Back Road Radio Show keeps Americana alive

A story I wrote that originally appeared in NUVO Newsweekly in March, 2012

While the reputation of radio as a place where cool lives (recalled in the days and nights chronicled in the recent Naptown Radio Wars film), has mostly evaporated, there are a select few remaining radio stations – or in many cases, just individual shows – that still give the thrill of discovering new music and hearing stuff others stations won’t play.

In a series on the best of commercial, community and non-commercial radio stations worth a repeated listen, The Back Roads Radio Show, brought to life by the team of Andrew Funke and “Deacon” Tim Plunkett, is one of the regularly thoughtful and rocking programs heard locally.  The pair, who started the show in 2009, focuses on an alt-country/roots-rock/Americana mix, on the eclectic-to-a-faultIndianapolisstation WITT (91.9FM).

Funke hosts the shows.  Plunkett twists the dials to make it sound good.  They started with interview and music from local and regional musicians, and have branched out to grab a few national artists.  

The show recently added a second radio station, and has garnered a healthy fan base via the web for the archived shows. It’s a keenly produced, sonically crisp program – a trait not always found on shows that air on small, community-based stations in the middle of anywhere.  

NUVO: What did you envision for the show when you were starting out?  Long term or just a thing that would be fun to try?
TIM PLUNKETT: The latter. The show was actually the brainchild of Scott “Cootie” Crabtree, a great localAmericanamusician and good friend of ours. In the beginning we helped him build and record the show, but he had to back out after the first month due to personal reasons. We enjoyed doing the show so much we decided to keep it going. We just did what felt right and waited to see what happened. Our goals were pretty altruistic: have fun, make the show as kick ass as possible both sonically and content-wise, help out artists whose music we enjoy, and let the show take us where it leads us. 

NUVO: You air a couple radio stations, but also have built a web audience.

TP: We did put some thought into whether we wanted to be on radio only or Web only, and decided on both. There’s something indefinably cool about hearing your show over the airwaves while driving down the highway, but the Web presence let’s us reach an audience globally, which is amazing in its own way.

NUVO: How has the show been received by artists? Any challenges in interviewing a wide range of musicians – some who may be new to being interviewed

ANDREW FUNKE- I think we agree that everyone we’ve interviewed has done a great job. Some have more experience at it than others, but if you’re a performing artist on our show, you’ve likely spent countless hours of your life baring your soul on stage in front of complete strangers, so talking one-on-one is usually easy. An interview can make someone nervous, so we try really hard to make it a casual, comfortable conversation, to the point the artist forgets it’s actually an interview. Once we get it into that mode, the guests open up and the whole discussion takes on a life of its own.

NUVO: Are there artists that you think are ready to get more well-known, even if it is regionally instead of locally?

TP: Absolutely.  Pokey LaFarge, DeeAnn Dominy, The Tillers, Cari Ray, Linda Lee, Will Scott, our friends Riely O’Connor and Molly B Moon from South Bend.  

NUVO: Who have been some other favorites?

TP:Stockwell Road, Cootie Crabtree, Jethro Easyfields, Uncle John Potthast, Venetia Sekema, Gamblin’ Christmas, The Shelby County Sinners. Hell, we love all the artists we have on the show and we aren’t being diplomatic when we say that. It’s one of the criteria for being a guest – we have to dig your music.

NUVO: What is your music background? Why is it a good team? How do you guys work together? 

AF: I grew up on a steady diet of classic rock from the 60’s and 70’s. As a kid, my parents listened to country and I hated it with a passion – I couldn’t be in the same room when Hee Haw was on. Oddly, as I got older, country andAmericanastarted to become the only real, viable direction for me, and I found myself loving the very songs I detested years before. I still like rock and all other sorts of music from metal to a little hip-hop, but Americana is where it’s at for me these days. And yes, I now love watching Hee Haw, especially the early years.

TP:  I grew up listening to The Beatles and pretty much everything else but country. When I was in high school I asked my parents for an 8-track digital recorder so I could record music with my friends. I started listening to all types of music after that, with special interest in the ways that older music was recorded. Back in the 40’s and 50’s, they didn’t have special recording equipment purchased atGuitarCenter. It was all made using microphones, analog tape, and cutting lathes. Without knowing it, after researching old recording technology, I’d grown to love the music that was recorded with it and that started my love ofAmericanaand Roots music.

NUVO: The show sounds so good. Where is the studio?

TP: This is one of my favorite questions. I notice that nearly everyone assumes the show is recorded in some extravagant studio with thousands of dollars of recording equipment. The show has always been recorded in my home studio – a small, sound-proofed spare bedroom we call our “Studio Bunker”. The key to getting a great recording is to have great equipment and a controllable recording environment. Some of the best recordings ever done were recorded in spaces smaller than ours. When artists come in to the studio they’re usually surprised at the comfort of the small room and I think the fact that it’s a bedroom and not a large fancy studio adds to the comfort level of the artist. It makes the interview feel that much more laid back.

AF: I think Tim and I are a good team because we each have our primary roles – I’m the host and he’s the producer. There’s also no ego involved with what we do. If Tim has an idea for me as host, I’ll listen to it and often times go with it. Vice-versa for the production work he oversees. It doesn’t hurt that he and I have been playing as a rhythm section  – Tim on drums, me on bass –  for almost a decade now. We’ve worked with each other so much at this point, we just know what the other guy’s gonna do.

NUVO: Who has been a great supporter of the show, helping it stay alive?  Or has it been you two alone?

TP: In terms of creating the show itself, it’s been just us since almost the very beginning. However, we couldn’t be on the air if not for some very kind underwriters, especially Locals Only. They’ve been with us from the start, and we’d have folded long ago without their support. Our stations, WITT and WRGF, have also been great to work with. They’ve been instrumental in helping us navigate the rules and regulations of community radio, yet have been flexible enough to let us create the show exactly the way we want to. 

NUVO: What’s your take on Indiana and Indianapolis Americana music?  

TP: Overall, the original music scene both in the state and in Indy is relatively small when compared to some other places, and theAmericanascene is only a fraction of that. That being said, there’s some incredible music being made from South Bend to Indy toMadison- you just have to dig for it. It’s really no different than the nature of Indiana itself. Most outsiders see it as boring, and it certainly can be if you don’t try, but snoop around a little bit and you’ll be amazed by what you find.

It could be better, though, and what it needs is for more folks to support artists making original music and the venues that feature them. In a city that’s trying so hard to become more cosmopolitan and international, it’s a shame to see great artists playing to empty rooms all the time. We’ve seen bands with albums in the top 20 of the Americana chart play to two people on a Saturday night in Broad Ripple. That needs to change. We like to think we’re making a small impact with our show, but it’s only one outlet and we need a lot more help if things are going to improve.

NUVO: Where would you like to see the show go? How might it evolve.
TP: More regional and national acts live on the show, though keeping a local focus is still critically important, too. We’d also like to see the show get picked up by stations all around the country, like some kind of community radioAmericanaempire. We’ve also discussed promotingAmericanashows around town, bringing in a regional or national act with a local act or two to open. The one thing that won’t change is we’ll stay true to what we’ve been doing since we started – playing great music by great artists for great fans.