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Bill Knowlton still on a roll with “Bluegrass Ramble”

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LIVERPOOL — Bill Knowlton apologized upon greeting his guest at WCNY Classic FM. Due to a blown transformer, the power was out in the Old Liverpool Road area and the station was running on generator power.

Shortly after Mr. Knowlton sat down with his guest in the dim studio where he records his weekly bluegrass show, the power went out completely, causing everybody in the building to be evacuated by flashlight. The interview was moved to his Chevrolet Monte Carlo in the parking lot.

Bluegrass just has a way of keeping Mr. Knowlton on the move.

He emcees more than a dozen bluegrass festivals each year as far away as Murfreesboro, Tenn. He’s a regular emcee at the annual Thousand Islands Bluegrass Preservation Society Festival in Stone Mills, the Tug Hill Bluegrass Festival in Lowville and the Madrid Bluegrass Festival. He’s the producer and emcee of the Central New York Bluegrass Ramble picnic, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in August.

Last year, Mr. Knowlton was invited to Nashville to receive an International Bluegrass Music Association Distinguished Achievement Award. It honored, among other things, his efforts to save Ryman Auditorium, a Nashville icon that was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.

But Mr. Knowlton, who stands out in a crowd at his emcee gigs with colorful, patchwork pants, is most recognized for his radio show, “Bluegrass Ramble,” heard from 9 p.m. to midnight Sundays on WCNY Classic FM, a public radio station. In January, it will celebrate 40 years on WCNY’s airwaves.

He finds all of this amazing for a former New York City kid who became infatuated with “hillbilly music” the first time he heard it. It’s equally amazing that Mr. Knowlton’s bluegrass show is an institution at a station where most music comes standard with violins, not fiddles.

“This music has changed my life,” Mr. Knowlton said.

Mr. Knowlton, 74, first heard his calling when he was 16 while living in Jackson Heights, Queens, where he was brought up.

“Like any other teenager in the ’50s, I was right into the mainstream of pop music, and this was pre-rock ’n’ roll in the early ’50s,” Mr. Knowlton said.

He said the “popular music heroes” at the time included Joni James, Frankie Lane and Rosemary Clooney.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but they were doing covers of country songs, or hillbilly songs, as they were called back then,” Mr. Knowlton said.

One day a disc jockey on his favorite pop station “was being kind of smart” after playing the song “Jambalaya” by Jo Stafford, Mr. Knowlton said. The song came complete with a female background chorus and tambourine.

“The DJ said, ‘Just for fun, I’m going to play you the original record of “Jambalaya.” It’s by this guy who wrote it, somebody called Hank Williams,’” Mr. Knowlton said.

The stark instrumentation and the lonesome, soulful voice hooked him.

“I just absolutely freaked out,” Mr. Knowlton said. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve never heard anything like this before.’”

He needed to hear more.

He found Don Larkin and his “Hometown Frolic Show” carried by WATT in Newark, N.J. He also dialed in shows on WOV in New York City, and at night, when AM waves travel farther, he eagerly tuned in WWVA in Wheeling, W.Va.

He also desperately sought out live acts. In 1954, his father drove him to Wheeling for a concert. In 1955, he and two school buddies took a “24-hour, God-awful bus trip, before interstates” to the Ryman Auditorium. He would often take the train to New Jersey and walk a mile to a ballroom where Mr. Larkin would bring in acts.

“It had just gotten the name of bluegrass,” Mr. Knowlton said. “Before that, it was just another form of country music.”

The style of music, Mr. Knowlton said, was named after Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. The basic instrumentation is banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass, mandolin and often dobro.

rise of the ‘Ramble’

Mr. Knowlton first took to the air with bluegrass as a student at Fordham University in New York City, from which he graduated in 1960 with a degree in radio communication. His “Bluegrass Ramble,” heard on the university’s WFUV-FM, aired in 1959 and ’60. When his parents moved to Connecticut, his show, with the same name, aired over WBZY in Torrington, where he worked, until 1962.

