Playing his dues

Just after 7 on a Sunday night, an NPR news update trails off with dire reports of the rising price of gasoline, the most recent suicide attack in Baghdad and the international community’s vain hopes of stopping global warming. Seconds later, a welcome sound fills the air. It’s bluegrass band Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, shimmying through an a cappella gospel number so buoyant that it’s easy to forget that the world is a shambles:

He’ll give you pre-Scruggs Stanley if you want it. photo by Jonathan Welch

“Jesus gave me water, gonna let his praises swell … I said Jesus gave me water, and it was not in the well.”

The station is Asheville’s WCQS and the program is Country Roots. While the song plays, Wayne Erbsen, the show’s founder and host, slaps yellow Post-it notes on the faces of a handful of CDs and scrawls a track listing on each one. Bryan Sutton, No. 6; Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, No. 13; Tony Rice, No. 3; and so it goes.

“I make a collage of music in here every Sunday night,” offers Erbsen, leaning back from the console. “Sometimes it’s hard to stop painting. I just want it to go on and on.”

If Erbsen’s program of bluegrass, old-time, Western and early country music can be compared to a work of art, in scale alone it’s something along the lines of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” say, or one of Jackson Pollock’s paintings. He’s broadcasted Country Roots for the past 25 years, long enough to see his eldest daughter grow from a mere fetus to a woman of 23; long enough to see his son go from reading the weather report in baby talk to playing speed metal on his guitar; long enough to see America’s first “folk revival” trail off and another begin.

In fact, Erbsen has been such a long-standing feature on the local traditional-music scene that it’s hard to believe he’s not from here. His voice is touched with a faint drawl, and his fingers are nimble when he plays any of the several stringed instruments he’s mastered over the years. But the truth is, he grew up not in a holler but in the dry hills of southern California.

The redeeming fact is that he lived 20 minutes from the famed Ash Grove folk club.

“Over the years, I got to see a whole bunch of these legends, many of who are dead now: Roscoe Holcomb, New Lost City Ramblers, The Stanley Brothers, Reverend Gary Davis, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins,” he counts.

Bluegrass became a central obsession, and in time Erbsen decided to travel to the place Flatt and Scruggs described so longingly in their song “Cabin in Caroline.” He moved to Charlotte and—with youthful swagger and just few years of playing under his hand-tooled belt—became a fixture teaching students how to play traditional music on the banjo. In 1972, he moved to Asheville, first serving as a “visiting artist” at A-B Tech, and then taking over David Holt’s role as leader of Warren Wilson College’s traditional-music program. In 1973, he started Native Ground Music, which publishes records, books on country folklore and playing manuals (most recently The Bluegrass Gospel Songbook).

“I kept thinking of ways to document and promote Appalachian music, and it occurred to me that a radio program would be perfect,” says Erbsen.

It was and it wasn’t. His radio debut was on WUNF, a station run out of the upstairs of UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium. “The station had one watt or maybe point-one watts,” Erbsen recalls. “But if the wind was just right, the students a couple blocks away could hear me.”

In time, he packed up Country Roots and carried it over to WCQS. A loyal fan base has grown up over the years, pulling in their chairs each Sunday night to hear sounds from, and inspired by, the blue hills that stretch from Virginia to North Georgia.

“This one guy listens to the show every week with his 92-year-old mother,” says Erbsen. “They grew up with Appalachian music, and there are memories in the music for them—something to talk about and reminisce about.”

The playlist for the two-hour program is drawn from Erbsen’s personal collection of traditional Appalachian music, which consists of 40 linear feet of CDs (“laid on the quarter-inch side, not the 3-inch side,” he emphasizes) and roughly 2,000 LPs. Any given night is a hodgepodge of tunes, from polished contemporary acts like Doyle Lawson to the music’s most gnarled roots. A few weeks ago on the program, Erbsen played several tracks that captured the earliest days of The Stanley Brothers.

On the selections, Stanley—now bluegrass’s elder statesman—plays the banjo ham-handedly. His voice is sweet and reedy, decades removed from its current goose-pimply timbre.

“Ralph Stanley grew up listening to Wade Mainer, so he learned early how to play Mainer’s two-fingered style,” Erbsen explains. “It’s fascinating to hear. It’s like a little moment of time where [Stanley] hadn’t come under the spell of Earl Scruggs yet.”

Still, Erbsen insists that his role in radio is not “to lecture.”

He is, he says, “just letting the music speak for itself. … If I’ve made an impact with Country Roots, I hope it’s been to show people how the music was, and where it came from.”


Wayne Erbsen’s Country Roots airs 7-9 p.m. Sundays on WCQS (88.1 FM in Asheville and Hendersonville). Visit wcqs.org for other station info. Native Ground Music can be found at www.nativeground.com

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