THERE IS a Dobro on the sofa. A Dobro looks like a guitar, but you play i
It's just a little three-bedroom rambler on a leafy street in Rockville, but inside are 12,000 record albums, all shelved and catalogued. A jazzman doesn't live here, nor a rock artist, but someone who'd rather queue up "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" by the Sons of the Pioneers than come to supper. Jerry Gray can play plenty good, but his true work turned out to be something else.
But what is that tune he's picking? Is it "Cool Cool Water"? Or maybe it's "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." Can't tell, for it's only a riff, over before you can say Patsy Montana. Jerry Gray puts the Dobro down, picks up his mug of coffee. "Slide on down here, let's talk," he says.
He is Washington-reared, with pearl snaps on his shirt and black boots on his feet. He has a helmet of hair and a waggle to his walk. His accent sounds straight out of Waco. Neat as sipping whiskey.
A city has many dreams, though by rights this one should be taking place in Waxahachee.
He went to McKinley Tech and American University, where practically everybody figured he was some kind of hillbilly. He was, in a way, even though he's spent most of his life in urban climes. But Jerry Gray was to get the last laugh, landing a career in broadcasting and, these days, a huge following on WAMU-FM. Jerry Gray may have the best deejay job in the country--and one of the oddest, on a 50,000-watt, listener-sponsored, noncommercial radio station. "Imagine a program director who says, 'You do it your way,' " he says.
So what gets played on the Jerry Gray Show every Saturday afternoon is what he calls the "real" country music, not the Johnny Paycheck take-this-job-and-shove-it variety; not the Kenny Rogers slicked-up, crossover, top-40 variety; but rather the old, original, pristine Western sound of cayuses and endless blue ridges. Songs about pioneers and right and wrong; songs about "true" values; songs about people who were country long before country was cool. Jerry Gray, an old-line Baptist, neither smokes nor drinks, and his music is a kind of aural equivalent of that.
So he sends out Gene Autry and Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers and Rex Allen and Bob Nolan and Hank Snow and Patsy Montana and Pee Wee King and, of course, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, who were to Western swing in the '40s what Benny Goodman was to a clarinet. Bob Wills never played the Rainbow Room, though he could have, no doubt. He played Cain's Academy in Tulsa, and they pumped that sound out over KVOO to all those hard-eyed dust-bowl Okies, trying to make it to just one more Saturday night.
When you listen to Bob Wills on the Jerry Gray Show, you can't help thinking of Walker Evans and Dorthea Lange, of John Steinbeck, of all kinds of bony Depression wrath. You picture dusty jalopies and people standing in the sun with cardboard suitcases in faded khaki, waiting for trains to take them to a better California, which of course wasn't better at all.
"The whole secret back then was radio," Gray says. "If you wanted to have pcople come l00 miles for a dance on Saturday night, you'd better be on a powerhouse station. Okie farmers would hear Bob Wills and come out of the fields; oil hands would come off the rig."
Ask him almost anything at all and Jerry Gray will give you a straight answer--except when you ask how old he is. He won't budge on that. Giving out his age could wreck a radio fantasy, he says, and fantasy, after all, is what the cowboy part of his radio show is about. "When they ride with me on Saturday afternoon, they're out riding the range," he says. Who knows, exactly, who "they" are--maybe even a president of the United States, who once played out buckaroo fantasies on a big screen.
Weekdays, Gray has a bluegrass show during what AM jocks call drive time. But it is his Saturday program, from noon to 3 p.m., that seems nearly inspired in its musical choices, that now has people tuning in from southern Pennsylvania and West Virginia and the Eastern Shore. Some of the albums he owns and brings into the station to play are vintage collector's items. He hunts them up all over the country. First thing he does when he gets to a new city is look in the Yellow Pages for used record shops.
