Feature: Wednesday, June 19, 2003
Buckin Trends

Will The Ranch bet its soul on Texas Music?\r\n

By Anthony Mariani

There’s really only one commercial radio station. Classic rock, rap, salsa, smooth jazz, alt-rock, country. These styles all essentially get pumped through the same spot on the dial. All harmless, all the time. Big Radio is an enigma to people who don’t consider music sonic wallpaper, to people who sincerely care about what they listen to. These folks can’t believe that, generally speaking, radio has become a distinctly passive, lowest-common-denominator medium, meant to distract and seduce, not engage. Seduction is why the same “hot” song is played every hour, on the hour — there’s the chance that someone’s pet iguana hasn’t heard the number yet, and if Big Radio hasn’t “saturated the market,” to use the industry parlance, then Big Radio hasn’t done its job. About your prospective partner in pleasure, there are a few things you should know: Congress has just given radio conglomerates an opportunity to swallow even bigger pieces of the radio pie. Radio consultants are being paid by major record labels to “suggest” to program directors what should be played. DJ’s are pretending to be broadcasting in your market when they’re actually hundreds of miles away, in New York or L.A. Big Radio, simply, is diseased.

Most music lovers long ago gave up on Big Radio, and struggling local musicians long ago forgot about trying to get their music played there. Frustrated music lovers, contest freaks, and people to whom melodic sound matters little are the ones listening to Big Radio, and local musicians know that only cushioned industry players and their “projects” are granted access to the airwaves, guarded by money-minded businessmen who know a star when they see his billfold. A thoughtful, workaday person has no place here. You would think that Big Radio would have its dissidents and that these village idiots would simply use their own capital and know-how to rebuild the machine. Most of the dissidents who have come out have gone into satellite radio; the more traditional ex-flunkies have merely recreated — to the drive-time jock’s knowing delivery — the old model.

KFWR/95.9-FM, The Ranch, is an old model with some modern touches. You’ve likely seen the billboards: Silhouette of a cowboy, standing tall, arms akimbo, in dark brown, on a yellow background, over the words “The Ranch” and some smart-ass slogan. (A personal favorite is: “In Dallas, we’re a foreign language.”) These billboards are part of a huge promotional push by the half-year-old station, owned by LKCM Radio Group. This type of marketing is unprecedented on the part of privately owned media outlets or stations not owned by conglomerates Clear Channel or Infinity. A big attitude — and a big bank account — likely explain how this little start-up is able to procure marquee performers for its Texas Music Series, a summer-long string of weekly shows at 8.0 in Sundance Square that has already featured Gary P. Nunn, the Derailers, Kevin Fowler, and Ray Benson, among others.

A few other things that The Ranch has going for it are a killer talent roster, a staff of established execs, and, most importantly, a Big Idea. The philosophy behind the station is this: There may be a segment of the population west of Highway 360 whose members can, on the one hand, find something to smile about in a useless song like “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band),” and, on the other hand, appreciate a moving, emotive piece of genius like Bob Wills and the Playboys’ “Stay a Little Longer” — because The Ranch plays both types throughout the day. That the station sits comfortably (so far) in the middle of the road might send the message to other like-minded dials that it’s OK to please both the non-attentive and the proactive listeners. No other station around has been crazy enough to try and pull this off, to make money without “selling out.”

And since the Fort Worth-centric station debuted as The Ranch last winter, a debate among local music lovers — specifically, local country music lovers — has begun. Philosophically, the station has been presenting itself as a friend, like a good neighbor. A couple of questions to chew on: 1) Will Ranch DJ’s regularly spin new country from up-and-coming local artists, instead of just playing locals during limited time slots? 2) Will Ranch DJ’s, unlike their competitors at KPLX/99.5-FM the Wolf and KSCS/96.3-FM, actually play most requests, no matter how obscure or local? Also, the station is relocating from its current Weatherford location to Sundance Square this fall; a lot of folks are wondering whether the move will result in just another aloof corporate monolith on the block or a great new locale that will be unique to Fort Worth and an integral part of the city’s fabric, a place shaped by The Music-Loving Masses. (Unlike, say, Bennigan’s or Chili’s — it’s not like you can call them up and tell them what to put on the menu.) Most of us know that The Ranch shouldn’t want to be ruled by The People; we’re all likely more than aware of how The People, those brain-dead zombies, helped bring Big Radio down to its current level, chiefly through the refusal to receive new music from new bands. The Music-Loving Masses, the people who not only listen to music but live it, are the folks The Ranch should be talking to — and the only language these music lovers understand, of course, is good music.

