Friday, April 3, 2009

Dennis Jones - WNCW-FM - Profile

Dennis Jones

I was familiar with Dennis Jones from his posts on Bluegrass-L and Bluegrass Rules, both major ways people interested and involved in bluegrass communicate but each different in format, tone, and world view. Dennis often characterizes himself as a traditionalist. I also knew that Dennis was technical director at WNCW-FM and folks had told me he was a wonderful person, and that he didn’t get around real well. I had long looked forward to meeting him as well as getting a chance to interview him for this blog. Getting to know Dennis is easy. It will take me years to incorporate what I learned from him, and I surely look forward to the next opportunity I get to exchange views with him.

On the Air - Martin Anderson (R)

On Wednesday morning we drove through a misty light rain to the Isothermal Community College campus where WNCW is located. (For those of you who, like me, are interested in how a school gives itself such a name, the college web site gives an excellent explanation in its FAQ.) WNCW’s Spindale studios are located in the Communications Building with good signs directing visitors to the studio. We’ve been in radio studios before. They’re usually characterized by relative quiet and order. Studio B was a beehive of activity with an elaborate sound board with several computers attached. On one side two people sat at microphones, broadcasting. A U-shaped table with phones on it was filled with volunteers. A table in the corner contained a coffee pot being regularly replenished, which was getting a good workout. Amidst all this a small, smiling man in a wheel chair rushed from place to place seeing that all was in order, answering phone calls on his Blackberry, taking a moment to acknowledge our presence, and moving quickly on to meet the next demand . Dennis Jones was hard at work and obviously having a wonderful time in the center of all this activity.

Dennis Jones

After a while, Dennis rolled over to us, introduced himself, and we gathered in a corner of the room, out of the direct traffic pattern, but available to all the fellow workers, interns, managers, and volunteers who needed Dennis’ attention for this and that. Despite being busy, and essential to the decision-making process going on, Dennis focused his attention and his massive energy on us, seeking to provide the information for me to write a good profile. Actually, what happened was that we quickly moved beyond the interviewer-interviewee distance to opening a dialogue I hope to continue for years.

It takes about thirty seconds to stop seeing Dennis as a person coping with a severe handicap and coming to understand him as an intellectual and physical whirlwind fully in control of his world. I asked him how long he’d been in the chair. He had polio as a small child and has functioned without full use of his legs his entire life, usually with crutches. A few years ago he fell and broke his leg and has found it useful to use the wheelchair in the studio, but usually gets around, as he always has albeit somewhat more slowly, on crutches. Asked and answered, the subject never came up again, because Dennis is such a dynamo it’s hard to see him any other way than fully functional.

Dennis brings unique experiences and qualities to his present position. Born in Boiling Springs, NC, a few miles from Earl Scruggs’ home town of Shelby, Dennis grew up in a world surrounded by music. Members of his family played in bands and traveled in the early world of bluegrass music. He commented that it was not unusual to walk into his family living room to find Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, or Bill Monroe sitting there smoking and making music. He describes his father, once an electrician in the Air Force and truck driver thereafter, as what today might be characterized as a “Geek.” Once, as a child, his Dad trundled him into the car to “go for a drive.” They ended up at the Ryman Theater in Nashville for a performance of the Grand Old Opry. He was always surrounded by fine musicians playing traditional music and state of the art “media stuff.” While playing in a garage band, he realized there was something missing in their sound. At a concert he saw his first sound engineer sitting behind a console and realized what had been missing. He’s been close to a sound console ever since. Dennis’ career bloomed when he joined a major international sound company. A Tears for Fears concert in Boston was his first big event, and for a number of years he ran sound in very large venues, including stadiums and huge concert halls. He also did sound engineering for Disney Studios in California.

WNCW-FM is a public radio station located in Spindale with satellite studios in Boone (92.9), Charlotte (100.3) and Greenville (97.3) and can also be heard on the World Wide Web here. The station programs an eclectic variety of Americana music including blues, rock, and folk, as well as world music. Bluegrass music is a major part of their programming, with selections regularly included in the stream and several shows devoted to general interest bluegrass and to gospel bluegrass. Dennis Jones is host to an eight hour block on Saturdays called “Goin’ across the Mountain” and “The Gospel Truth” on Sundays from 6:00 until 9:00 AM. The entire programming schedule can be seen here. Martin Anderson, musical director and host of the morning program on WNCW says, "Dennis’ wealth of bluegrass can’t be beat, nor can his never-ending passion for it. But what always impresses me is his knowledge and taste regarding countless other styles of music, too. Though the High Lonesome sound is at the center of his heart, he can also cater to the engineering needs of a 4-piece rock and roll band, a 6-piece jazz outfit, or a 15-voice folk choir in Studio B. He takes his job at WNCW very seriously….but is also not afraid to belt out a huge bellowing laugh!" An examination of the programming reveals a huge range of musical styles and genres, but bluegrass is never far from the front, and several bluegrass artists are seen as core performers in each monthly mix. While WNCW-FM programs some NPR music as well as NPR’s Morning Edition, it’s not your garden variety NPR station. Look for musical surprises and delights when you tune in here. What it has in common with other NPR stations is that it’s publicly funded and relies upon listener contributions. Its current fund raising ends on April 4th, but don’t let the date stop you from making a contribution if you enjoy this marvelous station.

