Someone should make Bill Knowlton a bumper sticker — “Bluegrass: disturbingly good.”
One of Knowlton’s WCNY colleagues, a classical music station host, described bluegrass this way to him many years ago. Knowlton liked it.
“People say jazz is America’s only art form,” said Knowlton. “Bluegrass is another.”
Knowlton, 84, programs and hosts WCNY’s three-hour “Bluegrass Ramble” program every week, as he has done since 1973. His Sunday, Jan. 22 show will mark 50 years and one day from his first show.
Knowlton started out on the Syracuse airwaves in 1973. He’s a staple here and all around bluegrass country, and has won both a Service to the Arts Award from the Onondaga County Arts Council and a Distinguished Service Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association. He is as well recognized as the ebullient emcee at a dozen or so bluegrass festivals every year, usually in signature patterned pants and straw hat.
In the recording booth at WCNY in Syracuse, he’s a pared down Bill in khakis, but ever devoted to the music. His show is three hours long, from 9 p.m. to midnight on Sunday nights. It first aired an hour later, which was a haul, he said, but eventually his slot was moved up and he started pre-recording the show on Wednesdays.
These days, he settles into the booth every week with a half moon of scattered papers and CDs at arm’s length around the soundboard.
On a regular Wednesday, last month, he cracked open a couple of plastic CD cases and cued up the discs, using his sticky notes on the inside flap to remember the songs he liked. He picked up his announcement script, the paper soft and frayed from years of use, and dove in.
“Welcome to the Bluegrass Ramble from Syracuse, New York…”
Knowlton first came to bluegrass by way of country music. When he was a kid in New York City, a local disc jockey played Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” on the radio, and young Bill “just about fell off my chair,” he said.
“There was no going back, after that.”
He was an early radio inductee and used to ride his bike from his house in Queens to appear on WWRL’s “What’s Right With Teenagers.” He’d shlep out over the Hudson River to Newark, New Jersey for WAAT’s live “Hometown Frolic” shows.
He saw Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves and Faron Young there, but he lived for the bluegrass act that would always open the show.
Technically, “Bluegrass Ramble” was conceived more than 50 years ago, since Knowlton ran it in under the same name in a weekly 30-minute spot on the Fordham University station, where he went to college.
He took a decade hiatus from the show after he graduated, to serve as an Air Force officer in Vietnam. In 1972, he was sent to the Hancock Air Force Base in Syracuse, a short drive from the old brick WCNY building in Liverpool.
Immediately, he started volunteering at the station, and a year later had revived the Ramble.
Knowlton retired from active duty in 1974 and continued on in the reserves, then got a job as advertising and public affairs director for the U.S. Army’s Recruiting Battalion. Good thing, too, said Knowlton.
“You can’t make any money out of being a bluegrass disc jockey,” he chuckled.
Knowlton used to lug vinyls over to the WCNY building for a 10 p.m. show, but eventually moved an hour earlier and then started pre-recording on Wednesdays.
He never wanted to play, preferring instead to inhabit the space between audience and musician.
“I just can’t picture life without a microphone,” he said.
Knowlton has emceed the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, Pickin’ in the Pasture in Lodi, Wind Gap Bluegrass Festival in Pennsylvania, Tug Hill Bluegrass Festival in Lowville, Brantling Bluegrass Festival in Sodus and many more — about a dozen a year, packed into the summer months.
He makes a trip down to Tennessee every year specially for a day devoted to Uncle Dave Macon, who Knowlton has studied and written about for decades.
Countless New York bluegrass groups have graced Knowlton’s recording studio live, including Syracuse-raised banjo player Tony Trischka. The radio host has introduced Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, from the Landmark Theater stage.
“I know that hat!” Monroe once yelled at the straw hat-capped Knowlton, he said, when they crossed paths at a festival.
Knowlton’s house by now is a trove of bluegrass records, since he never throws out a CD or record. He’s hoping someone can take them for archiving somewhere, and also hopes he can find someone to pass the torch for “Bluegrass Ramble.”
He’s not retiring right now, he said, but he’s thought about it. It’s been half a century on the airwaves, after all.
Not that he’s tired of being the bluegrass guy.
“I’m always very appreciative of people who mention that I got them into the music,” said Knowlton.
“That means a lot.”
Knowlton held up a finger and pressed the ON button on the switchboard for his microphone, then launched into his top-of-the-hour address.
“Well, I’m Bill Knowlton and this is the Bluegrass Ramble. We come your way every Sunday night, 9 p.m. to midnight over Classic FM 91 — WCNY-FM in Syracuse, New York and WJNY-FM in Watertown, New York. Classic FM 89 — WUNY-FM in Utica, New York, and of course on the World Wide Web at WCNY.org.
“The parlor’s a pleasant place to sit for the one and only ‘Bluegrass Ramble,’ now in its 50th year, thanks to you.”