Quite An Unusual Twang
Holland is no Rocky Mountain recluse, though. He is known
to Radio 1190 listeners as "Uncle Jeff" - an aficionado of country,
folk, honky tonk, country rock, surf, spaghetti Western and electronic
instrumental music. With his quick-witted and irreverent co-host "Loki,"
a ukulele-playing master of the soundboard and the clever aside, Uncle
Jeff hosts "Route 78 West." The show is a goulash of the aforementioned
genres, and it might just be the place that country music and its cousins
have gone to find a better homestead.
In 20 minutes the show will start, and as Uncle Jeff
scrambles, unwraps, scribbles and prepares, in walks the mid-20's Loki,
wearing a Sinatra small fedora and a red vest for Christmas and carrying
an instrument case that holds his ukulele.
"Sorry I'm late," he says. "I had to eat
on the way here."
Loki's been rehearsing a show with the Crispy Family
Carnival Spectacular, a local sideshow outfit for which he serves as both
an MC and a featured performer.
The two talk over the show, which tonight will have a
little bit of a holiday theme, along with the usual mix of old gems that
Uncle Jeff has brought in. The two head into the studio and the show starts,
kicking off with "Happy Go Lucky Trucker," an upbeat trucker
ballad by 18-wheel legend Red Simpson.
Meanwhile, out in radioland, a few loyal listeners - purists who miss the days when country had soul and no pop rhythms, genre-busters who yearn for free-form radio with humor and style and simple folks with redneck roots - turn up their radios. For two hours, these listeners will be home again, to where the music twangs and the sounds roll across the plains like Gram Parson's famed "Hickory Wind." They know they're in for a nice ride with some pretty good friends at the wheel.
Reviving Free-Form Radio
To hear Loki tell it, Route 78 West began as what he
thought was something on the order of a crank phone call. Back in 1998,
Loki hosted the morning show on Radio 1190, then a fledgling college station
just breaking into a heavily corporate, hopelessly unimaginative Denver
radio market. In homage to free-form radio, Loki had started playing a
cut called "Vintage Pick" - samples of records he'd inherited
from relatives or tucked away at the station - until, he says, "I
ran out of material."
"And one day I got a call from Jeff who said, in
his own scattered way, "I'm coming in." He came in with a huge
stack of records and just started talking. And pretty soon, he starts
giving me CDs he's made off his old 78s, pointing out what was significant,
and before long I've got him introducing the Vintage Pick on the show
and it just kind of took off from there."
The two became friends and later hosted a show on the
Internet radio program GoGaGa in 2000, calling their show "Route
78 West" in homage to Jeff's mammoth collection of 78 rpm records
and to a road in the Midwest frequented by truckers.
"The premise was trucker radio," says Loki.
"Old country, country rock and us having fun and talking."
The two took the show to KVCU in January of 2001 (following
GoGaGa's going belly up over the Christmas holiday) and continued the
formula - an interaction that both agree works on a careful formula of
reverence, discovery, humor and genre crushing.
"Genre is irrelevant," says Loki. "Ten
percent of every genre is great, but it's just a medium to create meaning.
The people who listen to us listen to the music and also to the talk and
"I think people, if they could hear it, would like
our show more than what's on country radio today," says Uncle Jeff,
a sound he says is embodied by the patent fakery of something like Keny
Chesney's "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," a recent mainstream
There's no fakery on Route 78 West. Uncle Jeff and Loki
manage an amazing flow of musical styles and sounds in their two hours
on the air, and while much of what they play has a twinge of humor and
self-parody in the grand tradition of country music, much more of it has
the earnestness the genre is also known for.
And how they mix it up: an old Texas swing song will
segue into a more traditional country number through a connection as elusive
as a bass line or pedal steel note. Behind the scenes, the two talk each
other into playing certain songs at certain times to achieve a thematic
or musical rhythm that works until Jeff cues Loki that it's time to talk
about the music.
"Sometimes I think this show exists just to justify
Uncle Jeff's preposterously extensive record collection," says Loki.
A listen to the music makes you think he's right on.
On this particular night, two weeks before Christmas, the show is in fine
form. Uncle Jeff and Loki spin Roue 78 West's unofficial anthem, Dallas
Wayne's "If That's Country" - a go-to-hell sermon against the
aforementioned pop sensibilities of modern popular country music.
In a long stretch, Uncle Jeff opens up with a record
from his collection, the old chestnut "Ghost Riders in the Sky,"
off Bear Family Records, an obscure German label that seems to hit the
nail on the head, Sons of the Pioneers, and it dates back to 1949.
Then it's a Dale Watson trucker song, then a detour into
the weekly spaghetti Western song - an Ennio Morricone cut from a film
called "I Lunghi Giorni Della Vendetta." That's followed by
a cut from the Tex-Mex, brassy-sounding band Calexico and then another
segue, this one into surf music: The Straitjackets doing a surf version
of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
At length, it's back to the folk-country sounds of Brinsley
Schwartz, an early punk-country band that featured later British New Wave
heros Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm. Ten things finish up with more holiday fun:
"Daddy's Drinkin' Up Our Christmas" by Commander Cody, riffing
on an old Buck Owens song.
To begin the new set, there's a circus song that follows a quick on-air chat about Loki's Crispy Family Carnival Spectacular. Uncle Jeff is ready with an old Bruce Springsteen number - "Wild Billy Circus Song," from an Italian CD of early, pre-superstar Springsteen music. The two are both organically immune to superstars, so the Boss's inclusion is special, but he fits in perfectly somehow with his smoky, deep-voiced narrative strummed and stripped down.
