of Ralph (Featuring Ralph) was an enormous local favorite, especially at Jack of the Wood, the downtown stage they made their headquarters. As he always had, Ralph mingled his family’s mountain music traditions with a wide-open, innovative embrace of influences, and with Marty and Don at his side Ralph was more than ever pushing the boundaries of bluegrass–really forgoing boundaries altogether–and mixing in an eclectic, electric range of sounds from rock and roll to reggae to Cajun music and beyond.

Ralph remained a fixture of the area’s musical culture and scene until his death last Saturday at the age of 89. I am grateful for the opportunities I got to see him and Marty and Don and their band, live on stage–grateful for the opportunities to participate in a community and family that extended beyond the stage to every person in the room.

I’m going to do my best tomorrow to play/pay tribute to Ralph on the radio. I’ll play a bunch of Sons of Ralph songs, and a recording or two of Ralph playing with Bill Monroe in Japan. I’ll play a few excerpts from an interview I recorded with Ralph in 2002. I will leave some things out, I’m sure, but it will be a heartfelt tribute anyway to a musician and a man I’ll always admire. You should tune in.

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The Lost Child airs Saturday morning from 9 to 10, Central, on Birmingham Mountain Radio: 107.3 in Birmingham, Alabama; 97.5 in Tuscaloosa; and streaming online every & anywhere at www.bhammountainradio.com. It will air again on Tuesday evening, 8/15, from 11 to midnight (also Central), at the same places. And it’ll air a final time at Radio Free Nashville a week from tomorrow: on Saturday, 8/19, from 10-11 (Central again). You can hear it there around Nashville, Tennessee, at 103.7 & 107.1 FM, or you can stream it anywhere at www.radiofreenashville.org.

Thanks, Ralph. Rest in peace–or, better than rest: keep having a raucous good time up there. You’ll be missed down here.