I'm always on the lookout for new rootsy DJs, especially non-US ones, and I check the playlists on TwangDJ's Yahoo Group to see what others are playing. This week, we have a reguar TwangDJ contributor from up north in Canada.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio, and what other stations have you worked at?
Allison Brock: Alternative rock station CHEZ-FM in Ottawa was my first radio gig back in 1981. I had always loved radio and would often call in to request lines. It was truly a dream to actually be on the radio and spinning records.
CKIK-FM in Calgary was my next station. I started there in 1983 and became music director a year or so later. KIK was a groundbreaking station out west and we often added artists and tracks before most other stations would. They’d often check to see what we were playing before (maybe) adding tracks.
These were both commercial stations, and I left radio behind in 1989 or so for major-label promo and marketing gigs with A&M, Sony, and Virgin. Then I got Wide Cut Country placed at CKUA in Calgary, Alberta. It caused quite a stir when I first went to air with it as the station was well known and respected for its classical and jazz programming. “Country” was considered low-brow!
Where do you work now?
Almost 20 years later, my “low-brow” radio gig is still Wide Cut Country and still on CKUA! The station is actually Canada’s oldest public broadcaster, pre-dating the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster) by several years. My time slot is 10 a.m.-noon Mountain Time every Saturday morning.
CKUA has added lots more specialty roots/Americana programming to their schedule since WCC began, and the main comment I get when listeners meet me is: “I never liked 'country' music until I listened to your show.”
How do you describe your show?
Well, it’s … “Wide Cut” country! I do actually have to credit an old boyfriend with coming up with the name. He was a pilot and they evidently use a fuel called “wide cut.” It fitted perfectly for what I envisioned the show being when I was initially outlining the idea for CKUA.
I play classic country through to recent Americana releases with NO Top 40 (unless they might happen to fall into the “classic” part). Without trying to fulfill any Canadian Content requirements, there is always a large percentage of Canadian acts who get spins each week. The station plays a hefty dose of Cancon overall, so I never even think about that. Basically, I play what I like.
What thoughts go into preparing your sets and do you have theme shows or sets or spotlight certain artists?
CKUA is donor-supported. Wide Cut Country usually has a donor for every hour of programming. My initial phone or email contact with each donor ahead of putting the show together will often spark an idea or theme that will take me so far. Many of them end up saying “Just do what you do,” which is also just fine. Either way, once I have the first track I am usually good to go. I do still get a large part of my inspiration from browsing my vinyl and CD library. Spines and covers are much more inspiring than file folder icons on a screen.
I do themed shows occasionally as well as interviews when time and circumstance allow. With just two hours of airtime a week, I tend not to dwell too long on deaths or other “occasions” but always try to spin several tunes from acts who are touring Alberta.
I always check other TwangDJ playlists, but if I hear something that is getting lots of spins elsewhere and it doesn’t click with me, I’ll often ignore it if I don’t think it is strong enough. Occasionally, I’ll come back and give an album a second chance … with mixed results overall.
How much new releases do you play and do you play many independent artists?
No set formula for new releases vs. older tracks. I spin a lot of independent acts but again with no preset formula. Some shows may by more top-heavy with indies and some may lean more to “majors.” With new releases it is more dependent on what I receive during the week in the mail (preferably) or by download. Some weeks can be feast, others famine.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
I was more of a rocker at school and even the commercial stations I worked for leant mostly that way, but I think I got my first real hit-to-the-head moment hearing Garland Jeffreys' Ghostwriter album for the first time on Montreal’s CHOM-FM before I was in radio myself. It opened up a whole world of sound to me at the time. Rock was there. World music was there, and roots was there too. Definitely my a-ha moment, album and artist. Garland is still a go-to act for me today. He is still “vital” in every sense of the word.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre and what artist defines Americana music for you?
Really hard to nail down a favorite, but Johnny Cash certainly defined Americana. Journeying from mom & pop TV star through to his Rick Rubin-produced albums at the end of his days. He pretty much defined and defied the genre.
Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Willie Nelson, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Garland Jeffreys, Gurf Morlix … they all define Americana. As did The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds, The Band, Waylon, etc., etc. before them. As did Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and the Opry stars before them really. They all get tossed into the mix today even though the genre wasn’t a genre back then.
How do you define what Americana music is?
I try not to define it, really. If you remember when it was first cool to dig “indie” bands and acts, then you will also remember how the majors started signing “indie” bands and way too much music just got designated as “indie,” which was a complete oxymoron. While I still use (and like) the term “Americana,” it has become a bit of a catch-all term over the years and isn’t as definable as it once was.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
I really don’t know. There were naysayers back in the '80s who figured radio would be dead in a decade. Formats, names, and genres change, but the music is still coming out of radio speakers. Hopefully, it will continue to do so.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
As always, there are lots! However, I have to say that two amazing songwriters out of Manitoba have blown me away recently, on disc and live: William Prince and Richard Inman.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
Again, lots! During my label days I got to work very closely with Leonard Cohen when I launched The Future. Presenting John Lee Hooker his very first Gold disc for The Healer.
Having Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal on my show live at the (August) 2013 Edmonton Folk Festival and having Rosanne say “Wow, I have done a lot of interviews over the years and nobody has ever asked me that before. Thanks Allison!” … after my very first question. THAT was definitely a landmark moment for me. I asked what her mother thought of her going out on the road and being in the bus with Johnny and the band when she was in her teens.
Getting an icebreaker like that was truly magic. Even despite some disagreement from John, she insisted on playing three tracks from the upcoming The River And The Thread album that wasn’t out until the following January. She threw in “Seven Year Ache” for good measure.
What projects are you working on next?
I have a “day gig” at The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity creating and overseeing residency programs. Obviously the music programs are my passion. March 2017 saw their very first singer-songwriter residency there, which was my baby from day one. It was a two-week program helmed by Kevin Welch, who brought in Matraca Berg, Don Henry, Kim Richey, Jeff Hanna, Russell DeCarle, and Fats Kaplin. Apart from his multi-instrumental prowess, Fats assisted Howard Bilerman in the studio aspect of the residency. Each of the 24 participants got a three-hour studio session, making it a very unique program. All that to say I’m currently working on the 2018 edition!
In 2015 I also started a fall festival in Calgary! “Wide Cut Weekend” is a multi-venue festival, initially showcasing Alberta acts. 2016 encompassed most of Canada and 2017 sees some U.S. acts added to the mix.
What inspires you or what keeps you going?
A mix of passion and stubbornness I think.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests you wish to share?
Hiking and swimming!