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Dick Spottswood: Still "Spot" On

Young Dick Spottswood with Bill Monroe

From the dining room table passed down in his family for nearly two hundred years, Dick Spottswood surveys his computer monitors, microphones, turntables, and a mixer. His weekly radio show, The Dick Spottswood Show, is broadcast on Bluegrass Country, a station that started fifty years ago in Washington, DC, operated and funded by the Bluegrass Country Foundation. He calls the show, recorded in the TV room of his home in Pensacola, “The Obsolete Music Hour,” even though it runs for two hours. Listeners can expect to hear a variety of traditional styles that appeal to bluegrass devotees, from classic bluegrass to string bands, honkytonk, western swing, blues, and gospel, as well as old-world music and early jazz.

“I have had an affection for Hillbilly music that started in the early 1950s,” says Dick. He loved both King Oliver and Bill Monroe in equal doses. “Before that, I heard an album my much-older cousin brought home from college. It was 1948, and she played Bix Beiderbecke’s Royal Garden Blues. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, and I liked it. The album jacket said ‘Jazz as it should be played,’ and I believed it.”

Dick was fascinated with record players and all things mechanical and would listen to anything he could. “I first heard Hillbilly music when I heard the Harry Smith anthology of American folk music. It sounded prehistoric compared to the honkytonk hits I heard on AM radio.” The real turning point in Dick’s appreciation of bluegrass music was when he heard a Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs record at a party. “It was 1953, and I was a sophomore in high school. They were playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and it was different from any music I had ever heard.”

Dick began collecting records. “I saved my money and bought an album here and there.” He also did something unheard of. He would leave his family’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and go into outlying neighborhoods where he knocked on doors to ask if anyone had records they’d like to sell. His collection of rare, obscure, and mostly forgotten records began to grow. Dick’s taste in music leaned heavily on what he calls “down home” music. He sought out recordings in any language. He started a record label and reissued his collections of vernacular music on a series of albums produced for the Library of Congress. In 1990, the University of Indiana Press published his seven-volume Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942.

Dick first dipped his toe into radio waters in the early 1960s. He approached the local public broadcasting station in Washington, DC, and asked if they’d like to have a bluegrass show. “I was looking for a way to promote a little homegrown journal I had started in my basement in Wheaton, Maryland.” The journal, Bluegrass Unlimited, became a newsletter, and when the festival scene began to grow after 1965, the newsletter rode the tail of that explosion. “I remember having bluegrass parties once a month, and one of the activities at the parties was assembling the newsletter. They would be collated around the table, then stuffed into envelopes. It was a real cottage industry.”

The newsletter soon had over five hundred subscribers. “It became a magazine before we knew it. I was too involved in other things, and in 1970 I asked Pete Kuykendall if he would like to take it over. He quit his day job, and the rest is history.”

The little radio show became quite popular. “In the mid-1960s, the music on country radio stations out of DC, Northern Virginia, and Baltimore were all trending towards the Nashville sound. Program managers wouldn’t allow DJs to play bluegrass, so there was a need for a place for the music to be played.” The show gained an audience, and Dick said that he saw an increase in the attendance of concerts by bands like The Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene.

Today Dick’s “media empire” sits neatly on the antique cloth-covered dining room table.

“I come up with a playlist for each show. I play a little more ancient music that I think will be appealing to the people who like bluegrass. They seem to have wide temperaments. I play foreign music a lot, including Ukrainian music, not just because it’s timely, but because it’s really good, especially the fiddle bands.” Listeners to the show may also hear blues, calypso, and lots of Hank Snow paired with Faron Young and Johnny Cash. Today that’s called ‘classic country.’ I like to show how music evolves into something that seems memorable in our time and another generation or so it takes on classical music trappings.”

At age 85, Dick Spotswood is as busy as ever. He does his radio show weekly, aired four days a week on Bluegrass Country. “I don’t listen to music so much anymore, other than to get ready for my shows. I like strolling around by my duck pond; that helps me keep moving. And I am currently working on a set of music notes for a 1923 Ma Rainey collection. I am trying to be careful to represent a female angle. I also do a lot of song sleuthing. Did you know Janice Joplin recorded a Ma Rainey song?”

So what is his secret to staying so active? “I will be 86 in a few months. The way to keep going is to keep going and to play wonderful old records.”

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