Dirty Roots Radio: Exploring the raw roots of the American sound

Wild! Professional. Dirty. Renegade. Vintage. The time on the radio that will save your soul and take you out of the boring everyday world with the best of blues, soul, punk, funk.The place to exorcise the bad vibes and the demons of bad music that haunt the hertzian waves of the fm and the internet. That’s Dirty Roots Radio!

This year we want to inaugurate a new section with a series of interviews with independent projects, artists and creators that are worth knowing and disseminating their work. The first project that came to our head is one of our podcasts and favorite radio shows transmitted over the internet.

A few years ago, wandering in the web we came across Dirty Roots Radio, a radio show broadcast from the University radio of Greenville on the WRGN 89.5 frequency and conducted by Ryan Mifflin every Thursday from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm.

In some strange way we arrived through its Facebook page, the description of the show says:


Dirty Roots Radio is a Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk.

That made us click instantly. Boom! Sold! What happened next was great. A fresh radio show, provocative, with dirty and greasy blues, that good old blues that breaks your teeth. The style and energy that Ryan gives in each show is something that we had not heard before, at least on Mexican radio. ¿Sing between the songs? Sure! Why the hell not? Play the Ramones, The Clash, R.L. Burnside, topping with Johnny Cash, James Brown and closing with Tom Petty. This was definitely the kind of radio show we had hoped to hear someday but we had not found. Add all this this to the ability of Ryan to connect the songs, spin stories and records, tell anecdotes. A show that make you enter a kind of radio communion where it is ok to jump, shout and get excited about the music. Dance like none is watching you. And if someone was watching you, ¿what does it matter?. It’s a safe cool place, where what matters is the music and to enjoy the moment. It is the magic that can only come from the radio.

In times where musical content is not a priority for radio stations, it is appreciated that there are projects like Ryan’s that contain classic and professional elements that involve everything of the wonderful world off be behind a microphone and make radio. From the darkness of the console to the other side of the glass, to heat the voice and be heard by thousands of people. From from Tom Waits to raw sounds that connect with Stax soul classics and travel to the punk of X, Social Distortion and The Clash. It is a place where you believe in the principles of music and its connection with people. Joe Strummer is the patron saint. Music matters, people matter. The good and the best of all us is rescued and makes us vibrate together. From miles away but united by the radio and the internet, sharing with our loved ones or simply listening to ourselves from our comfortable place one Thursday night and with a beer in hand. That’s also Dirty Roots Radio.

Currently the show has changed from the live broadcast format for a weekly podcast that is published on its website. As fans we talked to Ryan about his show, the story behind it and the future of radio.

 
 
Tell us a little about your first days on the radio. ¿What was the first thing that caught your attention?.

 I remember wanting to be on the radio in junior high.  I don’t remember a specific moment that sparked the desire, I just loved music, heard people on the radio, and wanted to do it.  I was pretty shy when I was young.  I still am, in fact, when I don’t know someone.  Give me a stage and/or a big audience and I’m fine, but one-on-one, or in a small group, I’m very shy. I did a lot of theater when I was growing up.  I think it was a way for me to let people know I could talk and I was worth paying attention to.  I would say radio is probably an extension of that.

When I was a senior in high school – in the fall of 1994 – I was in the drama club and our new leader worked at our local country music radio station.  I used to do a really good Bill Cosby impression (I retired that for obvious reasons) and he asked me to do it for a commercial on the station, WGEL.  As I got to know him, I told him I wanted to be on the radio, and it wasn’t long before he talked to the boss about a part time job for me. In those days we still played CDs and carts.  People still know what CDs are, but carts were how we played commercials.  They looked like 8-tracks and contained only commercials.  We still used reel-to-reel occasionally.  In those days we thought that was a big advancement from having to cue up a vinyl record.  With CDs and carts, you still had to be in the studio for your whole shift because you had to cue everything up and start it manually.  Within 4 or 5 years of me starting in radio it started to get computerized – and once it did, that took over fast.

¿When did your love for music, records and rock and roll begin? Any particular album or band that changed your world completely?.

