Quite An Unusual Twang
Every Sunday on Radio 1190's 'Route 78 West,'
Uncle Jeff and Loki keep nearly forgotten sounds alive

By Bronson Hilliard
Colorado Daily Managing Editor

It's late Sunday afternoon in mid-December at KVCU Radio 1190 and Jeff Holland is scrambling a little bit. He's got records scattered from hell to breakfast: a Sons of the Pioneers album is still in its plastic protector, while a Brinsley Schwartz record called "Silver Pistol" is half out of its covering and a dozen or so CD's are sitting in a box ready to be removed and played.

Holland is a traveling museum of American music and he looks the part. A little over six feet tall, with at least a foot of it being impressive, slightly graying beard, he looks like a grizzled Union Army general, but with a gentler face and quick smile. He wears the uniform of his regiment - the flannel shirt and jeans of Wallstreet, the community west of Boulder and up Fourmile Canyon that is home to Colorado purists: the kind of folks who moved here years ago to be left alone with trees and old mineshafts.

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 banter."

"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 country hit.

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 '070s, respectively.

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 doorstep.

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.


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