The Big K's radio antenna rises above the Blue Ridge foothills, above the Baptist churches and the signs for polled Hereford cattle, beaming out 75 miles to listeners in such small Virginia towns as Barboursville and Rixeyville.
This is WKCW, better known as "Big K," a traditional country music station that broadcasts to a faithful audience from a farmhouse atop a grassy hill near Warrenton, about 45 minutes southwest of Washington.
Although it sits squarely in the path of advancing suburbia, Big K is determined to remain the kind of station that will broadcast a recipe for barbecued pig's feet or take a Conway Twitty request from a housewife in search of uplifting floor-scrubbing music.
"You mean, will Big K go 'uptown?' " asked Tom (Cat) Reeder, a Big K disc jockey who lives in Falls Church. He shook his head.
"No, sir," said station manager Bobby Jo Watson. "We want to go back further into the past, if possible."
This is a radio station of morning Scripture readings and yodeling bluegrass, a station that celebrates wedding anniversaries and mourns lost listeners.
When a local minister was buried last week at the Hillcrest Memory Garden, the Big K remembered him with a song: "Going in the Eastern Gates."
"They mean a lot to us, these listeners," said Watson, "and when they pass on, we like to honor them."
In an era of slick Top 40 presentations, the Big K offers instead "Hymn Time for the
Homefolks," a half-hour of country gospel.
Then there's the noontime music show sponsored by Glascock Grocery and Lehew Well Drilling ("Some people dig gambling in Vegas, but you take Larry Lehew -- he digs wells.").
Big K refuses to play new country rock hits, sticking instead to a trusted formula of old-time country music, such as Kitty Wells' 1953 release, "Paying for That Back Street Affair."
"My old songs get played on that radio," said recording artist Jack Greene of the Jolly Greene Giants, "but my new ones don't."
Wrote listener Pat Kennedy of Dumfries: "It is the only sta- tion where I can call and request songs by Webb Pierce, who has always been my favorite country singer. It's too bad he retired."
And, if Big K deviates from its traditional programming, its telephone lights up with listener complaints.
"They call up and they'll say, 'Let me talk to Bobby Jo,' " said Watson.
"I'll get on the phone, and they'll say, 'Bobby Jo -- now, you know that Eddie Rabbitt thang ain't country. I want you to get that thang off of there.' "
And Watson will see to it that the Eddie Rabbitt song is lifted from the turntable.
Big K is so popular among a certain audience that, several years ago, an estimated 10,000 fans signed petitions to get the station inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"Out here, people are glued to their radio all day long," Watson said, trying to explain that phenomenon. "It's not like in the city, where they turn it on for a few minutes, switch stations and turn it off.
"Here, if we say, 'Go buy a car from Rick Hunt Ford,' they do it -- as God is my witness. They say, 'Bobby Jo told me to go buy a car from Rick Hunt Ford. How much is it?' "
The petition failed -- there is no Hall of Fame category for radio stations -- but Watson was so touched by his listeners' devotion that he has kept the stack of yellowing petition forms.
Bobby Jo Watson. A guitar player, he once recorded a song that peaked briefly at No. 94 on the country hit charts. "Funny, it was the first song I recorded where I wasn't trying to sound like Elvis," he said.
He wears a cowboy hat and Desperado boots. He keeps an Elvis calendar by his desk, with a Budweiser clock, a stuffed 5 1/2-pound largemouth bass and photos of such country music personalities as Rose Ann Horton, Miss Big K 1985.
It was through the Miss Big K contest that Watson discovered the newest of the station's six regular staff members.
Becky Nicholson, 17, had never been in a radio station until three months ago, when a friend urged her to try out for Miss Big K 1987.
Nicholson was too shy. During her reign, Miss Big K has to wave during parades, pass out Big K bumper stickers and visit terminally ill hospital patients, among her community duties.
"It didn't fit," Nicholson said.
But Watson liked her soft mountain voice, a voice with the Virginia Blue Ridge in it, and her gingham looks.
"Becky, how much education you got?" he asked.
"I dropped out of high school."
"Well, that's just the person I want," Watson said. "I don't want no college graduates around here, because a lot of times they don't have the sense to do anything."
Today, Nicholson -- renamed Becky Starr because it sounds snappier -- hosts the station's midday show.
"Oh, Lord, it's fun," she said. "It's crazy.
"Man, they got me hooked onto this music, and I didn't never think I'd be into this kind of stuff."
Although Big K claims to be the oldest continuous traditional country music station in the nation, having begun broadcasting in 1960, its claim is disputed by Marjorie Crump, general manager of Norfolk's WCMS, which calls itself "the country leader."
Regardless, Big K is unique for this area: a home town country station that is alive and well at the edge of the Washington metropolis.
"It fills a need," said Jo Walker-Meador, executive director of the 8,000-member Country Music Association in Nashville.
"People know they're going to hear country music from top to bottom on Big K, and they listen because of that," said Peter Kuykendall, editor of the Manassas-based Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine.
That is, when they can get it. Big K's signal -- 1420 on the AM dial -- seems to fade in and out, disappearing here, reappearing there.
Said Watson, who lives 64 miles south of the station, in Ruckersville: "I get the Big K at my house. It drops out at the light -- there's a traffic light there, at the Tastee-Burger -- but then it picks up again, loud and clear, all the way to Charlottesville."
Loud and clear, that is, until sundown, when Big K signs off with its traditional goodbye trilogy: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Dixie" and "America the Beautiful."
"In the winter, we have to stop at 5 p.m., which is very depressing," said Watson.
"Can you imagine, just getting off work, wanting to hear Hank Williams sing "Your Cheatin' Heart," and you get the Big K saying, 'Good night, everybody.' "