Off the Record – 30 passionate years of roots and Americana music

September 24, 2018
Four people standing side-by-side, smiling at camera in a photo taken under a large unbrella outside.

Kinky Friedman (American singer & songwriter), Off the Record host Brian Wise, Van Dyke Parks (American musician, songwriter, arranger, and record producer) & community broadcaster Alicia Sometimes. Image credit Triple R Flickr.

Brian Wise, host of the legendary Off the Record on Triple R, has shared his passion for all things roots and American music for more than 30 years. We proudly help Brian produce his program, aired live on Triple R and via the Community Radio Network. Here he shares insight from broadcasting Off the Record on the road.

At some point not long after I started doing a radio program, I decided that I wanted to talk to the people who created the music that I loved. Sure, I would get to do some interviews with touring musicians who passed through our town but what about those who lived and worked in the places that I would visit?

The South of the United States, with all its music history, has been a particularly alluring region for me over the years. Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama have all provided their own highlights. (California and New York to a much lesser extent). Sea-Saint, Cosimo’s, Stax, Royal, Sun, Ardent, Muscle Shoals, Fame, Cedar Creek, RCA Studio B. These are all studio names that resonate with music fans and which have produced most of the music in my collection.

There have been plenty of interviews over the decades since I first travelled across the United States. Usually, I would collect them and then later edit them and play them on subsequent programs after I returned. Eventually, wanting the content to be more current, the interviews would be incorporated into radio programs that I would produce during my travels and send back down the line in segments to be replayed just an hour or so later.

Maybe I will never get anything better than the first interview I did with the legendary New Orleans producer / arranger / composer / musician Allen Toussaint, who sat at his white grand piano in his office and played and chatted. Toussaint was a humble and shy man who was reluctant to talk about himself. I had seen him a few days earlier at an in-store where he played and talk about his songs. When we sat down, he said ‘I don’t know where to start.’ I replied, ‘Why don’t you just do what you did the other day and if I think of some questions, I’ll ask them.’ ‘That’ll work,’ he replied as he sat and played some of his best-known songs and talked about them.

Some of my other most valued interviews recorded on the road were, sadly, with people who are no longer with us. It wouldn’t get better than meeting John Lee Hooker at his house in Redwood City, south of San Francisco. ‘If he is tired, he might end it after 10 minutes,’ warned his manager. His assistant told me about a French film crew who did an interview, but the camera operator forgot to press record. Hooker declined to do it again. I arrived armed with a portable DAT recorder and microphones plus a back-up cassette recorder and spare microphones and plenty of batteries. John Lee called me ‘a nice young man.’ (He was 80 at the time). We spoke for more than half an hour because he said I didn’t push him.

Recording an interview requires one set of skills, producing a whole program on the road is an entirely different matter. It can be vastly time-consuming when you have to edit interviews and add music and voice-overs and mic the whole thing together. I have always thought that it was worth the effort to bring the immediacy to the audience. Rather than hear about events weeks after they occurred, we can share them as they happen or just an hour or so afterwards.

In Gruene, Texas, Steve Earle showed me how he records his Outlaw Country show for Sirius XM in the back of his tour bus using a great USB microphone and a MacBook Air. Next time I spoke to him I told Steve that interview cost me US$200 because I had to rush out and buy the mic on Amazon and have it immediately shipped to me in Austin.

It’s a much easier process and less time-consuming when I can use a real studio like the one in Marfa, Texas or the famous WWOZ in New Orleans where I will be recording during this year’s Jazz Fest. Then again, it is even easier when I leave it to the professionals in Nashville. The musicians there are legendary, and the producers and engineers are as well. My co-host Anne McCue and myself might have been nervous when Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings rocked up, along with a dozen other guests, but as it turned out we had nothing to worry about. Engineer / musician Nick Autry (distant relative of the singing cowboy Gene Autry!) set the whole thing up, his assistant Cam operated the console and by the time we finished, all the interview segments were edited and ready to go.

So, it is on again to Austin and New Orleans for some more programs recorded on the road in April and May. Of course, this would be impossible on any other radio network. Surely, only community radio would allow someone to put to air so many programs featuring a multitude of relatively obscure musicians and producers. I have to remind myself of the privilege that Triple R offers me.

Tune in or stream live to Off the Record on RRR 102.7 every Saturday 9am-12pm AEST, or listen to previous episodes.  Help us support passionate broadcasters like Brian who bring culture to life, donate today. Learn more about how your support will strengthen independent Australian community media.

Article adapted from The Trip magazine, RRR subscriber publication.