A long time ago, according to Sundance Square president and CEO Johnny Campbell, there was a “standing remote broadcast facility” located in Fort Worth’s heart. But there’s never been anything of The Ranch’s magnitude in the location; and, aside from KFTW/92.1-FM’s morning broadcast from The Stockyards, there’s never been a radio station this accessible — physically and philosophically — anywhere in town. If The Ranch can actually talk to music-loving Fort Worth, and if the station’s open-door policy lets DJ’s play crazy requests and incorporate local artists’ songs into regular rotation, then the station will put itself in a position to help turn this town into a booming music mecca — good for the artists, good for the listeners, good for the station, good for Big Radio, good for the economy. A lot of people are pulling for The Ranch. Hope is in the air.

Like most country radio landscapes in Texas, Fort Worth-Dallas stations try to embrace the region. Texas artists thus have a slightly easier time getting their music played on Big Radio here than they would, say, in Seattle or Miami. That’s not to say that these Texas artists have an easy time getting airplay. It’s just that over the past seven to 10 years, there’s been a surge in popularity of what’s called Texas Music. The name doesn’t make much sense, as far as it pertains to the music itself — Texas Music, a descendant of Outlaw Country, is mostly old-fashioned country music with, I guess, the names of some Texas towns thrown into the lyrics. (At some point, you’ve probably heard a DJ say something like, “Here’s one from Texas’ own Pat Green” or “Here’s the new one from good ol’ Houston boy, Cory Morrow.”) What makes this music great is its lo-fi production quality, helping buoy the music’s homegrown appeal. No matter what the singer is singing, he actually sounds sincere, all bellied up to the speakers and out in the open, with no production wizards there to protect him. You can see how this music has exploded — it’s honest and honestly good. And it’s unlike anything Nashville’s thought of over the past 20 years.

Understand this clearly: Big Texas Music radio didn’t break these acts. What happened was that Big Radio saw that people were giving up on their boomboxes and going, by the hundreds of thousands, to see “real” country music in a live setting. Local country stations only began playing Texan Green, for instance, after station brass realized that the performer was selling out large venues across the southwest. It’s only now, after the Pat Green explosion, that country radio is realizing that, hey, Texas has a long tradition of producing great country-western artists — maybe we should help great new artists get some exposure?

But don’t worry: Bad programming, whether intentional or not, can usually find a way to crush whatever small beauty rises from the radio universe. You know the history: Shows devoted to a specific, unheralded genre get stuck in overnight Sunday slots; mindless chatter devours what little time there is between seemingly endless streams of commercials; awful song selection drives fans of a particular artist to tears (“Why didn’t they play the good song?!?”). The undeniable facts are that radio is a business devoted to appealing to the most people possible and that any style of music that receives heavy rotation is bound to become a gargantuan monster with its own enemies. The thought that can keep you awake at night is that there’s only a tiny chance that Big Radio will ever get any better. This thing, this magic contraption of wire and plastic and soul, may never again be what you’d hoped for.

The Ranch, with its deep pockets and limitless talent, has the potential to be at the forefront of a new Texas-country radio era. The station, like many other Texas-based dials, is full of personalities whose exaggerated country accents, like metaphorical cowboy hats, belie the fact that the station is run tighter than a ship. And while The Ranch may not have the manpower to compete punch-for-punch with competitors (yet), it is as professionally run as any other spot on the dial; The Ranch’s on-air work is gold. So no matter how homey the station may appear now, it’s Big Time. No matter its direction, this station will leave an impact.

