In Japan, there are people who by their skills and/or knowledge preserve and continue to demonstrate important aspects of Japanese culture, thereby earning the designation “National Living Treasure.” That’s a nice concept: officially bestowing such a title on people, even when they’re not, say, our kids or grandkids.
That ‘NLT’ term often comes to my mind if I happen to be listening to WNKU (89.7 or 105.9) on a Sunday evening, and Katie Laur happens to be hosting her 6 to 9 p.m. program “Music From the Hills of Home.” It’s three hours of bluegrass, and if you are a fan of banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar strummin’ and the high, lonesome wail of a twangy-voiced tenor, then it’s certainly three hours of weekly radio you’ll relish.
Katie (I don’t think she’d mind me calling her “Katie”), age 70-ish, has had a successful music career with her own bluegrass band. I would guess millions (!) more now feel like they ‘know’ her through her format-proof WNKU program.
As I listen to her and co-host Wayne Clyburn on Sunday evenings, each sounding a little older these days, I truly treasure the opportunity to hear their banter, along with Katie’s almost soundless laugh at Wayne’s jokes (the longer the silence between her first and last hoarse guffaws, the harder she’s laughing), their stories, the entertaining emails from various correspondents (Pester Flatt is a genius!), their attempts at remembering who sang what when with who, and then Katie’s chagrin at talking too much, again. “Mash the buttons, Wayne,” she’ll say, “we better get back to playin’ somethin’.”
And Katie just plays the best bluegrass, a cut above what their guest hosts usually play, because she and Wayne don’t box themselves in with a strict interpretation of bluegrass.
However, I wasn’t always so smitten with Ms. Katie and Mr. Wayne.
I must have discovered them in the car, sometime in the 90s – they’ve hosted the program since ’89. With four growing young’ens, I didn’t have the luxury of hanging out by a radio on a Sunday night in those days. So if we were driving to or fro on Sunday and it was between 6 and 9 p.m., I’d tune in to try to hear a few chords of bluegrass.
But that’s often not possible, at least in the car. Because Katie and Wayne like to talk, a lot. A whole, whole lot. I would get pretty frustrated, hopeful of hearing some of the great music they select, and sometimes get from point A to point B, even on a 15- or 20-minute drive, without hearing more than half a song.
“Why do you listen to them, Mom?” one of my kids asked me once in the car. “You just get mad!” Obviously I didn’t handle my disappointment very well.
I really expressed myself when I called in to pledge a donation (great music doesn’t just grow on trees, you know) and, when asked if there was anything I didn’t like about the station, I said something about being a Celtic and bluegrass music fan, but also mentioned being increasingly annoyed by Katie and Wayne’s chitchat (I might, um, have even called it “obnoxious”). There, I thought, maybe that comment would make it to management, and I would hear more music on Sunday night car rides.
Actually, tho, the comment made it to Katie’s desk, and she read it verbatim on the air. “Well,” she then drawled, “Frank (or someone) just called in to say he likes our little discussions. We probably shouldn’t get Jean and Frank in a room together, or woo! Might be some fahr-works.” “Yup, prob’bly not a good idea,” Wayne agreed. Then, no doubt, they proceeded to talk some more.
After non-pledging for a couple years, my tender sensibilities got over the slight, and I came to think of it as a funny incident. For if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Katie and Wayne, it just doesn’t pay to take yourself that seriously.
Now, with children up and grown, I can tune in on Sunday night to Katie and Wayne and have a leisurely listen, enjoying whatever spontaneous direction their time on the air takes them.
So, thanks, WNKU, for some great Sunday night music and chitchat, and for providing two decades-worth of generous air time for a local living treasure and her loyal sidekick. And a donation for 2012 is on its way.
(Here is a link to a column Katie wrote for CityBeat a few years back: http://www.citybeat.com/cincinnati/article-3141-livin_on_the_air_at_wnku.html . Hats off, too, to Kathy Costello, who hosts the Celtic music program on Sunday mornings – I happened to call her once to ask her something, and she’s a real sweetie. Peruse WNKU’s site at www.wnku.org.)