Fauquier County's WKCW, 1420 on your AM dial, went on the air Jan. 1, 1960. It was the first station in the Virginia Piedmont to play only country and western music, which had been the traditional music of whites in the rural South since the early 19th century.
"Classic country music always tells a story," Tom "Cat" Reeder, one of WKCW's disc jockeys, said when we spoke at length recently. "Some people say it's just 'drinking and cheating' songs, but its precursor was the English ballad of Colonial times."
Reeder, 68, has been a country and western deejay for 48 years. He began working at WKCW two months after the station opened.
Appropriate to its music's style and vintage, WKCW is housed in a cinder block farm bungalow, built about 1950 and still out in the country, a mile west of New Baltimore. A wooden sign that says "Classic Country" sits on the lawn outside the front door. In the hallway is a plaque noting Reeder's 1990 election to the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame.
Reeder grew up on a cotton, peanut and cattle farm in "L.A.," as he refers to lower Alabama. When he wasn't plowing, he was listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. When he was 17, an uncle, J.V. Mizell, sponsored Reeder's band, the five-piece "Tom Reeder and His Blue Springs Playboys."
Reeder announced and sang, though today he says, "I can't carry a tune in a bucket.
"It didn't take me long to realize that I didn't want to plow behind a mule all my life, and so I joined the Air Force."
That brought Reeder to Northern Virginia. In off-duty hours, he announced country and western numbers in Arlington at WARL, the area's first "country" radio station, founded by Connie B. Gay in 1947.
Discharged in 1957, Reeder returned to Alabama and emceed at WABB in Mobile. "I played three hours of country and three hours of rock," he said. "I decided to call the show 'Tom Cat Rock and Roll Show.' I've been called 'Tom Cat' ever since."
In Mobile, Reeder developed a flair for grandstanding, once broadcasting for seven consecutive days from a makeshift perch atop a telephone pole to promote a Jerry Lee Lewis concert.
When WABB manager Robert Cobbins left to open WKCW, he asked Reeder to join him. Reeder did, in March 1960, and except for a year as a deejay at WYAL (You All) in Scotland Neck, N.C., and a year with his own KA$H Records in Nashville, he has been part of the Washington area's country and western scene.
KA$H Records released 15 country singles, or 45s, Reeder said. One of them, Gary Buck's "Happy to Be Unhappy," topped country charts in 1963. "But it cost too much money to promote the recordings, so I returned to emceeing," he said.
Three months after he started announcing at WKCW, Reeder emceed his first big event. Robert Gillian, manager of Dr. Aaron Gerber's Northern Virginia Shopping Center on the north side of Warrenton, asked the station to host a gala to celebrate the center reaching full capacity.
Gillian provided a flatbed truck, from which Reeder held forth in the center of the parking lot. "Reno and Smiley played," he recalled. "Don Reno and Red Smiley -- Reno on the banjo and Smiley on the guitar and singing. They were big then, and we drew a crowd of 3,500."
Warrenton had a population of 3,522 at the time.
That year also marked Reeder's first advertising sale, to Ben & Mary's [steak house] at Fletcherville, north of Warrenton. Owner Ben Golightly bought a $3 one-minute spot, but Reeder noted they would sometimes trade a $3 steak for an ad.
Reeder remains one of the few disc jockeys who sells spots. WKCW's current rate is $35 a minute.
Also in 1960, Reeder, Cobbins and Eddie Matherly, another WKCW announcer, leased the Hunter's Lodge night club on Lee Highway east of Centreville.
"We had 600 people there one evening," Reeder said. "Every member of the Grand Ole Opry was there. In those days, a Ray Price, the 'Cherokee Cowboy' or Earl Scruggs might have charged a thousand a night. Big names were affordable; today, they're not. They'd charge $20,000 to $25,000."
Reeder recalled that tickets sold for $4 or $5.
Reeder left WKCW in 1961, when Cobbins became manager of WDON, a country and western station in Wheaton, and asked Reeder to be his deejay. As Reeder remained at WDON until 1975, I turned to Robert "Red" Shipley to recount WKCW's interim years.
After graduating from Orange County High School in 1956, Shipley began emceeing at WJMA (named for President James Madison, born in Orange), and from 1966 to 1972, he emceed the 6-10 a.m. show at WKCW.