I don’t really have a magical moment that I remember where the switch flipped and ignited my passion.  I remember always loving music.  My dad was a big influence on that.  I remember singing along to the radio with him in the car a lot.  He had a lot of 8-tracks and records that I’d go through and listen to.  He had a small guitar that I used to play with a lot, pantomiming along with the radio. The first album that really and truly completely changed my world would be “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” by Social Distortion.  I remember hearing that and thinking, “This is the sound I’ve been hearing in my head.”  I don’t feel like I can explain that very well, other than to say Social D took all the elements of various music I had heard and liked and made something unique out of those aspects.  Their look and even the graphic design of the record went right along with it. That album still means so much to me.  I was 13 when I first heard it.  I still like other music I discovered at that phase of life, but they’re the only band that really means as much to me in the same way now as they did then.  I’ve been able to interview Mike Ness twice and the second time I finally worked up the nerve to sincerely tell him that their music has always been there for me, no matter what I needed through the years.  He simply said, “That’s awesome…me too.”  Which I loved.

What was the first record you heard? And the first one you bought?.

I really wish I had a good answer to these questions.  I think about it a lot and I really can’t remember.  I’m jealous of other people who have that memory. Like I said, music was always around when I was growing up.  Maybe that’s why I don’t have a memory of an “introduction” – it was just always there. The first songs I really remember loving on a deeper level was “Pour Some Sugar On Me” by Def Leppard and “Rag Doll” by Aerosmith.  They came out the same summer and my dad bought me those 45’s. That same year my dad splurged on a CD player, which were really new then.  I had told him I wanted to the La Bamba movie soundtrack and he surprised me with it one day.  I remember having the California Raisins CD around then, too. Others that stick out to me from those days are Paula Abdul’s debut and Living Colour’s first album.  I remember asking for those who for Christmas the year they came out. 

What is the record that bring you the best memories?.

“Fashion Nugget” by Cake and “Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy” by the Refreshments remain favorite albums that always take me back to a specific time in my sophomore year of college, which was a particularly great time for a lot of different reasons. 

¿How was the idea of Dirty Roots Radio born?.

I started the show in early 2006.  At that point, I had taken my first non-radio job since I first got into broadcasting.  I was doing marketing and public relations for a hospital and I got the itch to go back on the radio.  I wanted to do it on WGRN, the campus station for my alma mater, Greenville College.  I had been on the air there before and knew they would welcome me as a volunteer.  I also knew that by being on college radio, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted. Prior to that, I had come up with a show called “The Outskirts”, which was a blend of what we called alternative country at that time, classic country, and music that touched on some of the elements of country, but didn’t completely fit into the genre (like Social Distortion).

I wanted to use that as a starting point – that concept of old country and everything that was uniquely influenced by it.  And I wanted to do the same for the blues.  I envisioned the bulk of the show being bands like The Bottle Rockets and Social Distortion and the Fat Possum Records blues artists.  Stuff that was connected to all American roots music, but was not pure “Americana” in any sense.  I also wanted to push further and touch on things that had a similar vibe, like classic punk rock and even early hip hop.

Behind the scenes ¿how is the preparation for a dirty roots show? ¿Do you think in any specific playlist, or songs that you want to introduce o talk about to your audience or you like to go with the mood of the day and play what your instinct tells you?.

Very little preparation goes into any individual show.  I joke about that a lot – about how I’m just unorganized or lazy.  But it’s really not that.  It’s a whole different approach.  It’s challenging to start the show and just see where it goes.  It can be like riding a wild animal.  You have to figure it out as you go.  You have to anticipate what’s coming, where the best place would be to shift gears, etc.

Sometimes I come in with a song or two I want to play for sure, but I don’t have any specific plan for them, usually.

The day of the show, I’ll think of a song for some random reason and then I’ll put some thought into how I can uniquely work that into a starting point for the night.  I’ll think of a song to follow it up with and some unique elements, like the movie promos I play, to incorporate into the transition.  But that’s about as far as planning goes. I may come in with a jump-off point, but then it’s all on the fly.

