Country Commentary

by Jim Chesnut

From time to time, I'm gonna need to share some thoughts.

This is an early morning photograph looking westward down the tracks in Strawn, Texas, approximately where I used to play in front of the Texas & Pacific Railroad depot when I was a child. My Uncle Jim, for whom I was named, was the station manager and later mayor in this small community located west of Fort Worth. My father was once employed by T&P as a telegraph operator.

I was inspired by my childhood experiences in Strawn to write Good Lord, What Happened to the Trains, which is included in my CD, The Nashville Years: Volume Two. Here is a sample of the recording, one of my first after I signed with Acuff-Rose Music in 1976. Although the song mentions that my grandmother lived in Kansas, she actually lived in Strawn. I just needed something to rhyme with Texas, so I moved her to Kansas.

The Bankhead Hotel shown here was located across the tracks from the depot. My parents lived there shortly after they were married. My childhood and adolescent imagination painted all kinds of pictures of cowboys, miners and saloon girls coming in and out of the Bankhead Hotel. I couldn't quite imagine my parents actually living there. They seemed too nice!

Strawn was a coal mining town nestled in with other small towns like Mingus and Thurber that were established in the 1870s to support the railroads' fuel needs as they expanded to connect the east and west coasts after the Civil War. The mines were shut down during the Great Depression when the miners went on strike. Demand for coal was declining because Diesel engines were replacing coal-fired steam engines, and the owners couldn't bear the brunt of  increased labor costs.

During one of my visits as a child there was an explosion that destroyed Strawn's biggest employer, Strawn Merchandise. It challenged the community economically, and things were never the same. I took these photographs on a recent visit and find them to be compelling illustrations of so many declining western towns built around mining.

Here is a picture of Lovera's, a grocery store from my childhood in the 1950s that is still around. I went inside and bought an RC Cola during my visit, and it looked and smelled exactly as I remembered it. I asked the owner how he could still stay in business after all these years, and he said that the closest Wal-Mart was about an hour's drive from Strawn. He also said he allows people to charge their groceries to help them manage their money between Social Security or welfare checks.

I miss those times in my childhood, riding the passenger train with my grandmother, playing in the depot and listening to Uncle Jim send and receive telegraph messages. I miss the fireflies in my grandmother's yard just after sunset. I miss my grandfather's blacksmith shop. I miss playing with my cousins. I miss Roy Rogers and Trigger, too.

But, I don't miss trying to smoke my grandmother's grapevines.

Radio Days

On my recent visit with Jayson and Jan Fritz and Rick Star at Texas Rebel Radio (KFAN) in Fredericksburg, Texas, I was reminded of my early days in radio in West Texas.

I got my start in country music when I worked as a DJ at KOYL AM in Odessa in the mid-1960s. It was a smelly place. Located across the street from a producing oil well on the northwest side of town, the pump similar to the one shown here (courtesy of http://fcit.usf.edu/) cast off the most God-awful odors known to the nose. The cause was hydrogen sulfide, a gas and by-product of most West Texas producing wells that smells like rotten eggs.

Between the gas and the fact that we all smoked lots of cigarettes in those days, the equipment in the studio was in constant need of cleaning and replacement. Ed Roskelley, the station owner, was an early believer in using automation to reduce costs in broadcasting music for his FM station, which wasn't making any money. Although I got along with him, I'm not really sure he liked having to work with DJs all that much.

The KOYL studios included a number of Ampex 350 1/4" tape recorders similar to the one shown below  (photo courtesy Gary Hardy - Sun Studio) with famed Sun Records owner Sam Phillips at the controls.

The atmosphere of hydrogen sulfide, cigarette smoke, dusty days and DJ hot air kept us plenty busy maintaining racks of equipment.

At one time, Roskelley built a recording studio at the station attempting to capitalize on the emerging recording industry. Norman Petty had established a successful studio in Clovis, New Mexico, and Roskelley attempted to develop something similar in Odessa.

Petty's golden ears helped dozens of popular country, rock, and pop musicians who recorded at the Clovis facility--Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Buddy Knox, Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, Charlie Phillips, Jimmy Bowen, Johnny Duncan, Carolyn Hester, Chita Rivera, Brad Maule and many others.

By that time however, the music industry was beginning to centralize in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles, and the regional influences of Clovis, Memphis, Philadelphia, Detroit and others was beginning to decline. So, it was too late for Roskelley's dream to come true.

On the other hand, I got to play with all kinds of neat stuff after hours (and, sometimes during on-air hours, I'm afraid). Ross, as he was known around town, had designed and built an isolation echo chamber with a big metal plate that was awesome. Of course that sound is not popular today, but it sure was back then.

Anyway, KFAN in Fredericksburg is that kind of place, too. Built by Jayson's father and mother, it is still a family-owned and operated radio station. As a baby, Jayson napped in his crib next to his mother in the control room as she pulled her morning shift in the early days. And, Jayson and Jan's kids have been brought up in the business, too.

Antique radio memorabilia are everywhere, old console radios, table-top bakelite models, reel-to-reel machines, classic microphones like the one shown here and more. KFAN exemplifies what radio used to be in our culture, a medium whereby people with a passion for something communicated with others at a gut level. Human instinct was involved as these entrepreneurial pioneers took risks and built vital pieces of community infrastructure that are more-often-than-not taken for granted in today's serve-me-when-I-want-it society.

Instinct has been replaced in many instances by empiricism, the practice of making decisions based on provable evidence. It has its place. For example, the cost of drilling stinky oil and gas wells is so expensive, technologies have been developed to discover with greater certainty the probability of finding a successful field.

In some markets, the total cost of ownership of a radio station makes it necessary to operate in the same way. It is believed that taking a chance on a new record based solely on its appeal will increase the risk of dropping ratings points that will cause a loss in advertising revenues. Human instinct and judgment have been replaced by a wait-and-see attitude that is causing radio to lose its identity as a major leader in community.

The problem is made even worse by corporate ownership. When companies are allowed to control so many stations (in a pejorative sense), central decisions are made that more or less standardize the sound of a genre throughout the country, and cultural creativity suffers. It is, simply put, thinking inside a box.

Thank God for visionaries like Jayson, Jan and Rick in Fredericksburg. I hope there are lots more like them that I haven't met, but I'm afraid there aren't.