He credits Matherly, his predecessor, with holding to the bluegrass style, described by Reeder as "high [voice], lonesome, haunting and sad."
Matherly, known on the air as "Momma's Country Young Un," was "solid on old country and bluegrass," Shipley told me recently. "Matherly was a firecracker and imparted to the station a great deal of its popularity. It was then known as 'Big K.' "
Matherly died at a country and western show at the Uline Arena in Northeast Washington at age 37. "Died of a heart attack -- really, hard livin'," Shipley recalled.
Shipley said Art Barrett's "Hymn Time for the Home Folks" followed his early-morning show. Barrett was a WKCW fixture for a score of years, beginning in 1962.
Gary Henderson, who worked as a weekend deejay at WKCW during the 1960s, transferred the format to "Stained Glass Blue Grass," his title for the 6-10 a.m. Sunday staple on WAMU-FM in the District.
Shipley took over "Stained Glass Blue Grass" in 1982 and has run it since then. Henderson is still involved in bluegrass at WAMU, and every Saturday night, he airs "Bluegrass Overnight," an all-night country and western program.
Reeder and Shipley emceed the National Championship Country Music Contest, held each August from 1960 to 1979 on the shores of Lake Whippoorwill, east of Warrenton. "We often emceed, a little money on the side," Reeder explained. The Warrenton-Fauquier Junior Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, renting the two-acre pond and its grounds from Wallace Saunders Sr.
"We had these categories: female singer, male singer, band, fiddle player, banjo player and singing group," Reeder said. He recalled some of the winners as Roy Clark, Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean and Dean's future wife, Donna Meade.
Admission was a "couple of dollars" for the all-day and into-the-night event. "Sometimes, we had 10,000 people there," Reeder said. Fauquier had a population of 26,375 in 1970.
A shooting at the lake ended the concerts in 1979. Whippoorwill survives as a big puddle in the midst of housing behind P.B. Smith Elementary School.
During those decades, similar country events were fixtures at Watermelon Park on the Shenandoah River in Clarke County, the American Legion Park at Culpeper and Shady Grove near Gaithersburg.
At Shady Grove in 1964, Buck Owens's "Buckaroos" played, and emcee Reeder asked Tom Brumley, who played steel guitar in Owens's band, to write a theme song that Reeder could use as a sign-on. Brumley came up with an instrumental that he named "Tom Cattin." With the Buckaroos playing, it has been Reeder's sign-on for 38 years.
His sign-off, which he has used for his 48 years on radio is: "May the Good Lord take a liking to you. I hope you live as long as you want and never want as long as you live. Bye, bye, darlin'!' "
Those words returned to WKCW in April 1975, when station manager Stewart Lee Brooks lured Reeder from WDON. Referring to the years since, Reeder mused, "Twenty-eight at one radio station, that's unheard of in country and western."
WKCW morning listeners rarely missed a Reeder sign-on or sign-off, for in 28 years, he hasn't missed a day because of bad weather. He leaves his Centreville home at 4:30 a.m. and gets to the station at 5.
As Reeder and I spoke, we were interrupted by phone calls from listeners making requests. He said the five most-requested numbers were "Walking the Floor Over You" by Ernest Tubb, "Crazy Arms" by Ray Price, "Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way" by Carl Smith, "Walking After Midnight" by Patsy Cline and "Take This Job and Shove It" by Johnny Paycheck.
Reeder laughed when he mentioned the Paycheck song. "A lot of people don't like their jobs, but I do," he said. "I don't consider this a real job. Why, I've never even signed a contract, just a handshake."
As to the decline in classic country music stations, I called Hamilton's Stilson Greene, former band leader and popular-music critic for the Loudoun Times-Mirror.
"We're homogenized," he said. "Nearly all the radio stations now are owned by four or five big conglomerates. They play middle-of-the-road and play it safe. Country isn't safe."
I also called Winchester's Jack Fretwell, who has been involved with country and western for more than 60 years and taught and mentored Patsy Cline. After I mentioned the lack of stations, even with a near doubling of population, he replied: "Well, there's hardly any country left. It's all suburbs."
Eugene Scheel is a Waterford historian and mapmaker.