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. Hes 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. Hes 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 WCNYs 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. Its equally amazing that Mr. Knowltons 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 didnt 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, Im going to play you the original record of Jambalaya. Its 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, Ive 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 universitys 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, Syracuses 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 wouldnt be caught dead listening to bluegrass on any other station, Mr. Knowlton said. Laughing, he added, They didnt 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. Its 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, Im thinking of what Im 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.
Im 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 Im 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.
Youre not limited to I love you and you dont 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.
Hes 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. Its just marvelous to see that. Its good for the future. The audience has always tended to be a little older. But I was worried about that 20 years ago. Its sort of like when you turn 45, you become a bluegrass fan.
Hes amused by the lack of respect bluegrass often receives.
Somebody said its 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.
Im going to do it indefinitely until they kick me out or I feel I just cant do it anymore, Mr. Knowlton said.
Hed like to hit 50 years with the show.
He then laughed, realizing hed be 84.
Well see, he said.
But like the music hes 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.
Its niche music, but its a stubborn form of niche music, he said. Its just not going to go away no matter how much the market turns its back on it.