Riding Over The Bumps And Nights
At Bill & Nada's
Uncle Jeff came to country music by way of his Uncle
Ronnie and an old pickup truck. Young Jeff would ride, sometimes with
his dad and uncle and sometimes with his uncle and his Aunt Tink - "a
blonde beehive bombshell" - over the steep hills of rural Maryland
en route to the family's mountain cabin with the sounds of Hank Williams
and Lefty Frizzell blaring out of the pickup's radio.
He graduated from high school early, hitchhiked to California
as a teenager and ended up staying in Boulder and becoming absorbed into
the mid-70s music scene in town, fueled as it was by country acts like
Dusty Drapes and the Dusters. Folk and country rock were in, following
on the heels of the Byrds and Gram Parsons in the late '60s and early
By the early '80s he was a regular listener to Peter
Tonks' free-form radio show "Over the Edge" on KGNU, and beginning
to explore his own varied, edgy hobbies around Boulder. By 1993, he began
a gig that continues to this day, combining silkscreening and rock-n-roll
graphics to make some of the most evocative rock posters in the country,
all while assembling his amazing record collection in addition to playing
his own music.
Part of Uncle Jeff's Renaissance man resume includes
playing violin and 'fiddle,' and doing electronic music that some have
labeled "Armchair Techno" with a band called "Multicast."
Its mission, Uncle Jeff says, "is to make evocative statements without
singing." After all that, he works a day job as a cartographer for
the City of Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks division.
"Uncle Jeff is an extremely valuable resource,"
say Loki. "What he's been doing with poster design, underground electronic
music and Americana music has been important in making these links that
very few people make."
Loki is reverential to Uncle Jeff, who he says has been
a kind of musical mentor and role model. The former's on-air name is a
play on the tricky and unpredictable brother of the Norse god Thor. Loki
is really "Aaron Johnson, a former "threatre kid" from
Salt Lake City whose biggest pop culture influences, besides the Cure
and the Smiths, were the sheet music, stories and lore of his grandmother.
"My grandmother worshiped FDR and told me a lot
of stories about the American labor movement," Loki says, "To
this day, I don't trust anybody who doesn't have a close relationship
with someone in their 80s."
As a rebellious high school kid with deliberately eclectic
and cultivated tastes, Loki hung out at Bill & Nada's, an all-night
joint in Salt Lake where you could hear Tennessee Ernie Ford and Patsy
Cline and Marty Robbins on the jukebox while having pie and coffee. The
music sunk in the back of his head somewhere, but didn't quite take until
he got deep into the music of the 1920s and '30s, again by way of his
grandmother, and began to see the connection of folk music to country
and western and other related genres.
Uncle Jeff has helped to fill in the blanks of that Tinker
Toy experiment in progress, and Loki's own musicianship has also broadened
his horizons, particularly his fixation on the ukulele.
"I'd always liked small instruments," Loki
says, "but the first time I saw a ukulele, it was like a shot in
a Hitchcock movie. I was in my own kind of vertigo."
By day, Loki works with developmentally disabled teenagers,
and when he's not doing a show with the Crispy Family Carnival Spectacular,
he often volunteers to play ukulele music at retirement homes, where he
says he's been heartened by what the true power of music can engender.
Using some of his grandmother's sheet music, some of
which if rife with ukulele possibilities, he has seen amazing things happen,
such as when he made a recent connection with a woman in the advanced
stages of Alzheimer's disease.
"I was playing 'Hard Hearted Hannah' and I saw this
woman in the audience singing along, word for word. She was fully connected
to the music... she knew all the words."
When talking with her after the song, the woman was incoherent,
but for a moment the music had come back to her. Loki says his dream job
is furthering those connections, passing along what his grandmother introduced
him to as a child: the inherent greatness and value of stories and narratives.
For now, Route 78 West pushes him a little bit in that direction.
"My ideal is to talk to people about the things they love," he says. "The airways belong to the public, even though they're being hijacked by corporations. People are starving for something different, unique and true. It's important to remind people there's something real in our culture, and a lot of this music, with its history, does that.
The Show Goes On
It's getting close to 7 p.m. and Route 78 West is heading
into the sunset. Uncle Jeff tosses in an old gospelesque number from Porter
Wagoner - he of the bad complexion, pompadour and nudie rhinestone suits,
the mentor of Dolly Parton. The cut is an old one from 1951, "What
Would You Do" - a musical query on the appearance of Jesus at your
As Uncle Jeff and Loki begin putting things away, Route
78 West's Webmaster, Jay Niemoth, finishes off a few digital snapshots.
Selected hot shows on Route 78 West are archived on the show's web site
www.route78west.com, where listeners can also get playlists and can tune
in each Sunday for the show.
Then there's some Steve Earle and some Richmond Fontaine,
one of Uncle Jeff's favorites, and then, all too soon, the show ends with
the wide-ranging Uncle Jeff bemoaning, in his voice tinged with a touch
of country lonesome, the fact that time didn't permit the playing of one
of his favorite artists - a country giant and a throwback to his youthful
rides with Uncle Ronnie.
"We never got to Lefty Frizzell," he says wistfully.
Ah well, maybe next time. In country music and even out
on Route 78 West, there's always a next time.
Route 78 West can be heard on KVCU, 1190 AM, from 5 to 7 p.m. on Sundays. To visit Route 78 West, go to www.route78west.com. For more information on the graphic work of Jeff Holland, see his web site at www.cryptographics.com. And to catch a glimpse of the Crispy Family Carnival Spectacular and its performance schedule, visit www.crispyfamily.com.