So Jerry Gray is a kind of archivist, a scholar of a certain American dream that took place west of the Mississippi River. Or mostly west, at least west of all those New York skyscrapers. What this man doesn't know about country music: Simply say the words "Hank Snow," and he might say, "The man who never hit a flat note. They called him 'The Singing Ranger from Nova Scotia.' That was Brooklyn, Nova Scotia. He had had a bad childhood and went to work at 13 as a cabin boy on fishing boats. That's what his song 'Squid Jiggin' Grounds' is about."
Jerry Gray has hung wallpaper and audited for 7-Eleven and lifted General Electric fridges off a truck with a partner named "Brains." His first broadcasting job was in Front Royal, Va., at WFTR, which billed itself as "The Grandest Little Station in the Nation." He showed up at 5 o'clock the first day with two shopping bags of records. And he wasn't even the disc jockey--just the board man. He and the jock split $75 a week. These days, Jerry Gray carries his albums to the station in two K-Mart leatherette cases.
These days he sits in airy rooms at Ward Circle at a board of knobs and dials, introducing the work of people like Patsy Montana and Stoney Cooper and Doc Williams. Patsy's red boots now reside in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. She cut "I Just Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" in 1935, first country female to ever hit a million-seller.
Doc Williams? He made his name on the Wheeling Jamboree, which still comes at you over station WWVA in downtown Wheeling, W.Va. ("Fifty thousand watts of country music power, goin' every whichaway," one silver-tongued WWVA jock used to say.) Doc wore spangled suits and had a kind of Pennsylvania-Dutch-accordion sound to his music. His wife's name was Chickie and they had three daughters: Peeper, Poochie, and Punkin.
A while ago, when Roy Rogers came to town, Jerry Gray got out his tape recorder and went down to some big old Marriott meeting place to meet the King of the Cowboys, who had also been one of the original Sons of the Pioneers. Gray got some good stories, "and then them old Marriott boys began to just walk in circles and look at their watches. You should've seen them. Roy was late for some restaurant promotion or other. He got up to go, sat back down, and said, 'No, I ain't done talking to this boy yet.' He gave me all sorts of great stuff--like this one time the Sons were playing in a big movie house in L.A., and an earthquake started, and one of them just kept on playing while the house emptied."
What seems so odd about Gray is that his rich country voice grew up right here, "in the nation's capital," as he likes to put it. "Well, you always hear that Washington is a southern city," he says.
His accent did get some help from all that kin on the Northern Neck, though. What a crew that was. On summer nights down in Richmond County, Uncle Bradley would pass the fiddle over to Uncle Earl, who might pass the harmonica down to John B. And so on. Wasn't anybody in the house who couldn't play something. They'd roll back the rugs and just jam good licks. Go staight from one tune into the next and you're still trying to figure out how the hell they did it.
"John B. was the uncle who had gone out to the Coast. He ended up playing with some great Western swing artists. The B in his name stood for Beverley, or Bev, but he didn't like it much, so everybody just called him John B. Except us kids, of course. We called him 'Uncle John.' Down there, if you couldn't play something by the time you were 7, or at least 8, they'd start to look at you funny. Nobody'd actually teach you an instrument. They just expected you to play one. So there I'd be over in a corner, watching a chord. I didn't know it was an F. I'd say to myself, 'Now where did that sucker go?' "
He says this with a sneaky little grin rolling up. He probably learned to grin like that from Grandpa Minor. Grandpa was a carpenter in Newland, Va. He was level on the level.
"My mama came up here when she was 16 to get a job with the telephone company. Which was big doings. And her brothers came, too. The thing to do was to try to get off the farm.
"Initially, I suppose, I wanted to play, to be a musician, to be a star. I guess that's what anybody wants. But you gotta want to see that big S up there with the dollar signs on it. I never wanted it that much.
"At top-40 country they say, 'This is the list, and here's the stack of 45s.' I have no interest in commercial radio. I couldn't do it, though I once did it. I'm sitting right in the middle of all the music I love. As long as I can keep from starving."