30th Anniversary - Bluegrass Breakdown: 30 Years of Loyal Fans and Dedicated Hosts
In 2001, the multi-million selling soundtrack “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” attracted huge audiences for bluegrass and traditional country music. It was a pop culture moment that opened up the genre to listeners who eagerly welcomed this high energy all acoustic sound. According to the International Bluegrass Music Association, since 2000, bluegrass music has experienced a 104% increase in consumers and a growth in popularity unprecedented in recent bluegrass history.
But long before bluegrass tunes dotted popular music charts, fans could turn to 91.9 FM for bluegrass and folk programming regularly. From its opening days in 1975, WUIS has been committed to offering a variety of music for every audience. Mark Mathewson, current co-host of the program Bluegrass Breakdown, has been a familiar voice to bluegrass and folk audiences since 1995 when he took over the show from longtime host Bill Rintz.
Although its popularity has risen considerably in the past few years, bluegrass music remains a niche genre, explains Mark. “With a few exceptions, bluegrass is not part of the popular music scene. But over the years it has enjoyed a few major moments in the pop culture sun. It was the theme music for the movie ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ The song ‘Dueling Banjos,’ from the movie ‘Deliverance,’ became a top 40 hit. And recently the soundtrack to ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ won a Grammy. Whenever a pop culture moment happens it prompts more people to listen to the music.”
Bluegrass may not be a routine feature on commercial stations, but its star is certainly rising. Mark attributes the trend, in part, to the changing musical interests of younger listeners. “Generations X and Y have very eclectic listening tastes. They don’t listen to a steady diet of anything, but almost everything is in the mix. There was a time when some listeners’ ears would be closed to certain musical genres. But this generation has a real open mindedness about music. They load these CDs into their iPods and hit mix.”
Mark and co-host Jennifer Ramm play a range of selections designed to appeal to traditional bluegrass fans as well as more progressive tunes that push the boundaries of the genre.
Jennifer, who began co-hosting in 2001, has cultivated her love of bluegrass since she was a child of 8, playing fiddle and singing in the family’s bluegrass band. Over the years as both a bluegrass musician and host of the program, she has seen the pendulum of the bluegrass style shift back and forth between traditional and nontraditional. “When my family began playing bluegrass there was a more progressive push. In the 80s it shifted to more traditional sounds. Many of the new songs today cover the range of the style from the traditional bluegrass to more progressive selections by bands that use drums, electric guitars, more complicated chord progressions, and more involved melodies and rhythms,” explains Jennifer.
She too finds that the fan base for bluegrass music today is an interesting mix of bluegrass music faithful and “drifters,” so to speak, from other musical genres. “Many young people come into bluegrass through other styles. For instance, a lot of fans started out as ‘Dead Heads.’ Nowadays they will start as fans of the jam bands that tour with major acts, such as Del McCoury, and become huge fans of traditional bluegrass.”
The rising national popularity of bluegrass is reflected locally in Arbitron ratings of the show and media recognition. In 2003, the Illinois Times Best of Springfield list recognized Bluegrass Breakdown as one of the best public radio shows.
Mark, who is a bluegrass musician and songwriter, says the appeal of bluegrass music, as he sees it, stems from the authenticity of the genre. “Bluegrass is an all acoustic form of music. It’s considered real, and in the music world so much is market driven, synthesized, and aimed at a certain demographic. But bluegrass doesn’t fall into that. It’s a very high energy music that has a powerful sound.”
As has been demonstrated on WUIS over the past three decades, the people who host the station’s bluegrass radio shows aren’t the standard commercial radio broadcasters. It is a labor of love that is evident in their passion for the music and the depth of their understanding of this genre whose roots can be traced back to the early days of America when settlers of Jamestown, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Virginias, chronicled their day-to-day lives in the lyrics and melodies that would one day become known as bluegrass music.
Editor’s note: When not preparing his show, Mark is the director of Legal Publishing for the Illinois State Bar Association. He plays guitar and sings with two groups: Threshers, an old-time bluegrass band, and with his 15-year-old daughter Molly. A successful songwriter, Mark has had songs recorded by the Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway, and singers Mark Newton and Josh Williams. When Jennifer is not live on the air or performing with her current band, The River Ramblers, she’s teaching chemistry at Lincoln Land Community College. The two can be heard performing bluegrass music live on the air during WUIS spring and fall membership drives.