photograph by Nathan Jensen
It's called "Americana," and it's a new format (well, sort of) that's scooped up all those musicians that were too bluesy for rock, too rock for country, and too country for AAA (and in many cases, too country for country); you know, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Don Walser, Junior Brown, et al. And seeing that Austin's contribution to this genre is disproportionately high, it's no wonder that many locals are tearing their hair out in rage because the capital doesn't have an Americana station. It's truly an injustice that the city with the world's highest per capita rate of Nashville-haters is stuck with a choice of Garth/Shania clones on KASE, slogging through Steely Dan and Sheryl Crow on KGSR in hopes of catching a Wayne Hancock track, or working KUT, KOOP, and KVRX into one's schedule.
Yet, to add insult to injury, it turns out that Americana radio is actually thriving just outside our grasp; if Austin were merely 20-30 miles further southwest, alternative country/roots music fans could enjoy their favorite music at any given time. Instead, KFAN -- that's 107.9 on your FM dial -- is the exclusive treasure of the Hill Country, its signal fading out around Oak Hill.
I probably shouldn't mention names on KFAN's playlist. It might entice terrorist alt-country heads to storm KVET and commandeer the CD player, which now that I think about it, is not such a bad idea. Still, currently in heavy rotation at KFAN are BR5-49, Iris Dement, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Al Anderson, the Del McCoury Band, Marshall Chapman, Jerry Jeff Walker, Michelle Shocked, Chris Wall, the V-Roys, and Darden Smith. Molotov cocktail, anyone?
KFAN has been doing its thing since before their format had a name, this being their sixth year of sending out over the airwaves what they call "Texas Rebel Radio." Broadcasting out of a residential neighborhood in Fredericksburg, a little town of about 5,000 people, KFAN might be something of an anomaly -- out in the sticks, mainstream country usually rules the roost, and many rural Texans are only dimly aware of Austin's music scene -- but KFAN general manager and owner Jayson Fritz says that a combination of the Hill Country's unique demographic and KFAN's radio savvy has allowed the station to pull it off.
"The reason we've been able to survive for six years doing this format in a `small market' is that we have an AM station that's very successful," says Fritz, referring to KNAF, the mainstream country station he also owns. "If this was a stand-alone operation with just an FM trying to do an avant-garde format in Fredericksburg, Texas, we might have a difficult time. The other thing is, I think people sell people in the Hill Country short. The face of the Hill Country is changing dramatically with the newcomers and people who, maybe grew up here, but then went away and came back; their tastes and interests have changed. It's not just country bumpkins sitting on a plow someplace.
"There are very musically sophisticated people in the Hill Country," Fritz continues, also noting the effect the Kerrville Folk Festival has had on the region. "It's amazing, the age diversity of people that are attracted to KFAN. I know farmers and ranchers that listen to it. It really surprises me. We had a guy walk in just before Christmas, probably 70 years old. We all thought he was going to raise hell about a Cheech & Chong Christmas song that we played last year, but he wanted a copy of it!"
"When I first came to Fredericksburg, I heard KFAN and was just blown away by the great variety of music they were playing," says music director Rod Herbert. "I came down here to the station to talk to J.D. [Rose, KFAN's program director] and ended up working for him."
Fritz is not some idealistic newcomer to radio either; KNAF-AM has been owned by his family since 1953. Nor is he just jumping on the bandwagon of alt-country. Although he's loved this style of music for a couple of decades, he spent nearly that long contemplating whether he could pull off a such a format.
"The idea for this originated in the mid-Eighties, when their was a lack of airplay for Southern rock," Fritz says. "It occurred to me that you could blend Southern rock, country rock, and Austin music together. We had already been playing some Austin music on KNAF. When we got a license for Johnson City [KFAN is actually licensed to Fredericksburg's down-the-road neighbor], we wanted to stick with a good format. J.D. was able to lead, putting together an airstaff and helping train people with the musical concept that we were after -- helping educate them."
