The Country

I wish I could travel more. Not a lot more, but a little more. But this year’s been tougher than most and even the quick excursions upstate haven’t been as common as in recent years. For any number of reasons I’m not so picky about traveling. Just about anywhere’s interesting for a day or two. And as is my nature, I’m always curious about what’s on the AM dial there. While moving through the FM Band can feel a little like strolling through the local mall, a journey though the AM dial can be more akin to viewing a town from railroad car window (if you’ve ever done that). You may actually get a feeling for how a town gets its work done. And perhaps a sense of how the other half lives. That kind of thing.

What I really like (and what I’d like do a lot more often if I had my way) is to get as close to nowhere as I can, within reason. To drive and drive until you can see the Milky Way clearly and distinctly after dark, and where local radio stations don’t really exist. Then when the sun sets on my picnic table or in the rented cottage I’m suddenly closer to the entire continent and the rest of the world when I turn on my radio. It’s such a powerful feeling to turn through the shortwave dial with no stray RF bumping and buzzing and whining through the frequencies. And then when I look up at night I can almost get a grip on my place in the galaxy. Or at least it feels that way, which is good enough for me.

That didn’t happen this year, so my almost annual trip to see the family in Michigan was even more anticipated. The dusty trail surrounding our galaxy is a little vague in the sky there. And the lights of sad old Flint have their corner of the sky. But the stars are much better. And so is the RF pollution. So, from my brother’s deck at night I still occasionally find my place in the broader circles of existence when the weather’s good. And I hear some radio too.

But that’s not what this post is about. Here I’m featuring the sound of small town radio in daylight. This particular station transmits just south of Flint, and it’s an earnest little heart-warmer. The call letters are WCXI, and this isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about this modest wonder. It’s a simple classic country outlet. No frills and only a thousand watts. But the music’s great.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 1 of 4
(download)

Brian Barnum (who I believe is the DJ in all four of these airchecks) is rock solid. Great voice. Low key banter. He doesn’t sound all that old, but his approach is old-fashioned. No matter what happens during the breaks between the music, whether he’s doing a live ad or talking about the weather or a local event, he’s usually arranged some seamless way to introduce the next song within the subject matter at hand. He’s almost as good as Tony Oren that way.
                           
I didn’t go through these recordings in any detail, but I did listen to quite a bit of them as I prepared them to post. I heard some hits I knew, some singles I never heard before and a few neo-traditional things I liked quite a bit. My only complaint was that I don’t know that heard any western swing. I mean, you gotta play Bob Wills every once in a while.

As I mentioned, I already posted a few airchecks from WCXI. And I go more in depth into the history of the station in this post. I just happened to catch a few hours during this trip. Just for my own enjoyment, and I thought I should share. There’s some funny whirrish noise on these recordings, which is mostly noticeable during the mic breaks. Some problem with some stray RF combined with some an auto-gain issue with the radio, tape deck or the radio station. If you can get through Brian’s breaks the music will blossom through relatively clear once again. And don’tcha just love a mandolin?

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 2 of 4
(download)

A lot of people associate country music specifically with the American South. But once you get into the broad appeal of the genre you realize that country and western is as at home in the plains of Canada as it is in Kentucky or Texas or California. And in Michigan..well, that’s somewhere in between all that. And there’s lots of southern transplants around Detroit and Flint from the era when the automotive industry was still healthy and profitable.

One thing that’s always been associated with country music is the hardscrabble life, having to make a living with your hands. (Or trying to…) And that’s been part of the southeastern Michigan lifestyle since the settlers arrived. Through the 20th century a lot of farmers came to this part of the country to get the best jobs an unskilled laborer could hope for– building automobiles. Like my grandfathers. But they didn’t live long enough to see their beloved Pontiac and Oldsmobile brand names disappear into history. Like we are.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 3 of 4
(download)

After you spend some years away from the area of the world that raised you, you start to get a better grip on the character traits of the culture where you learned to be a person. At least that’s been my experience. When I go back to Michigan I don’t so much feel at home as I feel almost reluctantly defined by the unassuming flatlands surrounding Detroit. The rust belt is full of reservation and restraint and a measured way of talking. WCXI always reminded of that introverted Michigan countryside. (Or at least the few miles you can see of it from US-23 out that way.) I hear it in some of the songs as well as their paced and simple approach to broadcasting. And I’m fond of the understated enthusiasm of Brian Barnum on the radio. It kinda reminds me of how I prefer to experience life in the face of adversity. Calm and Michigan. Nothing extra special.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 4 of 4
(download)

The last aircheck here is from the end of their broadcast day. But at least they’re still there, every day until six. And I don’t know for sure, but I suspect WCXI is one of those stations where the DJ’s might still be choosing some, if not all, of the music you hear when they’re on the air. Is that radical or what? Can’t they afford some consultants?

And if you happen to find yourself within the range of their one thousand watt transmitter you might wanna can call in and make a request. But please only one per day. Give everybody a chance.

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3 Responses to “The Country”

  1. George Says:

    Bravo! You are a man after my own heart, Professor!

  2. tdevine Says:

    So Birach owns that station eh? Not 2 miles from here they own AM-700 WDMV broadcasting to the Washington DC area. Do they program an authentic classic country station like WCXI ? Of course not, they ran basically a dollar-a-hollar type outfit. Now its been off-air for MONTHS while sorting out personal affairs or something.

    We do have a station dubbed “Radio Earl” on AM-1520 also coming from a small town (Brunswick MD) programmed locally and is a daytimer.

    http://www.radioearl.com/

  3. prof Says:

    Yeah, I think most of Birach’s stations are brokered operations. In the Detroit area they have an ethnic station with a lot of lively programming, WNZK. They have a live stream worth checking out. They actually switch to the frequency next door at sundown, which something I’ve never seen before.

    I’m checking out the “Radio Earl” stream right now. What I’m hearing is most certainly automated and not nearly as quirky as WCXI. But it sounds like they have a live morning show. The music selection seems to be a little more modern, but not bad. I do wish WCXI would broadcast online.

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