One of the many aspects that we love from your show is the fuel, the soul and energy you put on, introducing the songs, talking about the bands, the albums, the history behind ¿From where this inspiration comes?.

Thank you for saying that!

I think there are three things that go into that:

#1 – Simply a love of the music.  I truly and deeply love it and love sharing that with people.  I’m also a “trivia guy”.  I love knowing all the background I can on things.  I dig into liner notes, keep up with the bands I like, research everything I can on them, and then I go into their influences and do the same for them.  For some reason I retain random bits of information really easily, so all of that info I research sticks and I think its fun to share. 

I never was good at remembering things like that in school, though…only with pop culture!

#2 – A big influence.  The late Bob Reuter is an artist I play on the show a lot.  He was a photographer, storyteller, musician, and DJ in St. Louis.  His radio show, Bob’s Scratchy Records on community access station KDHX really changed my life.  He played the craziest, rawest music I’d ever heard.  And he did it like no one I’d ever heard.  He’d talk over the singing and scream between songs.  He wasn’t professionally trained as a broadcaster and he had no rulebook.  It was pure feeling.  And it opened up my mind.  I got hip to his show while I was doing Dirty Roots.  It was nice that at that point I had no restrictions on how I did radio.  It took some work, but I finally freed myself up and let it fly.

#3 – Necessity.  At the same time that I threw out the radio rule book and let the passion and energy completely take over what I did on the radio, I entered a really tough phase of life.  There was a lot of heavy stuff happening in life, personally and professionally, and it got pretty dark.  As I struggled through that, I needed an outlet and Dirty Roots became that.  It became my therapy.  I channeled all of my aggression and emotion into the show and that’s really when Dirty Roots really became what it’s known as now.

¿How has been the change and transition from the live shows to the podcast format?.

It’s honestly been really tough.  I prefer live radio – always. 

The passion and energy you spoke of is so spontaneous that it can’t be forced or replicated.  It’s one thing to be caught up in the vibe during a live show that you’re experiencing in real time with listeners.  It’s another thing to be screaming and hollering in my basement as I record my vocals for a podcast, knowing that no one can hear it at that moment.

I haven’t figured out exactly how to do it.

¿What has been the most challenging part of been on the air, keeping up with the shows and the podcasts?, ¿And what do you enjoy the most?.

I haven’t been able to do it consistently.

I took over as Operations Manager at WGRN three years ago – in addition to my full time day job at another radio station. So I’m much busier now than I have been in years past.  I continue to go back and forth between podcasting the show and doing it live.

My busy schedule and the fact that I haven’t quite figured out the knack for putting the intense energy into a podcast format have made it tough. I’m hopeful though that it will work out.  I feel like Dirty Roots is in a transition now, just like it was when I learned to let the emotion take over.  There’s a new chapter for the show on the horizon, I just haven’t been able to figure out what it is yet.

We believe that radio shows like yours are very few today, where what matters is the message and the music. What is your vision in the relationship of music with everyday events “the so-called soundtrack of life” and the relationship of radio with listeners and how these borders are broken by the magic of sound and the radio waves?.

I absolutely love the concept of radio.  The basic mechanics of it.  That I can play music and talk and what I say and play goes up a big antenna and magically out into the air.  And then a smaller antenna at your home or in your car can grab what I say and play and you can hear it.

The movie Pump Up the Volume was a big influence on me wanting to be on the radio.  In it, Christian Slater says, “I like the idea that a voice came just go somewhere, uninvited, just kinda hangout, a dirty thought in a nice clean mind. A dirty thought is like a virus, it would just kill all the clean thoughts and just take over…. that would be serious.”

I love the thought that at any moment, you can turn a radio dial and hear someone say something or hear a song that totally changes your world in an instant.

As you said, radio and music are the soundtracks to our lives.  That’s important.  There should be more thought and personality behind it than the way most radio is now. 

