It's late Sunday
afternoon in mid-December at KVCU Radio 1190 and Jeff Holland is scrambling
a little bit. He's got records scattered from hell to breakfast: a Sons
of the Pioneers album is still in its plastic protector, while a Brinsley
Schwartz record called "Silver Pistol" is half out of its
covering and a dozen or so CD's are sitting in a box ready to be removed
Holland is a traveling museum of American music and he looks the part.
A little over six feet tall, with at least a foot of it being impressive,
slightly graying beard, he looks like a grizzled Union Army general,
but with a gentler face and quick smile. He wears the uniform of his
regiment - the flannel shirt and jeans of Wallstreet, the community
west of Boulder and up Fourmile Canyon that is home to Colorado purists:
the kind of folks who moved here years ago to be left alone with trees
and old mineshafts.
Holland is no Rocky Mountain recluse, though. He is known to Radio 1190
listeners as "Uncle Jeff" - an aficionado of country, folk,
honky tonk, country rock, surf, spaghetti Western and electronic instrumental
music. With his quick-witted and irreverent co-host "Loki,"
a ukulele-playing master of the soundboard and the clever aside, Uncle
Jeff hosts "Route 78 West." The show is a goulash of the aforementioned
genres, and it might just be the place that country music and its cousins
have gone to find a better homestead.
In 20 minutes the show will start, and as Uncle Jeff scrambles, unwraps,
scribbles and prepares, in walks the mid-20's Loki, wearing a Sinatra
small fedora and a red vest for Christmas and carrying an instrument
case that holds his ukulele.
"Sorry I'm late," he says. "I had to eat on the way here."
Loki's been rehearsing a show with the Crispy Family Carnival Spectacular,
a local sideshow outfit for which he serves as both an MC and a featured
The two talk over the show, which tonight will have a little bit of
a holiday theme, along with the usual mix of old gems that Uncle Jeff
has brought in. The two head into the studio and the show starts, kicking
off with "Happy Go Lucky Trucker," an upbeat trucker ballad
by 18-wheel legend Red Simpson.
Meanwhile, out in radioland, a few loyal listeners - purists who miss
the days when country had soul and no pop rhythms, genre-busters who
yearn for free-form radio with humor and style and simple folks with
redneck roots - turn up their radios. For two hours, these listeners
will be home again, to where the music twangs and the sounds roll across
the plains like Gram Parson's famed "Hickory Wind." They know
they're in for a nice ride with some pretty good friends at the wheel.
Reviving Free-Form Radio
To hear Loki tell it, Route 78 West began as what he thought was something
on the order of a crank phone call. Back in 1998, Loki hosted the morning
show on Radio 1190, then a fledgling college station just breaking into
a heavily corporate, hopelessly unimaginative Denver radio market. In
homage to free-form radio, Loki had started playing a cut called "Vintage
Pick" - samples of records he'd inherited from relatives or tucked
away at the station - until, he says, "I ran out of material."
"And one day I got a call from Jeff who said, in his own scattered
way, "I'm coming in." He came in with a huge stack of records
and just started talking. And pretty soon, he starts giving me CDs he's
made off his old 78s, pointing out what was significant, and before
long I've got him introducing the Vintage Pick on the show and it just
kind of took off from there."
The two became friends and later hosted a show on the Internet radio
program GoGaGa in 2000, calling their show "Route 78 West"
in homage to Jeff's mammoth collection of 78 rpm records and to a road
in the Midwest frequented by truckers.
"The premise was trucker radio," says Loki. "Old country,
country rock and us having fun and talking."
The two took the show to KVCU in January of 2001 (following GoGaGa's
going belly up over the Christmas holiday) and continued the formula
- an interaction that both agree works on a careful formula of reverence,
discovery, humor and genre crushing.
"Genre is irrelevant," says Loki. "Ten percent of every
genre is great, but it's just a medium to create meaning. The people
who listen to us listen to the music and also to the talk and banter."
