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Larry Weir: One man's love brought Americana music to many

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 21, 2010 -For a species so enamored with big time, worldwide and star-studded phenomena, humans, I believe, really accomplish most of what we do on a local scale of one-to-one.

My friend Larry Weir, who died suddenly this month at the age of 57, embodied this persistent path in the quirky medium of Community Radio, in the intimate poetics of singer-songwriter musicians, and the influence of one St. Louis guy who loved this kind of music and used his personal venue of a weekly radio show to profoundly cultivate artist-audience connections.

Larry was hired as operations manager when KDHX-FM went on the air in 1987. He also produced and hosted the radio show Songwriter’s Showcase, a 22-year feast of exquisitely crafted lyrics and tunes.

Programming on KDHX-St. Louis is created by a couple of hundred volunteers who bring enormous passion for their eclectic music and talk topics to weekly air shifts. Listener memberships generate more than 70 percent of the station’s operating budget. Ordinary people power a community station like KDHX, and many regular folks who play music - many more than “stars” - populate its airwaves.

Larry and I were daily colleagues during my stint as the station’s program director in the mid-1990s, an interval when his hometown support for the music he played sprouted national roots. California music promoter Rob Bleetstein invited Larry Weir to join a cross-country panel of commercial and public/community radio programmers to review albums for a new music industry genre designation he launched in January 1995, called Americana. Playlists were published in Gavin, an influential radio trade magazine.

“There was this group of great artists who weren’t getting play in any station format, including Triple-A,” recalls Bleetstein. “They rocked too much for country and were too folksy for rock. Artists like Roseanne Cash, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, Tom Russell. I wanted to get stations to switch and program this music full-time.”

Even with official charts and a name, the music’s strengths - it’s gutsy intelligence and melting-pot character - were promotional obstacles.

“It’s hard to describe what kind of music we play,” says Keith Grimwood, bass player in the Arkansas duo Trout Fishing In America, an early staple on the Songwriter’s Showcase playlist. “It either falls through or fills up the cracks. We had such a blend of influences coming from Houston, Texas – blues, folk, zydeco, Tejano, country, rock – it’s a blend of so many kinds of mostly American music – plus we do kids’ shows. So what kind of music do we play? You just can’t categorize it.”

Gloria Attoun is a longtime KDHX fan and a songwriter who is building a solo career from her home in Augusta, Mo. “When I first started listening to Larry’s show ‘Americana’ was a whole different style than I had ever heard,” she remembers. “It’s sophisticated, edgy, not necessarily geared to attract the general public.

“The purpose of the music is to heal, to entertain, to make a point. It can be silly, it can be poetry, it can challenge your opinions. It’s real - totally the opposite of formulaic.

“These songwriters take more risks with the lyrics,” Attoun explains, “like the Tom Russell song ‘Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?’ about the paradox of throwing out illegal immigrants while you still want their cheap labor. He’s telling it like he thinks it, not trying to please anybody.”

Bleetstein says, “A station like KDHX is essential to the success of this music. A programmer like Larry Weir connects to the local audience, tries out new music all the time, shares music he likes. He plays a lot of different choices – and you get to make up your own mind.”

Off the air, Larry invested his own time and station resources to help this music succeed. “He worked hard to get gigs for performers he liked,” says Eric Taylor, a Texas songwriter who first played St. Louis at Larry’s invitation. “He would personally contact agents and managers. It’s a very personal job from this level. You’ve got to have people who pull for you and support you. Guys like Larry do the work. They get people into your shows. That’s how we get by. If they weren’t playing our songs, we wouldn’t get an audience.”

Taylor now headlines public radio and TV music shows and international music festivals, and he’s won awards in the U.S. and Europe.

“Radio can create a real sense of community,” says Trout Fishing's Grimwood, “and the communities where we do best – Tampa, Dallas, Philadelphia, St. Louis - have good public radio stations. Most radio just plays what’s on the corporate playlist. Public radio is so important for the music scene.”

Thanks to this exposure, Grimwood says, “We get invited to play at folk festivals, jazz festivals – we’re welcome now in so many places.” Trout Fishing in America has also had four Grammy nominations.

Joe Camarata and his family owned the St. Louis music club Off Broadway from 1984 to 2001. Larry Weir’s efforts helped build his business, too.

“We really didn’t know what we were doing when we opened the club,” says Camarata. “We booked a lot of blues, some rock bands, but I didn’t think acoustic music would draw any audience. I knew Larry from listening to KDHX, and he came into the club early on. I started booking acts he recommended. He had the ability to pick out the ones who were really good: Cheryl Wheeler, Fred Eaglesmith, Katy Moffatt, the Austin Lounge Lizards, Townes Van Zandt, Greg Trooper, the Dixie Chicks.

“Larry’d be honest about the performer - this one will draw, this one might be difficult – and he knew these musicians. He went to all the big festivals, hung out with these guys, had a beer with them and listened to their music. And he’d come to almost every show I booked.

“We couldn’t afford advertising on commercial radio, but when KDHX promoted these shows, the musicians would draw a crowd. We could pack in 300 and a lot of those singer-songwriter shows were full.

Rob Bleetstein’s music business label stuck. He reports, “15 years later the genre is still working, still growing. Americana performers headline some of the nation’s oldest and most respected music festivals: the Kerrville and Newport folk festivals, the Telluride, Grey Fox and Strawberry bluegrass festivals. These events draw huge audiences, generating support for the music of big name and emerging artists. We have the Americana Music Association in Nashville – and we got our own Grammy category for the first time this year.”

Larry Weir’s passion for good songs and his skillful work in broadcasting leave a legacy of diverse successes. He helped many gifted individuals make music for a living. His work for KDHX was instrumental in evolving the folksy concept of Community Radio into a solvent, powerful cultural force in a major media market.

But I know that what my friend Larry valued most was the connections he made, to people he loved, whose intelligence he respected.

Songwriter Eric Taylor says, “It was just so cool to be around him. Cool to be with somebody who was SO GLAD TO SEE YOU – so happy to sit and listen to you play your songs.”

On a website set up by Larry’s wife Kathy, KDHX listeners – along with Larry’s many friends – have written hundreds of tributes, sharing the ways they were touched by someone they might never see. Messages akin to this one:

“Like many others, I knew Larry only through the airwaves. I was home on maternity leave with my first baby years ago when I stumbled upon Songwriters Showcase one sunny Friday morning. Tears filled my eyes when I heard the first few notes of Emmy Lou (Harris), and I was overwhelmed with love and gratitude for this beautiful new baby and the music of my favorite female artist. As we danced around the kitchen swaying in harmony, I was hooked. I spent many mornings with Larry, and most times a tear was shed. Of joy, sadness, gratitude - no matter. The music spoke to me.”

Larry Weir died on Jan. 13, 2010, following a brain injury from a fall on New Year’s Eve. He is survived by his true love and wife Kathy Rogers Weir, his mother Evelyn Weir, his sister Pam Weir, and synergistic circles of friends. Learn more at www.kdhx.org. Jean Ponzi works for Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center and hosts the environmental talk show Earthworms on KDHX.

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