A huge part of The Ranch’s killer roster is Ace in the Hole Joe Bielinski. Like a lot of part-time DJ’s, Bielinski has a normal, off-air side; he’s a high school English teacher at a place about 70 miles from Cowtown called Gordon, where he’s been for 21 years. Bielinski is also an expert gamer, excellent at both cards and dominoes, and a married father of three. No one’s ever seen him without a smile. One-one-millionth of his good humor is what would pass as his glad-handing DJ side; the other ninety-nine millionths are pure friendliness. Anyone who’s ever listened to country music in this area knows “The Mayor” (Bielinski was once, on a write-in campaign, voted mayor of his hometown of Mingus, Texas; he served for eight years).

Bielinski is a scholar and historian of country music. His show, which airs Sunday afternoons, is called “Classic Country Revue,” and it’s a throwback to radio’s earliest days, back when Fort Worth was the capital of western swing and home of the Panther Ballroom. In one promotional spot, countryman Joe Paul Nichols presents a “very important public service announcement: The radio show you are presently listening to is a real country music program, with fiddles, steel guitars, and words you can actually understand. If at any time during this broadcast you experience foreign sounds, such as Shania Twain or Billy Ray Cyrus, we strongly advise you turn your radio off immediately and contact the radio repair center nearest you.” The artists come from centuries near and far, though many are from Fort Worth — from well-loved stars like Nichols, local Leon Rausch, and Jerry Max Lane, to contemporary local honky-tonkers, like Tommy Alverson and Bodie Powell. They’re all united in their Texas swing heritage.

“It’s absolutely necessary to play Fort Worth music,” Bielinski said. “It’s nice to have people like the folks at this station who understand the needs of Fort Worth. It makes everybody feel a part of it. If there’s good music out there, and we’re not playing it, then it puts [the station] in a bad light.

“We need to back up the artists here,” continued Bielinski. “If a Fort Worth station doesn’t play Fort Worth music, then what does that look like?”

Playing Fort Worth artists alongside popular performers like Pat Green and Roger Creager is the station’s way of trying to attract as many listeners as possible, not, as you might think, to turn some listeners off. “If someone knows there’s not a chance of ever hearing a Ray Price song on this station, he’s not gonna tune in,” said Bielinski. “You’ll never have that listener.”

Said Bill Mack, “The Dean of Country DJ’s” and former WBAP/820-AM jock now turned satellite-radio DJ: “They got a good thing going there. They’re giving listeners a bigger menu of programming. They’re taking chances. They’re jumping from the norm. But it’s a good thing, and it’s needed in country radio.”

One recent Sunday, Bielinski was behind the boards on a relatively quiet program, one of the quietest Bielinski recalls since starting with The Ranch. Callers had an easy time getting through, and when they did, they had Bielinski’s full attention. A woman made a request for her parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. Fellow Ranch DJ Haywood called just to say hi. Country legend Lane phoned to say hello. A few other folks had Father’s Day requests. Bielinski knew nearly every caller — by name. That’s grassroots.

At around 2 p.m., Bielinski got a call from Art Greenhaw, bassist for Texas’ longest-running swing group, the Lightcrust Doughboys. Greenhaw, a legend in his own right, was in town for rehearsals for an upcoming Bass Hall show and wanted to spread the word. You couldn’t find a better place to promote the kind of old-timey swing the Doughboys play than Bielinski’s show.

Though Bielinski barely looks old enough to run for president, he is, like Mack, old-school. He plays the music that no one else would dare play for fear of alienating that always valuable 18-35 demographic. It’s a testament to The Ranch that Bielinski is allowed to choose from his collection of more than 30,000 vinyl records to compile his playlist every week, without interference from above. And it was Bielinski who chose the Sunday afternoon time slot. His life is pretty charmed.