I end my show every week with Tom Petty’s “The Last DJ”.  It’s about the last DJ left who “says what he wants to say and plays what he wants to play”.  Most radio is a formula now.  It’s all the same.  And it’s bland.  When you have DJs who can say what they want and play what they want, you have something amazing and special.  You have someone who can deliver you something unique that you’ve never heard before and that can change your life – or at least make it better.

In recent years with the arrival of new technology, everything seems to be more compressed and soulless, the music and even the radio DJ’s. It has been said countless times that the radio days are over ¿what do you think about this?.

I think radio will still be here. At least for a decent while.  BUT I don’t think we have any idea how.  Small independent stations are rare, but they do still exist.  College radio still exists.  As long as they’re around, we have some hope for unique content. As far as radio as a whole industry, we don’t know where it’s going.  We have to do more with online content and almost all stations are working with podcasts in some way.  Video, too.  I think there will be much more of this.  But as for where it ends up, I have no idea.  It’s kind of scary, but, I do think there’s still a future for radio.  We just have a lot to figure out.

Maybe shows like Dirty Roots will see a resurgence, similar to the renewed interest in vinyl, which people thought was a dead format. 

Your show has been a reference to learn new music and also discover and appreciate old forgotten gems of blues, soul, punk. You have introduced us to Lydia Loveless and many others. Many of these great bands and musicians have even played on your show before they take off madly and become known to the rest of the world. That’s why we also appreciate your show.  

¿How do you see the current state of music, with the beloved heroes dying and new players on the scene?, and the among many very good projects out there that receive little attention over the new modern music that sounds monotonous and soulless?.

Thanks for saying that.  I love that I can turn people onto music that is new to them – whether it’s actually new or whether it’s something old they didn’t know about.  Similar to radio itself, I think music, in general, is going to be just fine.  There will always be music. 

Things do seem very boring and bleak in music right now.  I honestly think that’s been the case since the mid-90’s.  There haven’t been many artists to really shake things up in a meaningful way.

But soulless, manufactured music has always been around.  There just seems to be more of it now.

There are new artists doing exciting things.  Sarah Shook & the Disarmers is my favorite discovery over the last few years.  I really love what Kendrick Lamar is and has been doing.  So there are still artists doing great work that actually matters.

I think it requires more digging now. 

The days of MTV playing a new band like Nirvana and the whole world paying attention and responding are over. It’s not going to just come to us anymore.  Things are so specialized now, the days of all of us paying attention to the same thing are over, too, I think.

I’m constantly looking for new stuff that turns me on.  Most of what I find these days is not actually “new”, but is old stuff that is new to me. That gives me a lot of hope – there is SO much music already out there.  More than any one person could ever listen to in their life.  If you’re willing to put in the work, you will find some amazing stuff.

But that’s the big question – everything in life is so “easy” and convenient now.  We have all the information in the world at our fingertips with smartphones.  Are we willing to really dig for music?  Of course, technology can be a great way to dig for that music, if people are willing to get off the beaten path.

 

¿When you are on the road which are your favorite albums to listen to or when you are stuck in traffic which one makes you not go crazy while waiting?.

Social Distortion is always a favorite, just because it’s so comforting and familiar and I can sing along loudly.  I’ve listened to Kendrick Lamar albums the last few times I’ve been in the car for any length of time.  Cake makes road trips fun.  In general, I’d say I listen to louder harder stuff like classic punk or old school rap to ease the tension of being stuck in traffic or whatever other road rage I’m dealing with.

I saw Henry Rollins on a spoken word tour years ago and he had a great bit about playing Slayer’s “Reign In Blood” at maximum volume while stuck in standstill traffic, both for his own mental wellbeing and to scare the people around him.

I would say Motorhead would be my choice for that situation.

And finally a difficult question for everyone. What are the five albums that you would take to a desert island?.

“Kristofferson” by Kris Kristofferson

“Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” by Social Distortion

“Unchained” by Johnny Cash

“Transcendental Blues” by Steve Earle

“London Calling” by the Clash


We thank Ryan for the interview and the photos provided.
You can follow, suport and listen to Dirty Roots Radio in the following links.

 

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