Volunteeers Staff the Phones

Dennis joined WNCW in October 1993 as a volunteer. Over the years he has brought his great ear and light touch on the sound board to creating the unique sound of Studio B. Through the years, scores of bands and individual musicians have performed live in the studio. One listener called Dennis to ask whether a performance was really live, because it sounded too perfect to be a studio piece. Eric Gibson, of The Gibson Brothers, who have appeared several times in Studio B says, “Dennis is a real pro as far as I'm concerned. He brings passion to what he does and, as an engineer, possesses a fine ear as evidenced by the tones he pulls from instruments and in his mixes. We have enjoyed our visits to WNCW. When he interviews a band, it is obvious that he has done his homework beforehand. He knows how to make bluegrass instruments sound like they do naturally.” Jim van Cleve, the great fiddler for Mountain Heart, commented that working in Studio B with Dennis and Martin Anderson was “like a walk in the park.” He went on to say, “As a performer, it couldn’t be easier. On the road, performers encounter a variety of sound quality. In working with Dennis, you can see, hear, and feel an extremely high level of professionalism. He exudes an unspoken subtle confidence and competence that shows he knows what he’s doing. He plays the sound board the way a great musician plays his instrument.” Woody Platt, lead singer with The Steep Canyon Rangers says, "His engineering makes a live track sound like a pure studio mix. The right gear and the right mix makes everything just right. Ultimately, he's just a wonderful person."

On the forums, where he is a regular contributor, Dennis characterizes himself as a bluegrass traditionalist. He defines traditionalist, however, somewhat differently than many others would. He emphasizes that he doesn’t want to hear or broadcast just another version of “Cabin on the Hill.” By this, I take it he means that simply replaying covers of the great work of the first generation greats of bluegrass isn’t enough to keep the genre alive and growing. He says bluegrass is more than just a driving sound, a banjo, and a chop on the mandolin. It is, rather, a sound that’s within the listener and the player that creates a bluegrass sensibility. He describes going to school one night in 1962 with his parents, to Township #1 school, and asking, “Why are we going to school? It’s night.” There he saw the school auditorium filled to overflowing and crowds of people outside peering through the window to hear Flatt & Scruggs at the very height of their game. It’s such experiences that create the inner bluegrass traditionalist. And yet, the music must progress and develop. The trick lies in knowing how to keep the matrix, the form, of bluegrass intrinsic to the performance while writing new songs and new sounds to reflect contemporary life and sensibilities.

Dennis recognizes and celebrates the revolution represented by groups like the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene who found within the music of their time the grist for new sounds and content within bluegrass. Greeted with resistance and disdain when they first appeared on the scene, the music of these musicians, working within the context of bluegrass instrumentation and perspective, enlarged the potentials of the music. Similarly, the New Grass Revival “dressed weird, had long hair, and didn’t embrace the culture,” but they reflected and enlarged the world of bluegrass music. Dennis recalls Tut Taylor saying, “You have to remember where you’re from.” Or, in the words of Flatt & Scruggs, “Don’t get above your raisin.’” Nevertheless, Dennis applauds the contributions, for instance, of The Gibson Brothers, Mountain Heart, and The Infamous Stringdusters who keep rooted in bluegrass while bringing fine musicianship and a deep tie to their origins in the traditions of the music to their compositions and performances.

As a broadcaster, Dennis Jones recognizes that there are three elements absolutely essential to airing fine music: content, preparation, and intelligence. Without any of these three elements, fine broadcasting is not possible. A station or a program won’t develop and hold an audience. The format of a station like WNCW allows its on-air personnel to recognize and develop musical ideas, showing how they are related and interconnected. A look at the programming schedule of WNCW shows how this can and has been accomplished. Woody Platt, of The Steep Canyon Rangers, points out that they met Dennis early in their career, well before they had developed their skill or style. He doesn't know what Dennis saw, but he welcomed the band with open arms. Woody says, "His personality and knowledge of the music have made him such a wonderful radio host. He knows everyone in bluegrass personally, and that makes for a nice show, deeper and more personal." The intelligence and depth of knowledge Dennis Jones brings to the studio, whether it be on air or on the sound board demonstrates the qualities he emphasized. Add this to his warmth as a human being, his energy, and his enthusiasm and the package represents bluegrass music in the best possible fashion.

Dennis at the Sound Board