Once you get the bug to DX the AM band, out of your expanded choice of stations you typically find yourself a regular listener to some far-flung station after the sun sets. When I was a kid in southeastern Michigan, I got hooked on WCFL in Chicago, specifically listening to Bob Dearborn night after night. He had this late-night feature “Long Gold" where he’d play the full album version of a song that would normally abbreviated on top 40 radio (or perhaps not played at all). Seems silly now, but hearing the full version of the Animal’s “House of the Rising Sun,” or “Sky Pilot” seemed pretty heavy back then. (Remember when “heavy” was a good thing?)
Anyway, my longest DX love affair with a far-off radio station came a few years later. While still in Michigan, I came across the “Road Gang” on WWL in New Orleans one night in the mid 70′s. And for the next twenty years or so, WWL was always a signal I’d seek out when I could get my nocturnal fingers on a tuning knob.
Booming up the Mississippi basin, WWL comes in like a local many nights in the Great Lakes region, around a thousand miles to the north of the transmitter. In my listening experience, WWL at 870kHz has been the most dependable long-distance DX on the AM band. Although the reception isn’t nearly as reliable or clear here in the northeast.
Certainly, the original appeal of picking up the Road Gang back then was just how exotic
it was to a Midwestern kid in the suburbs. The host back then was a guy named Charlie Douglas
, and the music was old shit-kickin’ country music. Better yet, I discovered a whole country sub-genre
– trucker music.
Songs like “Girl on the Billboard” and “A Kiss and the Keys,” are still favorites here at the house.
Then there were national weather reports, given by state and interstate highway. And commercials for every aspect of the trucker lifestyle. There was a time travel appeal as well. The whole approach to radio was from an era before I was born. Each time check was tagged as “King Edward Cigar Time.”
Actually, The Road Gang kind of started a radio format– the all-night trucking show. Today there’s a number of them, and none nearly as good. Douglas hosted the program for 13 years, until moving into some big national gig in Nashville. And weekend host of the Road Gang, Dave Nemo
, moved into Charlie’s weeknight spot. And despite the rambling chatter that got me this far into the post, I’ve finally gotten around to the subject at hand– The man who moved into Nemo’s weekend slot on the Road Gang: John Parker
Now considered radio legends, Charlie Douglas and Mr. Nemo were fun to listen to at the helm of the Road Gang– homespun showmen for the working class. But for a bundle of reasons John Parker was absolutely my favorite host on the show. With a big rugged baritone and a grab-bag of cornball slang and 18-wheel idioms, Parker was a humble charismatic voice in the night. A true radio companion for truckers, night owls and country music lovers.
So, let’s get to the meat of the matter. Here’s a full ninety minutes or so of Parker on WWL (in two parts) from January of 1988. As I said, WWL in New Orleans has a heck of a signal into the Great Lakes Region. Hear for yourself. Radio waves traveling roughly 920 miles arrive amazingly intact upon arrival. One thing you get used to when spend much time listening to distant AM stations, is "fading." You find that even loud and clear signals sometimes slip away into near nothingness (or reveal other faint stations on the same frequency). But the gaps are usually brief, and like so many things with AM & SW listening, often unpredictable. But the fading in this reception is pretty forgiving, and and doesn’t happen all that often. I think I made this recording because the signal was just so damn strong that night.
This aircheck is unscoped, meaning nothing was edited out, including the news and commercials. As you can hear from the “Interscan” weather reports, it was a cold snow flurry kind of night across America. And John himself was nursing a cold, but it hardly dampened his spirits. It’s Dave Nemo’s voice you hear on the truck stop commercials. I remember when I first set foot in the Slidell Union 76 trucks stop after hearing those ads from afar for so many years, I felt like I was on hollowed ground or something.
Yes, all the the trucker trappings of the show were a lot of fun, both for the real working class authenticity, as well as the corny mythos of American Trucker. But it was all the the great music that kept me coming back to the Road Gang over the years. This one program is responsible for making me a lifelong country music fan. The music format of the Road Gang was deep into the history of C&W– pin-balling all night from honky-tonk to old-timey to western swing, bluegrass, Nashville, Outlaw… The whole 40 acres. Each night a unique rich patch of tunes.
Then late each Saturday night, Parker held court for two hours on the AM dial with one of the finest music programs I’ve ever heard on the AM dial– "Country Music The Way It Used To Was." No slouch in music history, Parker was assisted by a musicologist or two in putting the show together. And each week he conducted a freewheeling country and western seminar, featuring hits and rarities from the first 40 years of country recordings. What a great program this was. So often, a deep musicology driven radio show like is presented by some excitable geek host, or a dispassionate or unprofessional one. And they’re like shiny museum exhibits on FM. With Parker you get history, music and great radio, and his program is on the historic AM band, where the music was first heard.