"Our foundation," says Rose, "is Texas. That's where the whole station stems from."
"That was the central theme that runs throughout," says Fritz. "Starting primarily with those artists that are native Texans, those artists that have chosen to move to Texas, you'll find that the theme of Texas runs throughout our radio station, [such as] Jimmy Buffett playing "Who's the Blonde Stranger?" which is talking about Galveston Island, even though he's not from Texas.
"Going back to ancient history, I was in Austin in the early Seventies, going to college. So I was aware of all the progressive country things happening, frequenting the Armadillo, and listening to KOKE."
In 1976, Fritz, who went to St. Edward's and UT, brought to Fredericksburg some of the ideas he learned from listening to KOKE-FM, the now-defunct Austin station that can probably lay claim to being the first "alternative country" station. "For me, it just always seemed natural," he says. "Even in the mid-Seventies, our AM station was playing Shiloh, Buffett, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton. We were playing these on a mainstream country station. We were a little more progressive."
As said, KFAN was Americana before they even knew what it was. Fritz takes great pride in noting that when The Gavin Report, one of the country's leading radio trade publications, founded the Americana chart, KFAN was one of the stations on which the concept was modeled.
Former Austinite Rob Bleetstein, the editor and creator of the chart, says "What I love about KFAN is their renegade approach.... KFAN and KPIG [in California] are the only two stations I know of that are really doing their own thing. Every time I'm down there, I go to the Hill Country. They have a great approach."
"Our persona to the majority of our listening audience is probably that we don't have any kind of a plan whatsoever -- that we don't have a format," says Fritz. "The truth of the matter is, we are very closely formatted. We do have a plan, and all of our people follow that plan.
"An Austin radio `professional' -- and I use that word very cautiously, because I have serious doubts about his professionalism," laughs Fritz, "commented to me one day, `I really like your radio station, I'm really attracted to it because, well, it just sounds like old radio. It just sounds, well, if you'll forgive me, it just sounds unprofessional.' And I thought, `You asshole.' If he reads this article, he'll know I'm talking about him, 'cause he works for one of the big groups in Austin radio. I have a lot of friends in Austin radio who really enjoy the station... of course, they're in that corporate radio, and corporate radio by and large sucks."
Right now, Fritz and Rose are riding high on the news that their station has been nominated for awards at the annual Gavin Awards conference this week in New Orleans; KFAN for Americana Station of the Year -- along with newcomer KNBT in New Braunfels (see sidebar) -- and Rose for Americana Programmer of the Year in the second year that awards have been given for the fledgling format.
From talking to Fritz and Rose, however, one suspects that awards hanging on the wall wouldn't mean as much as the sheets of posterboard next to them -- they're covered with autographs from many of the artists that have been appreciative of a commercial station that will play their music. Hugh Moffatt, Dar Williams, Don Walser, Rusty Wier, Chris Wall, Freddy Krc, Christine Albert, the Derailers, and many others that have struggled to see their music go out over the airwaves over the years.
"The Derailers are a success story that I'm really proud of," says Fritz as he walks through the station. "I think we helped make that band. Tony Villanueva was playing in Luckenbach, and somebody said, `Jay, you have to hear this guy.' Tony brought us a cassette to play, and that led to the Derailers."
The KFAN studios are housed in an unassuming little building that looks, well, if you'll forgive me... unprofessional -- more like what you'd expect from a little community station. It has the comfortable feel of an old couch in a mild state of disrepair. Enter the deejay booth, however, and it's clear the station's focus is on something other than building maintenance; they're more concerned with having an excellent music library, with lots of music from labels like Rounder, Watermelon, Alligator, and Hightone. How many commercial stations have the Johnny Cash box set on their shelves?
"I just got a request for Willie Nelson's `Stardust,'" deejay Ed Pace says in pleased amazement. "I just can't believe the people that listen to this station. I haven't heard that in years."
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