Mr. Knowlton at that time joined the Air Force and was stationed at “various places,” including a year in Vietnam and in Dayton, Ohio, which he said was a hotbed of bluegrass music in the early 1960s.

In 1972, Mr. Knowlton was assigned to the 21st North American Air Defense Command Region at Hancock Field in Syracuse.

He began volunteering at WCNY-FM and told its management about his “Bluegrass Ramble,” which had been off the air for about a dozen years.

“I came at the right time,” Mr. Knowlton said. “They had a void they wanted to fill.”

At the time, WCNY-FM, which originally signed on in 1971, had a “hodgepodge” format consisting of jazz, classical and talk. When WONO, Syracuse’s previous classical station, switched formats in 1979, it donated its classical music collection to WCNY-FM, which adopted that format.

“I thought, ‘There goes the ‘“Ramble,”’” Mr. Knowlton said. “But it was grandfathered in.”

Because of that, Mr. Knowlton has accidental bluegrass fans who are primarily classical music fans.

“I have a considerable amount of classical music fans who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to bluegrass on any other station,” Mr. Knowlton said. Laughing, he added, “They didn’t get up to turn the dial in time.”

But classical and bluegrass fans share a trait, he said.

“Classical music fans like their music up front,” Mr. Knowlton said. “It’s not elevator music. And neither is bluegrass music.”

Mr. Knowlton, an unpaid Classic-FM contributor, usually tapes “Bluegrass Ramble” on Thursdays for its Sunday broadcast. He uses music from his own collection in his Liverpool home. He used to record the “Ramble” live, but he maintains its live feel.

“I sit there for three hours and do it like a live show,” Mr. Knowlton said. “While the record is playing, I’m thinking of what I’m going to say next.”

On his Oct. 21 show, Mr. Knowlton, who is not married, told his audience it was his “selfish show” because he had just celebrated his 74th birthday.

“I’m going to play things I want to hear,” he said.

He opened with Sonny Osborne and the Sunny Mountain Boys singing “The Hit Parade of Love,” recorded in 1956. Next up was “I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” by Red Allen and Frank Wakefield.

Such wide-ranging themes are one of the things Mr. Knowlton likes about bluegrass.

“You’re not limited to ‘I love you and you don’t love me and I lost you forever,’” Mr. Knowlton said. “We have songs about being homesick. We have a lot of dead mother songs, and some of the old Appalachia songs are murder ballads. We have songs about ghosts and losing the farm.”

He’s confident bluegrass will keep its loyal fan base.

“I see more young people playing bluegrass today than I did 20 or 30 years ago,” Mr. Knowlton said. “It’s just marvelous to see that. It’s good for the future. The audience has always tended to be a little older. But I was worried about that 20 years ago. It’s sort of like when you turn 45, you become a bluegrass fan.”

He’s amused by the lack of respect bluegrass often receives.

“Somebody said it’s like you have an eccentric uncle who you love dearly, but when company calls, you tell him to go up to the bedroom,” Mr. Knowlton said.

But the veteran radio host has no plans of ushering out his “Ramble.”

“I’m going to do it indefinitely until they kick me out or I feel I just can’t do it anymore,” Mr. Knowlton said.

He’d like to hit 50 years with the show.

He then laughed, realizing he’d be 84.

“We’ll see,” he said.

But like the music he’s committed his life to, Mr. Knowlton is resilient. Three years ago, the former couch potato began swimming. He does 50 pool lengths daily.

“It gives me energy,” he said. He plans to continue sharing that energy with bluegrass fans.

“It’s niche music, but it’s a stubborn form of niche music,” he said. “It’s just not going to go away no matter how much the market turns its back on it.”

The details
WHAT: “Bluegrass Ramble”
WHEN/WHERE: The three-hour radio show hosted by Bill Knowlton airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on WCNY Classic FM at 90.9 in the Watertown area, 89.5 in Utica and 91.3 in Syracuse. It also can be heard on the station’s website at http://www.wcny.org/radio/listen-now/classicfm.
For a sample of “Bluegrass Ramble,” go to http://www.wcny.org/radio/bluegrass-ramble-sundays.
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