East Tennessee's WDVX is one of the shining stars in the Americana radio world. I believe much of their success is due to keeping it local by presenting live music every day at noon in downtown Knoxville on their popular Blue Plate Special show. In addition to hosting WDVX's Saturday afternoon Americana Mix show, Mark Murray also coordinates video for the show — and plays the banjo.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio?
Mark Murray: I did not work in radio prior to WDVX, but I have always been in or around music and live production. I played in bands starting in junior high, and played semi-professionally through college. I gravitated toward the tech end, and learned to mix live sound, record, and design lighting. Like the story goes, all this was put aside when I got a “real job.” The bug never left, though, and I started volunteering at WDVX, helping with sound mixing at live shows (we do 8-10 live shows every week). Our program director called one day and asked if I wanted to try an air shift. I’ve had the same 4-hour show slot for a little over 4 years now.
WDVX is an independent, listener-supported community public radio station with a rich history in East Tennessee. Our studios are in Knoxville and Norris, TN. We started broadcasting from a camper and are celebrating our 20th year in 2017. We still have the camper, and bring it out at live events. I am on the air on Saturdays from 2-6 with a show called Americana Mix. I am on the music selection committee, and I’m also the video/YouTube channel coordinator. I still help with live sound and remotes when needed. Like most of our hosts, I am a volunteer staff member. I am just one of the many incredibly dedicated volunteers who give their time and creative energy to make the station what it has become today. We all do it for the love of the music!
How do you prepare for your show and do you spotlight certain artists?
We have a huge library of CDs, vinyl, and tons of cuts gathered from our live shows over the last 20 years. I like to come in a little early and lay out the basic show – mainly to insure that I’m getting a good mix of artists. That frees me up to improvise and do mini sets based on some kind of theme, who’s playing in town, events, requests, or notes I’ve made during the week, or just go wherever the music takes me on that particular day. A lot of thought goes into how the tunes flow from one to the next. Having experience in live shows from both the production and performance standpoint has been a big asset to draw from. Also, because Knoxville has a thriving music scene, we are able do a lot of live, in-studio interviews with artists in town for a show.
How many new releases and independent artists do you play?
Because the show is, by definition, a mix, new releases are definitely included. WDVX has no pre-set or required playlist, so there’s lots of freedom to choose music for the show. I have found that my Saturday audience tends to favor the established Americana artists, so I am careful to keep them happy, but also careful to keep the mix and introduce them to the new stuff. It’s a balancing act and a lot of fun at the same time. Independent artists are on equal footing. Part of the WDVX mission is to support underrepresented arts and emerging local talent.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
My first exposure to roots music was via satellite radio in the mid '80s, which exposed me to artists that I was not hearing on regular commercial stations. I always liked classic country and country rock, so for me it was more of a natural evolution of the music. Two particular listens stand out from those early days: the first time I heard Cross Canadian Ragweed, and hearing Todd Snider do “Beer Run” live on the Bob and Tom radio show.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre and what artists define Americana music for you?
This is going to be a cop-out answer! I have so many favorite artists that there is not enough space to list them all. Here are a few artists I would recommend to someone looking to get started in exploring “Americana”: Robert Earl Keen, Gillian Welch, JJ Cale, Buddy and Julie Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Del McCoury, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Balsam Range. Then let your preferences lead you from there down a “related artists” wormhole. The trick is to never stop exploring!
How do you define what Americana music is?
You know it when you hear it – right? The AMA’s definition of Americana is pretty wide open – maybe deliberately so. Americana has become such a broad term that electronic music involving no players or instruments might be the only thing that does not fit. From my view as a host, you just have to know your audience and not worry too much about what it’s called. That said, we’ve definitely had some interesting discussions during the music selection committee meetings. In the end, though, good music is good music!
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
Radio has always been able to change with the times. WDVX is a great example of change – remember, we started in a camper! We now have a worldwide internet audience and make use of multiple social media platforms. It’s also interesting that more people listen to the radio on their phones and computers now than in any other way. What should never change, though, is the on-air relationship with the listener. Automation and the lack of live hosts are not good for radio. There is something magical about a live DJ talking to you like you’re the only one listening.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
My favorite album picks for 2016 were:
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers - Sidelong
The Royal Hounds - Poker All Night (they’re from East Tennessee!)
Rod Melancon - LA 14
Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms - Innocent Road
The Honeycutters - On The Ropes
2017 has a country-ish bent so far:
Tyler Childers - Purgatory
Moot Davis - Hierarchy Of Crows
Marty Stuart - Way Out West
Sam Outlaw - Tenderheart
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests you wish to share?
I play old time music and that I can be found at the Time Warp Tea Room old time jam in North Knoxville every Wednesday night on fiddle, clawhammer banjo, and guitar. I have been to the Pisgah Banjo builders school in Swannanoa, NC and have built two banjos and I know a lot of banjo jokes. I also have a very understanding wife who supports my musical addictions.