Interview by Eric Steiner
In addition to being a frequent contributor to Cosmik Debris, Eric Steiner is the Editor of the Bluesletter, a 32-page monthly print magazine produced by the Washington Blues Society. Eric shares this story with Cosmik Debris readers in advance of the May Bluesletter to spread the word in cyberspace about how Bill Wax promotes and supports blues societies and blues festivals from his spot at Lo-Fi's Bar and Pool Hall in Bluesville. Lo-Fi's Bar and Pool Hall is just off exit 74 on the XM Satellite Radio Highway. - Editor
Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to tour the studios of XM Satellite Radio in Washington, DC. My host, Bill Wax, is the proprietor of Lo-Fi's Bar and Pool Hall just off of exit 74 on the XM Satellite Radio highway. We talked about the blues, blues societies, blues festivals, and the International Blues Competition.
I've followed Bill for a while, from the Blue Bird Blues Festival in Largo, Maryland several years ago, to the International Blues Challenge and Blues Music Awards in Memphis. Bill took me on a tour of what might be the world's most technologically-advanced broadcasting facility. XM offers 170 channels of music, sports, talk, and news, but I was most interested in learning more about the man behind Lo-Fi's Bar and Pool Hall.
Steiner: Bill, I understand that you have some roots in the Pacific Northwest. Aren't you from the upper left hand corner of the country?
Wax: Actually, I'm not from the upper left hand corner of the country. I am originally from the Washington, DC-area, but I've worked in the Pacific Northwest. I started in radio in Columbia, Missouri. After four or five years and a community radio station in Missouri called KOPN, I applied for a job at KBOO in Portland, Oregon.
Wax: Absolutely. It is a wonderful community radio station, and I was program director there for about three years in the mid 1980's. I got to know George Page really well, who has since passed away. Tom Wendt's still there doing a blues show, and so is Bill Rhoades. Bill's a pretty good blues player himself. I put Bill on the air in the Monday afternoon slot. I lived there for about three years, and then returned to Columbia, Missouri, and then came back to the East Coast. I'm not really from the Pacific Northwest; I'm an East Coast kind of guy. Of all the people I worked with at KBOO, two of them went North to Seattle and they have been very successful in broadcasting. KBOO's station manager, Harriet Baskus moved to Seattle to be a station manager of a small radio station up there, and now she does Internet radio for the travel industry. There's also Ross Reynolds, who is a very popular afternoon radio host for KUOW-FM in Seattle. Ross was a program director, a news director, and now he's the host of an afternoon magazine show, and he's terrific. The Pacific Northwest has a very special place in my heart, but I'm an East Coast kind of guy at heart. To be very honest with you, Eric, overall, the Northwest moves a little too slow for me.
Steiner: Well, I know I speak for the Washington Blues Society when I say that you're welcome to hang out with us anytime.
Wax: I love that part of the country; it is truly a beautiful place. I would love to hang out with the Washington Blues Society.
Steiner: The facilities here at XM Satellite Radio are phenomenal. You have 170 commercial-free channels including Bluesville, and the studios are first-class. When we got off the elevator, I thought we stepped onto the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise with the banks of monitors, captain's chair, and studio gear. I really want to ask you a pretty low-tech question in what may be the world's most wired and technologically-advanced building. How do artists, especially those who represent local blues societies, get your attention?
Wax: Eric, artists get my attention by simply sending me a disc. I will always accept CDs that artists send to me. I do my best to listen to as much music as I can. I go out to shows, but from Monday through Friday, I work half-days. Most of my friends think that this is a great deal. It's not bad, I get to work about seven, and then leave at seven, day after day. So, I try to put in the time to make the show the best it can be. I go to as many live blues shows as I can, and I get to Memphis for the International Blues Competition. I go for two reasons: 1) it's a wonderful event and it is a lot of fun, and 2) it's an opportunity in one fell swoop to learn about the best that local blues societies have to offer. So, whether it's at a local blues show or at the International Blues Competition in Memphis, I welcome the opportunity to discover new bands and I do my best to listen to them. I also encourage artists to follow-up. I don't mean follow-up with me every day, but every few weeks to send me a short e-mail bugging me about the CD. I promise you that I will get to you, but I may not for a while.
