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Today is August 5, 2020

A rural radio classic: Thacker Mountain Radio Hour

There once was a time when a family would gather around their radio on a Saturday night to listen to music or storytelling. Because we live in a world of internet streaming, Facebook video and podcasts, the notion of a radio show in 2020 might seem quaint to some. The folks at the Oxford-based Thacker Mountain Radio Hour, however, would strongly disagree.

By Steven Ward

A rural radio classic: Thacker Mountain Radio Hour

Created in 1997, the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour — hosted by Oxford author Jim Dees — is a weekly live radio show featuring author readings and musical performances from the Square in Oxford. The program also travels around Mississippi to record shows throughout the year. The show is recorded and broadcast every Thursday at 6 p.m. during the fall and spring and rebroadcast every Saturday at 7 p.m. on Mississippi Public Radio and Alabama Public Radio at 9 p.m. Besides Dees, the show features a house band — The Yalobushwackers — who plays during each show. In 2005, Thacker Mountain Radio received the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Broadcast Excellence.

We recently spoke to Thacker Mountain Radio Hour director and producer Alice Pierotti about the origins of the show, her dream guests for future broadcasts and the allure of radio.

Q: Who came up with the idea for the show?

A: The show was founded by former Oxford musicians Caroline Herring and Bryan Ledford, and Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books. I think it started probably as a natural marriage of good storytelling. Bryan and Caroline are good storytellers who played music. Richard was selling books from good storytellers. Square Books is a cultural hub and Thacker Mountain was born out of that creative environment.

Q: In a world of the internet, streaming, etc., why radio? Was a ‘throwback’ idea appealing or nostalgia part of that inspiration?

A: Thacker has been producing the radio show for over 22 years, and there is really nothing like it. We are a radio show, first and foremost and take great pride in that. I suppose now with the surge in podcasts and new ways of getting our entertainment, there is an element of nostalgia in defining ourselves as a radio show. We have such good partners with Oxford’s WUMS, Mississippi Public Broadcasting and Alabama Public Radio and our sound engineer, Jeffrey Reed, is so good at mixing our sound, we know we’re in the sweet spot. 

Q: Most of our readers live in rural Mississippi. With that in mind, can you talk a little bit about the idea behind traveling around the state to put on some of the shows?

A: We love Mississippi and the rural South! We strive to hold up a mirror to the small and rural areas that so define our way of life. We seek out authors and musicians whose art is a reflection of that rural life, and we see our remote shows as a way to expand our reach so that more folks can experience our live shows — which are pure entertainment.

Q: How do you go about selecting your musical guests and authors?

A: We select musicians and authors for the show who are great storytellers. Thacker’s mission is to collect and archive the stories of an evolving South. The majority of our musicians are from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee but not exclusively. Before COVID-19 shut down our live spring shows, we were set to welcome musicians from as far away as Indiana and New York. The authors we bring to the show are mostly those promoting new books on national book tours, so they come from all over, but it’s a heavy dose of regional authors.

Q: Is there a musical guest or author on your wish list? A dream guest if you will.

A: Of course! Given that we are in the cradle of American music — where blues and jazz and rock-n-roll were born, there are some musicians or authors whose work and perspective and story we just need on the show. What I love is honoring musical families because family music factors so greatly into how our music evolved and expanded here. I’d love to welcome to the stage Bekka Bramlett or Mavis Staples or Vaneese Thomas or Roseanne Cash just to hear the stories of why these women continued with family legacy of creating music to make a living.

Q: Has there been a particular show or guest that stands out for you? A magical show for you?

A: I have several of these moments, and I’ve only been producing the show since last fall. Last November we had the Ellis Family, a seven-piece gospel band, on the show at Off Square Books. The Ellis Family comes from a Pentecostal Gospel tradition in Panola County even though they now live in Missouri. The band consists of the mom and dad, two sisters and three brothers and they all play and sing and are incredibly talented and with the first two songs they played, they had the audience in their hands. Really good flat picking and family harmonies. For the final song, the youngest, Joshua, sang a song his sister wrote. As I listened, it occurred to me nobody in the audience was moving or making a sound. It was as if time stood still in that moment. I was thrilled the live audience got to be a part of that special moment.

Q: These are challenging times with the coronavirus. Thacker Mountain has a double mission — a live show for an audience but also bringing entertainment into people’s homes. How have you managed to create content without a live audience?

A: We really have rolled up our sleeves to keep supporting artists and bringing music and literature to people who need art so much right now to get them through this unprecedented time. Fortunately, we have an excellent Board of Directors and they addressed COVID-19 quickly and immediately with a plan of action. Jim and Jeffrey are bringing tremendous leadership to the table at this time and recording in the studio so that we can keep new radio shows on the air through spring. Some of our musicians chose to reschedule their live appearance but most are working with us in a remote capacity. The response from our fanbase has been overwhelming, and we are finding new ways to keep our audience engaged so stay tuned to our social media channels - we are remaining active with our weekly email blasts, website updates and socials. We are rolling out new content daily.

Q: Radio has been around for decades. Talk a moment about the power and allure of radio in 2020.

A: When I think of the power of radio, I can’t help but frame it in terms of current events with the majority of the world in isolation. I think about those in the rural South right now who are living with a digital divide, with no access to the internet. Or those who have lost jobs and won’t have the ability to pay for internet connection. And then I’m reminded of all the years where radio was the only way to hear music or spoken word or theatre or even ideas from afar. It is the definition of cosmopolitan of getting new and fresh ideas from other peoples and cultures that are different from yours. I think of how much having access to radio and good radio programming has molded our country and our world. If you ask an author and especially a musician what has influenced his or her work, more times than not they will mention radio or radio programming. It’s undeniable. And the thing about that kind of endurance, especially given the state of the world, is something truly truly comforting. Thacker Mountain is right there in the middle of that, for the last 22 years and into the future continuing to bring the stories and the music right to the people when and where they need it — using radio to make it happen.


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