First published in The Emporia Gazette on September 13, 2005
By Cheryl Unruh
"There’s Kenny White for
you on Kansas Public Radio with a song called ‘Might as Well Leave.’
“Before that, Cliff Eberhardt with a song called ‘Nowhere to Go.’”
Usually I’m 75 miles away when I hear Bob McWilliams broadcast "Trail Mix" on Kansas Public Radio.
On a recent Sunday however, I was in Lawrence, in the same room as the man and the microphone.
Two windows let natural light into KPR’s Studio A, a small gray and black room on the second floor of this house-like, brick building.
I’m a fan of "Trail Mix." I especially enjoy the songs’ lyrics--the rhymes, the stories, the metaphors.
A powerful song I heard a few months ago is “Since You’ve Been Gone” by Cheryl Wheeler. She wrote it after her father’s death.
“That song ripped my heart out,” I said to Bob.
He then told me about a Thanksgiving Day when he was listening to an interview with Cheryl Wheeler on National Public Radio and first heard her sing “Sylvia Hotel.”
“They had her in the studio talking about how the holidays can be a time of loneliness and she sang that song and I almost drove off the road crying, it was so beautiful. So obviously, when we got the record in, I was excited to play that.”
McWilliams spins CDs and the occasional LP, playing singer-songwriter, folk, alternative country, bluegrass, old-time, and Celtic music.
“What I think this show offers is a variety of music that really speaks to people very directly,” he said.
“I think a lot of the people working in the contemporary folk, contemporary singer-songwriter vein really are great truth-tellers and prophets of our time, are really speaking to the conditions of our time with lyrics that are extremely meaningful.”
McWilliams has met many of these recording artists. He founded West Side Folk, a volunteer-driven organization that brings musicians to Lawrence.
In 1994, about the time "Trail Mix" began, Dar Williams played a concert in his home.
“Dar Williams, I think, really exemplified the smart, intelligent songwriting with a contemporary edge that became the hallmark of 'Trail Mix,'” he said.
Announcing her song, he tells listeners, “I’m Bob McWilliams and yes, I admit it, I get excited when there’s a new Dar Williams CD coming out. I’ve been very eager to get this so we could share it with you right here on 'Trail Mix.'”
McWilliams started at KPR in 1983. He also hosts "Jazz in the Night."
And Bob teaches history at Johnson County Community College. He earned a master’s degree in history after deciding to no longer use his Harvard law degree.
“I started doing a part-time jazz show here when I was still a lawyer in Kansas City,” he said.
“But I like doing this better and I like teaching better and I like both of them better than being a lawyer. So they might not be quite as remunerative, putting it mildly,” he laughed, “but that’s OK, there are other kinds of compensation.”
“I love music. I really love it. And this is a way for me to really be involved in it.”
He spends about six hours preparing for the six-hour show.
“You’re looking for themes that run through it, for things that fit well together and so it’s a little more time consuming but it’s still fun. That’s the fun part, putting it together and doing it.”
Each week, Bob McWilliams brings us voices, guitars, mandolins. He’s a DJ, a messenger, an intermediary.
With rolling enthusiasm, he connects musician to listener.
“I hope that there are some songs that grab people and they have to stop what they’re doing on a Sunday and just listen to the song,” McWilliams said.
“If that happens two or three times a day, I think I’d be thrilled.”
* You can hear "Trail Mix" on Sundays from 1–7 p.m. Kansas Public Radio broadcasts at 89.7 FM in Lyon County and on the Web at www.kpr.ku.edu.
Radio Bob's desk
2005 by Cheryl Unruh