Now, I must say that an artist I'm already playing or those artists I already know like a Paul De Lay or a John Hammond, those CDs will probably rise to the top. I am very interested in local artists who are very popular in their hometowns and are promoted by their local blues society. I listen to about 70 new songs a week from about 20 bands, and out of those 70, we may narrow the list down to about 20 songs. We do our very best to get new blues talent on the radio.
Steiner: Bill, there's one thing that bothers me about Bluesville. Each time I tune in, I learn something new. I discover a new artist, and most of the time I need a paper and pencil nearby to write down a phenomenal artist who is a real joy to discover. I discovered 2007 IBS competitor Ben Prestage on Bluesville, and many, many others. Let me shift gears and take you out of the studio and out to a blues festival. We've met at two IBCs, and at last year's Blues Music Awards, and couple of years ago, I saw you in action at the Blue Bird Blues Festival in Largo, Maryland with Barry Pearson. What are some of your favorite blues festivals?
Wax: There are many blues festivals that I have not had the opportunity to attend. First and foremost, I go to the Poconos Blues Festival every year. I love that festival, and Michael Klein does a great job with this festival. It's close enough for me to drive, so that makes it very viable, and I join some friends and we all rent a house and we have a lot of fun and frivolity, things we wouldn't want to make public in any way, shape, or form.
Steiner: Well, Bill, I've got to print that.
Wax: Eric, you can print that, but I'm giving you no details.
Steiner: OK. I should ask a more probing question here, but this is a family-friendly publication for blues fans of all ages. What are some of the festivals you'd like to attend?
Wax: The Sunflower Festival in the Mississippi Delta is one that I'd like to see, the festival that used to be known as the King Biscuit Blues Festival is high on my list, and I've never been to the Chicago Blues Festival and I would love to go to that one.
Steiner: If you need airline miles to get there, Bill, I'm all over it. I've gone to the Chicago Blues Festival for the last two years, and it really is one of the world's premiere blues festivals.
Wax: I have heard nothing but great things about the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, and I would like to experience that one, too. I've been to the San Francisco Blues Festival in Golden Gate Park, and that was a wonderful time. Honestly, Eric, I don't think that there is such a thing as a bad blues festival. There's such a wonderful atmosphere at a blues festival, and one thing that I love about the blues in general is the lack of attitude from the musicians. Let me give you just one example. Even the most famous blues musicians, Buddy Guy and B.B. King, are so accessible at a blues festival. They are there giving of their time and talent. How can anyone else not be supportive of the music, the fans, and the festival?
Steiner: There are many, many exciting blues festivals in Washington State. We've got the Winthrop Rhythm and Blues festival in the center of the state, the Microblues Festival in Vancouver just across the river from Portland, and the Mount Baker Blues Festival near the Canadian border. I'm glad that you believe in the blues festival, whether it's in a small community festival like Blue Bird in Largo, Maryland, or a nationally-recognized event like Poconos. Blues festivals keep the blues very much alive, and I wanted to thank you for your steadfast support of festivals over the years. However, I wanted shift gears again and close with a very difficult question.
I've heard that XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio will merge. I hope that Lo-Fi's Bar and Pool Hall won't be turned into a strip mall or fall victim to gentrification at exit 74 off of the XM highway.
[Pictured left to right: Eric Steiner and Bill Wax]
Wax: There's not a lot I can say about the proposed merger, because there's a lot I don't know about it. I can say, though, that for the rest of this year, nothing will change. I don't have a counterpart at Sirius who is 100% blues; Sirius' rock programmer oversees blues. My fondest dreams include a second blues channel: we could take their rocking blues channel and make it more contemporary and let Bluesville broadly cover all the other blues bases. Eric, we've still got nine months' to go until next year, and I'm not going anywhere. As long as I'm here, I can promise you there will be no strip malls in Bluesville.