"I have the best job in radio," says WAMU air personality Jerry Gray, the voice of bluegrass in the bluegrass capital of the world.
Gray also has one of the most eclectic jobs in radio--there's no station in this country that can boast a full-time bluegrass producer who also hosts a five-day-a-week show during prime afternoon drive time.
No other station can match WAMU's 23 hours a week of bluegrass programming, either, but then Washington's bluegrass fans have always let the station know how much they appreciate hearing their music by contributing more than their share at fund-raising time. "Fifty percent, like clockwork, every spring and fall," Gray says proudly. "It's amazing. You could almost set your watch to it."
Bluegrass and Washington may seem like an odd pairing, but Gray is proof of his own theory of how the two connected. "I personally think it started back in the Depression when people came here looking for work. In those days, the government was depression-proof. My father and mother ended up here looking for work. This was the first big city going north; when people came from the South, they brought their music with them. When I was a kid growing up, we'd have as many as 15 relatives come over to the house on Saturday nights and just sit up all night picking."
Gray first connected with WAMU as a student, doing "the first country show" there. "Of course, that was before it was 50,000 watts." In the late '60s, Dick Spottswood and Gary Henderson (the latter hosts two four-hour programs on Saturday and Sunday) convinced the station to give over a half-hour to bluegrass. Like a parking lot crowd at a fiddler's convention, it grew and grew. Gray signed on full time in 1980.
Each day, Gray puts his three-hour show together at his Rockville home, carting in 35 to 40 albums selected from a personal collection of 3,500 bluegrass albums. "I've got two nice leather cases, so it's easy to move 'em five steps to the car and five steps into the studio; same thing going home," he says. "I like having everything at my fingertips. By the time I get to the station, it's all done and I can just enjoy the music."
Gray deliberately programs 65 percent traditional bluegrass, "mixing up the pacing and all the things you have to do on radio--male and female, groups and singles, themes. I try and make the approach casual but the music is very carefully picked." Bluegrass, like jazz and classical music, tends to arouse conflicts between fans of traditional and progressive styles, but Gray generally avoids involvement in those battles. "I'm very fortunate in that I really like most of both," he says diplomatically. "It would be very boring if I had to play all one or the other. I lean toward traditional because our demographics and our pledge cards and our Top 40 voting lists each year show we have a primarily traditional audience."
Tonight, Gray will be hosting the second Bluegrass America concert at the Departmental Auditorium. It will feature the Osborne Brothers, Country Gazette and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Like the Winterfest concerts in February, the show will be carried live by satellite over 70 National Public Radio stations, spreading the bluegrass word even further.
Today will be a busy day for Gray. In the morning, he'll be doing his two-hour show of old country-western and western swing; after 11 years on the air, it's due to expand to three hours on May 1. After that, he'll probably be spending some time rooting around for out-of-print records. "I find great stuff in some of these second-hand record stores," he says. "Somebody in a family will die and the relatives will sell the whole collection because they have no interest or knowledge in it at all. There's some real treasures, depending on what's come in. There might be nothing one week, and the next week they'll take your wallet." When they do, you can bet you'll get your money's worth on Gray's radio show.