In Mingus, Bielinski’s parents ran the biggest dance hall, the Trio Club, which is still going strong, though without the Bielinskis’ involvement. As a youngster, Bielinski went from standing on stage with his mouth agape to actually playing drums in the house band in his teens. He wasn’t interested in sports — his love was for music. “I think when I was first learning, my friends were kinda standoffish,” he said. “I think they thought I was just trying to get out of sports. But I got their respect once I started making some money in the band.”

He played in the band throughout college in the late ’70s, at Tarleton State, and while teaching, only to end up hanging up the drumsticks for the radio microphone in 1991. He started his traditional country show at KYXS-FM, the dial The Ranch eventually purchased. To get the show going, KYXS station managers told him he had to produce 10 advertisers at $10 a pop. “I came back with 20 advertisers at $20 per sponsor.”

This demand for old-timey country was growing in direct response to the overwhelming popularity of Nashvegas acts like Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn, Billy Ray Cyrus, and others. More than ever people wanted to hear the country music they knew as children. Bielinski’s show was a hit.

It still is. Bielinski said he gets calls from “every corner” of Texas and, thanks to webcasting, places as far away as Belgium, Sweden, California, and New York.

In case you didn’t know, old-timey country has always been well-loved. Allowing a local DJ to play this type of music is also a great way for The Ranch to earn some “street credibility.” There’s not another spot on the dial where you’ll hear a pre-recorded Bob Wills interview or a discussion about missed opportunities with a legend like Warner Mack interspersed among songs by local artists, dead and alive.

Once the move into Sundance Square happens, Joe Bielinski’s life is going to change dramatically. For him, the increased exposure will be the equivalent of, in tv terms, having a voice and a head. Artists and fans will likely be lining up at the door every Sunday afternoon.

Said Fort Worth artist Alverson: “The fact that they’re gonna be broadcasting from downtown Fort Worth will say a lot. We’ve heard that for years, that someone was gonna be broadcasting from there, but these guys are actually gonna do it.”

Foot traffic around Sundance Square starts building up once summer starts, and this bustle is like that of a living, breathing organism’s inner mechanisms — healthy, purifying even. A large crowd of cowboys and cowgals gathered last Wednesday in front of the stage at 8.0 for another installation of The Ranch’s Texas Music Series. After experiencing a decade’s worth of ups and downs, this club, which essentially monopolizes the intersection of Third and Commerce streets, seems to be finally achieving a sort of identity; there are friends of mine who actually go there not just to gawk at the waitresses but to have brainless fun and just ... be. Nearby, 8.0’s sister club, The Flying Saucer, manages to get by with more adventurous musical fare, yet hanging out in the Saucer’s neatly appointed space can’t compare with having a beer in 8.0’s garden. The nightspot has been around so long, in club years, that its ability to attract Fort Worth’s prettier (read: snottier) people has become endearing. It doesn’t matter, really, that no “serious” local band or performer would dare regularly take the 8.0 stage — which has been occupied, at various times, by the disco cover band Le Freak. What matters is that there’s no better place in Sundance Square to enjoy live music.

Onstage last Wednesday was legendary country performer Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel fame. Even though the garden was packed, you didn’t have to look too hard to find Benson. He’s a giant. Benson has been churning out his take on country-bluegrass-light rock since the early 1970s. He’ll hit you with a Dylan cover one second, then turn around and lay a bluegrass original on you. A guy like Benson is perfect to help promote The Ranch — he’s made a living making country music, but he’s not a known commodity.

(This isn’t to say Benson doesn’t demand top dollar — he does. Think too hard about how The Ranch, this little upstart, has been able to afford players like Benson and Billy Joe Shaver and Gary P. Nunn and The Derailers and all the other country musicians who’ve played 8.0 as part of the Texas Music Series, and you’ll go numb. If the Bass family is not in some way — no matter how small — involved with this station, even as a non-paid consultant, I’ll walk to Weatherford and tip my hat to the program director. I’ll have to buy a hat first, but still ...)

Scoring this 8.0 gig has been a boon for the club — and The Ranch. “It’s family friendly, we get started early, it’s a free show, and you’re home by [10 p.m.],” said Jason Slovensky, 8.0 general manager. “How cool is that?”