"I think people, if they could hear it, would like our show more
than what's on country radio today," says Uncle Jeff, a sound he
says is embodied by the patent fakery of something like Keny Chesney's
"She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," a recent mainstream country
There's no fakery on Route 78 West. Uncle Jeff and Loki manage an amazing
flow of musical styles and sounds in their two hours on the air, and
while much of what they play has a twinge of humor and self-parody in
the grand tradition of country music, much more of it has the earnestness
the genre is also known for.
And how they mix it up: an old Texas swing song will segue into a more
traditional country number through a connection as elusive as a bass
line or pedal steel note. Behind the scenes, the two talk each other
into playing certain songs at certain times to achieve a thematic or
musical rhythm that works until Jeff cues Loki that it's time to talk
about the music.
"Sometimes I think this show exists just to justify Uncle Jeff's
preposterously extensive record collection," says Loki.
A listen to the music makes you think he's right on. On this particular
night, two weeks before Christmas, the show is in fine form. Uncle Jeff
and Loki spin Roue 78 West's unofficial anthem, Dallas Wayne's "If
That's Country" - a go-to-hell sermon against the aforementioned
pop sensibilities of modern popular country music.
In a long stretch, Uncle Jeff opens up with a record from his collection,
the old chestnut "Ghost Riders in the Sky," off Bear Family
Records, an obscure German label that seems to hit the nail on the head,
Sons of the Pioneers, and it dates back to 1949.
Then it's a Dale Watson trucker song, then a detour into the weekly
spaghetti Western song - an Ennio Morricone cut from a film called "I
Lunghi Giorni Della Vendetta." That's followed by a cut from the
Tex-Mex, brassy-sounding band Calexico and then another segue, this
one into surf music: The Straitjackets doing a surf version of "God
Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
At length, it's back to the folk-country sounds of Brinsley Schwartz,
an early punk-country band that featured later British New Wave heros
Nick Lowe and Ian Gomm. Ten things finish up with more holiday fun:
"Daddy's Drinkin' Up Our Christmas" by Commander Cody, riffing
on an old Buck Owens song.
To begin the new set, there's a circus song that follows a quick on-air
chat about Loki's Crispy Family Carnival Spectacular. Uncle Jeff is
ready with an old Bruce Springsteen number - "Wild Billy Circus
Song," from an Italian CD of early, pre-superstar Springsteen music.
The two are both organically immune to superstars, so the Boss's inclusion
is special, but he fits in perfectly somehow with his smoky, deep-voiced
narrative strummed and stripped down.
Riding Over The Bumps And Nights At Bill & Nada's
Uncle Jeff came to country music by way of his Uncle Ronnie and an old
pickup truck. Young Jeff would ride, sometimes with his dad and uncle
and sometimes with his uncle and his Aunt Tink - "a blonde beehive
bombshell" - over the steep hills of rural Maryland en route to
the family's mountain cabin with the sounds of Hank Williams and Lefty
Frizzell blaring out of the pickup's radio.
He graduated from high school early, hitchhiked to California as a teenager
and ended up staying in Boulder and becoming absorbed into the mid-70s
music scene in town, fueled as it was by country acts like Dusty Drapes
and the Dusters. Folk and country rock were in, following on the heels
of the Byrds and Gram Parsons in the late '60s and early '070s, respectively.
By the early '80s he was a regular listener to Peter Tonks' free-form
radio show "Over the Edge" on KGNU, and beginning to explore
his own varied, edgy hobbies around Boulder. By 1993, he began a gig
that continues to this day, combining silkscreening and rock-n-roll
graphics to make some of the most evocative rock posters in the country,
all while assembling his amazing record collection in addition to playing
his own music.
Part of Uncle Jeff's Renaissance man resume includes playing violin
and 'fiddle,' and doing electronic music that some have labeled "Armchair
Techno" with a band called "Multicast." Its mission,
Uncle Jeff says, "is to make evocative statements without singing."
After all that, he works a day job as a cartographer for the City of
Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks division.
"Uncle Jeff is an extremely valuable resource," say Loki.
