A Dram Held High for Ed Miller

KUTX folk sage is shown the door after 43 years on-air

KUT empties out on Sundays. A few minutes before 6pm, the staff’s at home, resting up for the work week. The lights are out. Two televisions play sports on mute over desks belonging to KUTX deejays.

“I should have told you to bring along a six-pack,” offers Ed Miller as I step inside the studio and settle into a chair. “Might help make this go quite a bit easier.”

Miller’s two KUTX shows, Folkways and Across the Water, finish the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, but the programs as we best now them ceased Aug. 24. That day, Miller’s 43-year-old run with the University of Texas’ NPR affiliate ended. He’s headed to California for a singing gig over the holiday. Longtime Folkways co-host Kim Simpson handles both programs in their final hours.

Miller, 69, has curated folk music on KUT since 1972, initially taking over the 11pm-3am shift Wednesdays and Sundays before landing on Sunday afternoons. A Scottish singer-songwriter who moved to Austin in 1968 to study folklore and geography, he successfully lobbied for a Celtic folk program that debuted March 1, 2009. He assumed sole leadership of Folkways shortly afterward. Every Sunday, then, he spun four hours of cherished folk music – two via the States, and another pair from Across the Water.

Ed Miller at his home office, Aug. 27 (Photo by John Anderson)

Miller held onto that spot when the musical component of KUT’s programming was annexed by KUTX in Jan. 2013. He was on air every weekend except for the ones spent on the road performing or teaching music camps – or during the occasional summer months guiding folk tours in Scotland.

Last Monday, Aug. 18, KUTX announced that beginning Labor Day, the station would undergo a series of programming changes altering the sound of the station. Nearly every jock received a scheduling shakeup. Some received better placement, while others, mostly hosts of specialty programs, came out on the losing end.

Miller was out. His studio successor on Sundays, Hayes McCauley, was sent streaming. Same fate for Michael Crockett’s Global Grooves; his Latin-themed staple Horizontes moves from Friday afternoon to Sunday nights. Miller broke it to his listeners during Folkways a day prior to the official press release.

“That’s the news,” he said. “I am not happy to give it.”

The next day, Miller elaborated.

“I think they’re aiming at a younger audience and trying to cater to newer people,” he told me. “In doing so, they’ve neglected the longstanding audience that KUT has had for all different kinds of music.”

For his last Sunday night, he led off with Doc Watson’s “Hello Stranger,” a song he used to open shows with quite regularly. He played the Flatlanders (“very much of a part of the ‘Austin Music Experience,’” he smirked), then Woody Guthrie, Solis, a Klezmatics arrangement of Guthrie, then more Woody.

He closed out Folkways with a local, his friend Rich Brotherton, with whom he’s worked on several albums, before transitioning into Across the Water: Dolores King, the McCalmans, Jean Redpath, and Buddy MacMaster.

“I hope you can find other radio stations that fill the space for you if you’re a folk music fan,” he offered to his listeners before queuing up another single from among a desk littered with Wikipedia entries, newspaper clippings, and CD jewel cases.

“I’m a mess tonight,” he confided to his guest midway through “Over the Moor Among the Heather,” a violin-led MacMaster track. “You’d hope after all these years I’d know to have everything ready.”

Miller’s precision likely got derailed by the phone calls. He received a dozen during Across the Water, all of them from listeners sad to hear he’d be leaving.

“Don’t tell me,” he’d respond, including to one 11-year-old well-wisher. “Tell the management. They’ll be surprised to hear from you.”

I sat there listening, watching, and asking questions when Miller removed his headphones. He began as a board babysitter (“for things like the Met opera on Sunday afternoons”), and didn’t have to worry about bringing his music with him. KUT kept a vast stack of vinyl it eventually sold to the Harry Ransom Center.

One listener called in to talk folk music during every show Miller hosted for 31 years until she died last year.

“We had some good talks,” he nods.

He divulged that he’d like to start a podcast. His also talked about his two daughters, one 19, another 34, and his wife Nora. Mostly, though, I learned about Celtic music.

I learned about Tommy Sands, Ron Kavana, Colum Sands, and Ciarron Dorris – and a young Irish jig band, We Banjo 3, who recently lit up a stage at the North Texas Irish Festival in March. I learned about a Celtic part of Northern Spain via a track from Nuala Kennedy and discovered a few Irish stereotypes. Few KUTX deejays teach you about the music they’re playing on the radio anymore, especially during weekday programming that’s spreading to weekends.

At 7:50, Hayes McCauley walked into the studio to ask how to best acknowledge Miller’s exit when his show took over. “I don’t know whether to start sad or happy,” he said. Miller’s response was perfect.

“Just tell them I’ve gone off for a drink,” he quipped before playing “Tak a Dram,” a song from his 2007 album Generations of Change, and heading to the Dog & Duck Pub for a pint with friends.

KUTX program manager Matt Reilly told me last week the station’s “taking over a more modern sound and trying to reflect where Austin is now and where it’s going.” He added: “Most people don’t turn on the radio and listen all day. We have to catch people as we can.”

Austin’s astute, perceptive, and holds its musical options to the highest standards. There’s also countless individuals and businesses that keep their dials set to one local frequency all day, every day. Even when they don’t, the overall listenership values diversity and discovery.

That might not mean retaining Ed Miller forever, but his presence on KUTX spoke volumes. It reflected the imperfections of an actualized community. It demonstrated radio as a tool for knowledge rather than staid playlists.

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Ed Miller, KUTX, Folkways, Across the Water, Kim Simpson, Hayes McCauley, Michael Crockett, Woody Guthrie, Solas, Klezmatics, McCalmans, Jean Redpath, Buddy MacMaster, Dolores King, We Banjo 3, Tommy Sands, Ron Kavana, Colum Sands, Ciarron Dorris

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