At least 1,000 people appear at every gig. These types of crowds are self-perpetuating — success begets success. Ranch folk are pleased, and so is 8.0 management. Said Slovensky: “It’s a win-win situation.”

Talks about the program began about six months ago, according to Slovensky. It took about three months, he said, to get the green light.

“I was apprehensive,” he said. “I was scared to do country. That’s The Stockyards, right? That first night, with Kevin Fowler, was inspiring. It was cold and windy, and there were still people there. At that point I knew [the Texas Music Series] had legs.”

Once the station finally settles into its new digs in Sundance Square, in the Jett Building on Third Street, more community-building events, like the Texas Music Series, may take place. A particularly interesting possible program involves visiting artists and a patio: The Ranch plans to extend a patio from the second floor, facing east, from which visiting artists will be able to perform. Said Sundance Square’s Campbell: “When I was looking at taking this job,” a little more than two years ago, “I had written down some ideas. ... One thing was a popular culture intersect — something out there in the square, day in, day out, a piece of popular culture to connect with the locals, like what people think of when they hear The Today Show.

“That was the thinking, months later,” he continued, “when folks from The Ranch came in with the idea. It rang that bell.”

The move was a no-brainer, according to the station’s Linda O’Brian: The Ranch wants to be the center of the Fort Worth universe. “Fort Worth has such a great history,” she wrote in an e-mail. “From Bass Hall to comedy clubs to some of the best dancing in town. [The station] is going to be the rock in the center of it all.”

Being “out there” is just The Ranch’s way of trying to be a good Fort Worthian — and a potentially hot spot on the dial. Local artist Alverson gets some airplay at some of the other local stations, but he gets a lot of airplay on The Ranch. Same with Fort Worth boy Bodie Powell. Of course, the one thing to remember is that these artists could get airplay on any big commercial radio station in the country — if, like Toby Keith and Alan Jackson, they were backed by major labels.

“They’re doing a good job,” Alverson said of The Ranch. “For my personal taste, they’re still a bit too Top-40, but I’m sure they’re trying to please everybody.”

Alverson said he got his record into the hands of Ranch execs by simply mailing it in.

Despite significant improvements in radio technology, the methodology behind getting airplay is still very old-fashioned. O Brother, Where Art Thou? harked to the days when a band could walk into a radio station and cut a record in the studio on location. Yes, things have come a long way since then, but the main idea is the same: You’ve got to impress the people spinning the records. Some radio stations, especially some local country stations, have entire research departments devoted to finding good “new” acts to spin. Which is great — in theory. “Research” typically finds only music that has already been heard on nonprofit radio and in live music clubs. The argument could be made that The Ranch is playing Alverson’s hit, “Una Mas Cerveza,” because The Wolf and KSCS have been playing the song for the past two years, not because Alverson is a local boy with lots of talent.

Vouchsafing a few minutes during drive time to local artists, holing up in Sundance Square, sponsoring local shows, and blocking off a few hours on a Sunday afternoon for Fort Worth artists could be the most Fort Worth ends up getting out of The Ranch.

That would suck.

The Ranch is, undeniably, the best mainstream country spot on the dial, a hearty blast of the type of Texas Music that may one day appear on radio dials nationwide — not too inaccessible, not too stupid. Despite the naysayers and the harsh words hurled at any radio station aligned with power and cashflow, The Ranch is the only place to flip to for those folks who think of country music as something other than background noise, as something to put on for empathic companionship.