So let me offer you a couple of 47 minute chunks of "Country Music The Way It Used To Was." This first aircheck comes over a year after the first two in this post. And in that time I had actually moved from Michigan to New Orleans. So instead of having to put a special radio in a special place at a special time to pick up WWL, it was now a loud and clear local. So these two episodes of "Country Music The Way It Used To Was" are crystal clear AM broadcasts. However these airchecks are slightly edited. When I made these recordings I edited out most of the commercials, as well as the weather and news.
The first selection comes from February 26, 1989. (You may note that Parker makes note of their new satellite connection/syndication with KRVN in Lexington, Nebraska. It was a way of opening up the west to the Road Gang (foreshadowing the show’s eventual national syndication). Nice eclectic mix in this hour– some tasty Texas Playboys, wacky Lew Chlldre and a bit of very early Johnny Cash (Little Woolly Booger?).
The next offering is from "Country Music The Way It Used To Was" broadcast August 13, 1989. Some solid from Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, who were also passengers on the fatal plane crash that snuffed out Patsy Cline’s life as well. But what always gets my attention when I hear this archive are the songs by Hank William’s wife, Audrey. Wow. I never knew she was talented that way.
In ended up in Florida for the first half of the 1990′s, and despite the fact that WWL’s transmitter is a few hundred miles closer to Tampa, the signal doesn’t have nearly the oomph it does beaming toward the north of New Orleans. I rarely picked it up while I was there. When I moved to New York City in ’97 I totally lost track of the Road Gang until I got home internet a year or two later. Then when looking online I discovered the program itself had relocated to Nashville. And although it was still syndicated on WWL, Parker had fallen off the schedule
In the summer of 1999, I sent a few emails to some folks at WWL trying to find out what happened to Parker and whether he was still on the air somehow. When I finally did get a response, it wasn’t good news. “John Parker still works for us,” the woman wrote. “He’s the overnight board operator… on from 11pm to 5am.” Board operator? One of my favorite radio voices was reduced to pushing buttons and adjusting levels? Don’t get me wrong, I think radio engineering is a noble profession. But it was distressing to hear that a great radio talent was reduced to technical duties.
The email from WWL gave me the number to reach Parker at the controls and assured that if I called in the middle of the night “John might be inclined to pick up.” As much as John Parker was an inspiration, I wasn’t inclined to reach out as a fan on the phone. I mean, what would I say?: “I thought you were really great on the radio. What happened?”
One thing I did learn from my time in New Orleans is how hard it is to leave the Crescent City. Especially if it’s always been your home. If you’ve never been there you might not understand, but suffice to say New Orleans has a sustaining quailty for those who love its humid maternal grace. (Which made the Katrina fiasco all the more tragic.) So it’s only a guess, but tend to think Parker didn’t follow the show to Nashville because he wasn’t willing to run away from home.
Then again, the music-heavy trucking radio format on continent-covering AM stations (as created by Charlie Douglas and others in the 1970′s) is long gone anyway. Beside’s the Road Gang on WWL, there were also semi-national overnight shows out of 50,000 watt AM giants WLW in Cincinatti and WBAP in Fort Worth. Now trucking radio on AM is like most of what you hear on the dial– syndicated talk radio, only instead of discussing politics or sports, its trucker talk. Which can be kinda fun, but it’s not like hearing rare Bill Monroe tracks at three in the morning.
But the funny thing about that triumvirate of trucking radio shows that used to rule the night, is that like some rock supergroup the big named hosts from each program joined forces a few years ago to invest their decades of radio into an truckin’ all the time national satelittle station. The "Truckin’ Bozo" from WLW and the "Midnight Cowboy" from WBAP have teamed up with Dave Nemo to host their own programs on the "Open Road" channel on XM Radio. Since I’ve never been near an XM radio, I’ve never heard "Open Road." And while I realize that time marches on, I still have an aversion to paying a fee to listen to radio.
A year or two ago I ran across a fellow traveler in the radio business, and in the course of our introductory conversation we discovered we had both worked in New Orleans, which somehow led to the topic of John Parker. I found out this man I just met had been a fellow board-op with John. Apparently, Parker never let on that he used to be one of the hosts of the Road Gang for many years. As I write this I don’t recall all the details of our conversation, what stuck with me is that although this guy really liked John Parker, in real life he wasn’t exactly the easy-going gentleman I heard on the radio. He noted that Parker could be moody and odd. Even an introvert. Or maybe he was just pissed off that since he couldn’t or wouldn’t move to Nashville with the Road Gang that he was reduced to babysitting knobs instead of talking to half of America? And the most significant fact gleaned from that conversation was that John Parker had actually stopped living not that long ago.
So, my little anecdote of radio glory ends on a sad note. Both John Parker and thoughtful overnight music programs like his on U.S. clear channel AM stations are really part of history now (OK, there’s still WSM…) DXing medium wave just isn’t as much fun. And personally, I guess I blew my chance to pick up the phone and thank him for all those nights of great music and radio fellowship.
So, if you never heard Parker on the Road Gang years ago, I humbly implore you to have a listen. And get a taste of what it was like to have Honest John Parker bumpin’ around in the dark, makin’ all that noise.