After interviewing around 100 DJs, artists, and music industry people, this will be my last Radio Friendly column. I've known Rob Bleetstein for many years, and he is the perfect person for the last column. In addition to running SiriusXM's Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam channels, he goes to more live shows than anybody I know. Thanks and take care!
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business?
Rob Bleetstein: My interest and love for radio was pretty dominant in my teens and in high school I started working at the radio station at New York Tech University on Long Island. That led to college radio in San Jose at KSJS along with a gig at Record Factory, and it’s been nothing but a music biz-filled life since.
What have you done since then?
My first radio gig out of college was at KHIP-FM in Hollister, California, in 1985 with all the old DJs from the legendary KFAT. They were doing Americana in a big way before the term, obviously, and I started doing overnights and office work (rolling joints), and became music director within a matter of weeks. We were cranking Dwight Yoakam before he was signed to Warner and helped break him in the San Francisco Bay Area. From there I made a journey to Nashville in 1987, where I worked for Century City Artists Management (with Dwight and Desert Rose Band) before landing a song plugger gig at Bug Music Publishing. At the same time I was also doing a weekend freeform alt-country radio show on WNKZ-AM in Nashville.
Back on the West Coast in the '90s I created the Americana Radio Chart at the Gavin Report in January 1995. I was the Americana editor until the end of 1997, and while there were a ton of highlights during that time, the In The Pines adventure that I oversaw in New Hampshire remains an all-timer. I’ve been the New Riders of the Purple Sage archivist since 1994 and have produced six live CDs from their vault. I am also the webmaster for their site, www.nrps.net. From there I joined up with mandolinist extraordinaire David Grisman and his Acoustic Disc label, where I oversaw promotion, publicity, and marketing. In 2004 I began my foray into internet radio and programmed an Americana channel for radioio.com as well as a Grateful Dead, bluegrass, and classic country channel for them. That lasted until 2009.
What do you do now and how do you describe your business?
I’ve been working for SiriusXM on the Grateful Dead channel since 2007 and also on the Pearl Jam channel since 2010. I am a producer and host on both channels and was also doing the programming on the Pearl Jam channel for its first three years. I also program and host a separate Pearl Jam channel on the band’s website, which is also available on several apps. Along with that I’ve always got my ear to the ground and usually have some kind of side hustle going that keeps me in the Americana world as well.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
My life changed at 10 years old when I heard the album Powerglide by the New Riders of the Purple Sage. It was the first pedal steel guitar I ever heard and it must have rearranged my brain in some way as after hearing that, I said "I’m following that wherever it leads."
Who are your favorite artists of all time and why?
Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Gram Parsons, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Rodney Crowell, Willie Nelson, Shelby Lynne, Kacey Musgraves, and I’m sure I’m leaving someone out. As for why? Because they are all f’in great.
How do you define what Americana music is?
Seeing as how we started Americana with the hopes and intentions of creating a national radio format, defining it to me meant it encompassed all the elements of country music that country radio no longer played. While the radio format thing didn’t really happen like we’d hoped, what Americana has morphed into now is something greater than I ever could have imagined. I think in some ways it still means the same thing to a lot of folks, being an outlet for roots-based music that previously had no home.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
Well, it certainly is a different world from 20-plus years ago, as far as radio goes, but regardless of the way music is delivered or consumed, I think radio will always be around and remain a powerful outlet for a good percentage of the masses. Though I’m not sure the national format we strove for in the '90s is even necessary in this day and age, and I feel the outlets for Americana music are greater now and will continue to be in the future.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour to me proves what a truly great artist she is, not afraid to follow her musical instincts and heart and create music that challenges not only herself but her audience. I’m super excited for the world to hear Ruston Kelly’s Dying Star album later this year, as his star is surely on the rise. Margo Price rocks my world as she’s proven how real-deal she is with non-stop touring, and her song “Hands of Time” to my ears goes down as one of the all-time great country songs. Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers and this whole crew of insanely talented young musicians (Sam Reider, Roy Williams, Dominic Leslie, Grant Gordy) currently living in Brooklyn also super inspires me. Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real are such a great rockin’ hope for the future. Just witnessing their growth in the past six years has been a joy to experience. And Miranda Lambert’s The Weight Of These Wings album still blows my mind.
What are your greatest memories from working in the music industry?
Way too many to list, but at the top would have to be golfing with Willie Nelson on his course at his studio, as well as working with him on a syndicated program that unfortunately never took off (can you say ahead of your time once again?). Also producing a New Riders of the Purple Sage segment for the Grateful Dead’s Closing of Winterland DVD is something I’m proud of, and the memories of Emmylou Harris coming to the In The Pines retreat and making waffles for Americana radio people remains a great memory.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
Great music and artists and people inspire me. Great weed keeps me going.
How do you want to be remembered?
Exactly. Just being remembered will do.