The future for The Ranch and Texas country radio is dim, but not apocalyptically dim. There will likely always be a huge demand for commercial country radio, evidenced by the large number of competitive dials in the Fort Worth-Dallas market. And even if you’re not a fan of country music, there’s a gaggle of marketing execs and honest-to-goodness country music zealots who will be working hard over the next five years or so to try and convert you. To keep the Fort Worth/Dallas Music-Loving Masses’ interest, pushing local and regional artists will become de rigueur. To snare the rock fan, like that one pal we all know who isn’t afraid to admit to once owning an Eagles album, giving a second or two of airtime to more alt-country and rockish country artists will also be the norm. Local big country radio folk will also be trying to expand into other decidedly non-traditional markets. A jerk like David Allan Coe, for example, was once the toast only of those rednecks who were unafraid to unfurl the Stars and Bars for no reason. Now, as we all know, he’s an acquired taste, like a fine cognac (or, more likely, bad mescal), thanks to his dealings with major rap-rock star Kid Rock. Coe now gets the rednecks and the reformed rednecks and the rock-rap listeners — airplay is surely only a breath away. Of course, some good ol’ righteous boys aren’t too crazy about Kid Rock’s country-rap-rock exploits; these listeners need to be put at ease. In response, classic country programs, like Bielinski’s on The Ranch, will become longer, or at least longer than a couple of hours on a Sunday morning. When he started out in radio, Bielinski had no more than two or three hours to spin classic country. His show now stretches for five hours. It’s all in the zeitgeist.

But, you know, if the zeitgeist had more brains, country music on the local dials would be a helluva lot different. It would be ... better: Song themes would have less to do with drinking beer with the buds and carousing than with heartfelt emotions; musicianship would have less to do with merely keeping time than with creating spaces for heartfelt lyrics to soar; arrangements would have less to do with twangs and steel guitars than with instruments that are appropriate for different moods. The Ranch is on the scene now at the perfect time to kick local country radio in the ass, to promote good music instead of music that merely sells, to create a stronger sense of socio-cultural community than this wonderful town has ever had.

The moment is now. The Ranch has been talking a good game and doing a decent job of backing up the blather so far. Granted, we’re talking about a station that’s chock full of experienced talent and blessed with a game plan that even a few monkeys could execute. It’s just that by playing Texas Music, some singer-songwriter material, a teensy bit of alt-country, this station could establish itself as a force, not only in Tarrant County but in all of Texas. The Ranch could become the mainstream equivalent of KHYI/95.3-FM, The Range, or KNON/89.3-FM — places your average Texas music artist or singer-songwriter wants his record broken on, places real country music lovers go to for sweet sounds. The concept’s almost so simple that it’s capable of getting lost in conspicuousness. There may be a reason why no one ever thought of this before.

Lest we forget: No matter how dismal returns on radio get or how restless the natives become, local country radio will never abandon Nashvegas. Tim McGraw, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson — these artists will never be short of pocket change. Nashvegas will survive. Here’s a little story: In 1999, the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? sold a zillion copies and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. The honky-tonk hit “Man of Constant Sorrow,” by obscure bluegrass picker Dan Tyminski, was being played on country radio between the Shania and Faith tunes. A little ol’ Nashvegasized artist named Patty Loveless jumped on the bandwagon in a return to her “roots” and released Mountain Soul, a throwback record modeled, in spirit, after the O Brother soundtrack, and traditional instruments like banjos and pennywhistles began creeping into Nashvegas songs. And people were actually buying old albums by O Brother-esque artists like Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton. Victory was claimed, chiefly by non-mainstream artists and those aligned with the No Depression/Americana movement. Radio would be the province of “talented” artists once again, not talentless hacks whose lack of talent lead to desperation to get signed and whose desperation to get signed lead to being manipulated by Nashville. Then what happened? A counter-insurgency took place. Shania cut a double-c.d. that included an entire disc of dance versions of the “country” songs. Ron Sexsmith used an 808 drum machine on his record. Faith began incorporating flames into her live act. Nashvegas began flexing its muscles to regain control of the radio landscape. The result: You may hear “Man of Constant Sorrow” once a month during drive-time on Big Radio — that’s it. The old radio saw that we listeners are given what we deserve is true — it’s why people buy SUV’s and eat at Mickey D’s. There’s no other explanation for Shania or Faith. You can’t reason with Big Radio. It’s a talker and a listener to itself. The only thing to do is crack open a beer, crack open your ears, tune into 95.9 The Ranch, and pray to God you don’t hear your lousy neighbor coming through the speakers.

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