"What he's been doing with poster design, underground electronic
music and Americana music has been important in making these links that
very few people make."
Loki is reverential to Uncle Jeff, who he says has been a kind of musical
mentor and role model. The former's on-air name is a play on the tricky
and unpredictable brother of the Norse god Thor. Loki is really "Aaron
Johnson, a former "threatre kid" from Salt Lake City whose
biggest pop culture influences, besides the Cure and the Smiths, were
the sheet music, stories and lore of his grandmother.
"My grandmother worshiped FDR and told me a lot of stories about
the American labor movement," Loki says, "To this day, I don't
trust anybody who doesn't have a close relationship with someone in
As a rebellious
high school kid with deliberately eclectic and cultivated tastes, Loki
hung out at Bill & Nada's, an all-night joint in Salt Lake where
you could hear Tennessee Ernie Ford and Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins
on the jukebox while having pie and coffee. The music sunk in the back
of his head somewhere, but didn't quite take until he got deep into
the music of the 1920s and '30s, again by way of his grandmother, and
began to see the connection of folk music to country and western and
other related genres.
Uncle Jeff has helped to fill in the blanks of that Tinker Toy experiment
in progress, and Loki's own musicianship has also broadened his horizons,
particularly his fixation on the ukulele.
"I'd always liked small instruments," Loki says, "but
the first time I saw a ukulele, it was like a shot in a Hitchcock movie.
I was in my own kind of vertigo."
By day, Loki works with developmentally disabled teenagers, and when
he's not doing a show with the Crispy Family Carnival Spectacular, he
often volunteers to play ukulele music at retirement homes, where he
says he's been heartened by what the true power of music can engender.
Using some of his grandmother's sheet music, some of which if rife with
ukulele possibilities, he has seen amazing things happen, such as when
he made a recent connection with a woman in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's
"I was playing 'Hard Hearted Hannah' and I saw this woman in the
audience singing along, word for word. She was fully connected to the
music... she knew all the words."
When talking with her after the song, the woman was incoherent, but
for a moment the music had come back to her. Loki says his dream job
is furthering those connections, passing along what his grandmother
introduced him to as a child: the inherent greatness and value of stories
and narratives. For now, Route 78 West pushes him a little bit in that
"My ideal is to talk to people about the things they love,"
he says. "The airways belong to the public, even though they're
being hijacked by corporations. People are starving for something different,
unique and true. It's important to remind people there's something real
in our culture, and a lot of this music, with its history, does that.
The Show Goes On
It's getting close to 7 p.m. and Route 78 West is heading into the sunset.
Uncle Jeff tosses in an old gospelesque number from Porter Wagoner -
he of the bad complexion, pompadour and nudie rhinestone suits, the
mentor of Dolly Parton. The cut is an old one from 1951, "What
Would You Do" - a musical query on the appearance of Jesus at your
As Uncle Jeff and Loki begin putting things away, Route 78 West's Webmaster,
Jay Niemoth, finishes off a few digital snapshots. Selected hot shows
on Route 78 West are archived on the show's web site www.route78west.com,
where listeners can also get playlists and can tune in each Sunday for
Then there's some Steve Earle and some Richmond Fontaine, one of Uncle
Jeff's favorites, and then, all too soon, the show ends with the wide-ranging
Uncle Jeff bemoaning, in his voice tinged with a touch of country lonesome,
the fact that time didn't permit the playing of one of his favorite
artists - a country giant and a throwback to his youthful rides with
"We never got to Lefty Frizzell," he says wistfully.
Ah well, maybe next time. In country music and even out on Route 78
West, there's always a next time.
Route 78 West can be heard on KVCU, 1190 AM, from 5 to 7 p.m. on Sundays.
To visit Route 78 West, go to www.route78west.com. For more information
on the graphic work of Jeff Holland, see his web site at www.cryptographics.com.
And to catch a glimpse of the Crispy Family Carnival Spectacular and
its performance schedule, visit www.crispyfamily.com.