Hiding out in the upper right corner of the states, in Rhode Island, we have "Boudin" Dan Ferguson, whose philosophy and "work" ethic I greatly appreciate.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at, and what were those stations like?
Dan Ferguson: I have been at WRIU and only WRIU since 1987. WRIU-FM is at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, and it is your typical college station. They have block format programming and my show is one of five programs encompassing the 6-9 p.m. weeknight “Folk & Roots” block. I started training at WRIU in February of 1987 and, by May of that year, I was on the air with my own program airing every other Thursday evening from 6–9 p.m. It became a weekly program in November of that year, when the fellow I was splitting the slot with left. I initially called the show "The Thursday Night Barndance" in the tradition of legendary radio programs like "The National Barndance," etc. The program emphasis was old school country, country rock, old-time, bluegrass, Cajun, and zydeco. During a very memorable trip to Eunice, Louisiana, to participate in Mardi Gras, in February of 1988, I had many close encounters with boudin sausage. What with the Louisiana angle of the radio program, not long after returning from the trip I changed the name of the program to "The Boudin Barndance." It had a nice ring to it.
How do you describe your show, and how do you define what you play?
At the outset, I described what I played as “honkabillyswampgrass,” mixing traditional C&W/honky-tonk, old-time, rockabilly, Cajun, zydeco, and bluegrass. This was before the whole alt-country thing hit big around 1990 or so. As that movement took off, the show emphasized that subgenre pretty heavily along with C&W. Whereas the core of the program has always been honky-tonk and alt-country, my impatience with playing just a few styles over the course of three hours every week has seen the program branch into everything from old school soul and R&B to garage, surf, and flat-out rock and roll, and obviously the whole Americana thing. I like to mix it up and keep the listeners on their toes. The Boudin Barndance is a show with a definite pulse. Playlist archives are here.
How do you define Americana music?
At its outset, Americana seemed like a good “landing pad” for the various independent alt-country, folk, blues, and roots artists whose music did not fit neatly into rock, pop, or country. For me, the term provided an easy answer when people asked me what I play on my program. Before that, I’d get a little tongue-tied in describing the format of my show. Americana itself has evolved and the tent expanded, but I’m not always so sure in a good way. Seems like anyone not getting played on commercial radio is Americana. It also sometimes seems like the format where aging rockers go to keep their careers going.
How do you prepare for your shows? What thoughts go into preparing your sets?
My standard mode of operation each week is to bring up a big old Case Logic 60-CD carrying case stuffed with discs, along with a couple of tote bags, one filled with vinyl and the other with more CDs that don’t fit in the carrying case. The CDs and vinyl are usually a mix of the new and recent releases and various older stuff from my collection. There is also the “roots” music library at the station to draw from, which I pretty much maintain. I rarely prepare sets and mostly wing it every week. My standard set length is usually six songs and I usually get in about 6-8 sets during the three hour program each week. There are usually several sets (2-4) of music, mostly new releases.
Do you have theme shows or sets or spotlight certain artists?
I like to do a country music birthday set each week, playing cuts from the various old school artists celebrating during that particular week and using an old “Heather’s Little Country Calendar” [referring to artist Heather McAdams] as my birth date source. I also like to feature artists performing in the area, especially if doing a ticket giveaway. The remaining sets are a toss-up depending on the mood. If I hear something during the week on some other show over the web, it may give me a thread of an idea for a set. I also tend to do “R.I.P.” sets when artists I love pass away.
As for artist spotlights, I did an annual Gram Parsons special for about the first 15 years of the program. There was also an annual Doug Sahm special, which I began on the Thanksgiving after he died in 1998 and continued until 2014. I also began an annual Jim Dickinson special after his passing in 2009 and have continued it each August since. Other than those three, there haven’t been many artist spotlights other than the occasional “twin spin.” Oh yeah, there’s also the occasional live guest and that is mostly area artists.
How many new releases do you play? And do you play many independent artists?
I would say it is a 50-50 mix of new releases and “not new” releases. The “not new” can range anywhere from a record from a year ago to one from 80 years ago. If you classify independent artists as anyone not on a major commercial label (Sony/Columbia, Universal, Capitol, etc.), I would say about 90-95 percent of the show is independent artists.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music? When or how did you hear about them?
That’s a tough one. I have been buying records since I was a kid in the 1960s -- Beatles 45s at the outset, in the early 1960s. I was into variety of Southern and country-rock in the early and mid-1970s before taking a deep dive into punk in the middle and latter part of the decade. Whereas I listened to country music here and there, it wasn’t until the early-to-mid 1980s and those Rounder “Special Series” releases with George Jones, Carl Smith, Flatt & Scruggs, etc., that I began the deep dive into old school C&W. This led somehow to Gram Parsons and then hearing Dwight Yoakam’s debut, which led me to the Town South of Bakersfield compilations, which was a liftoff point of sorts for alt-country. There were also the likes of Los Lobos, X, the Plimsouls, and the whole L.A. thing, not to mention those Cajun, zydeco, and blues releases from Arhoolie Records. My tastes have been so varied and it’s hard to pinpoint any one artist or single album that turned me on. I’ve always bought lots of music.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre? What artists define Americana music for you ?
Some all-time favorites are Doug Sahm, Jim Dickinson (and his various endeavors), Gram Parsons, Lefty Frizzell, and George Jones. As for a single artist who defines Americana for me, when I first read of the creation of the subgenre, Joe Ely was mentioned as one of those artists falling through the cracks – too country for rock and too rock and roll for country – for whom Americana would be a place to call home. I guess he qualifies as an artist who defines Americana for me.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
I suspect as Americana becomes watered down, like most formats, it will find a more prominent spot on the commercial end of the radio dial and then someone will cook up some other category for us on the left end of the dial to be what Americana used to be -- and alt-country before that. As for over-the-air radio in general, based on what I see at WRIU, there is not the interest that there once was by college students to do a radio show. In the 1990s, kids were beating down the doors to fill an open slot. These days, we can’t even fill them, which is somewhat worrisome.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
My 2015 favorites included albums from Jake Fussell, Gun Outfit, Mikal Cronin, John Moreland, the Honeycutters, the Deslondes, Kevin Gordon, Chris Stapleton, Jeremy Pinnell, the Pollies, Promised Land Sound, Andrew Bryant, and JD McPherson. As for 2016, I’m a big fan and flag waver for Bloodshot Records and excited for releases from Freakwater, Waco Brothers, Robbie Fulks, and hopefully Lydia Loveless. The upcoming debut from Margo Price sounds like it’s going to be a good one and the new one from the Cactus Blossoms is terrific.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests? Anything else you wish to share?
My wife and I have been putting on a house concerts series called Roots Hoot House Concerts since 2001, during which time we’ve put on close to 200 shows of mostly touring acts. I’ve also been putting on a summer music event each July we call Swamp Stomp. It began in 2008 with the Bottle Rockets doing the honors and has since evolved to a 4-5 band bill each summer. This year’s is planned for July 16.
I have also been writing about music since the early 1990s. In addition to freelance work, I have been a weekly contributor of album reviews to the Southern Rhode Island newspapers since 1992. As for the radio, I still get as excited each week to do my program as I did back in 1987. I think of the program as an education for the listener, and nothing turns me on more than turning people onto albums and music I am passionate about.