An Interview with Tony Lawson as WDVX Celebrates 22 Years of Broadcasting Excellence

In the mid-nineties as my musical tastes increasingly diverged from popular music stations, I longed for another option. Having had strong ties to the radio stations of previous eras, I missed that bond. To be sure, I loved WUTK and listened to WUOT, but I wanted more.

At about that time rumors began to circulate that a guy named Tony Lawson, who I’d heard a bit on U102, was making plans for an exciting new station that would spotlight the music of our region and the music to which I was drawn. Fund raisers soon started and I attended some of those, meeting one of my musical heroes, Emmylou Harris, at a fundraiser at the Amphitheater. It culminated when word spread that the upstart station was on the air broadcasting from a camper on a hillside in Anderson County. I called everyone I knew who loved good music and told them to tune in.

Tony Lawson, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2010

This week WDVX celebrates its twenty-second birthday with a special show tonight at the Bijou Theatre. I sat down with Tony, founder and General Manager of the station, and asked him to share the story that led him to that moment twenty-two years ago. He said that night at the Emmylou Harris event she signed the station’s first autographed glossy. I’ll let Tony tell the rest of the story:

We went on air in ’96 in a test pattern with just some equipment on the mountain. I got a call . . . to tell me it was on the air. It was only on ten watts. I was up on Sharps Ridge and listened in. They said, “Do you want to do this?” What do you say . . . It scared me, it thrilled me, it hit about every emotion you could hit. We had to do it.

We were on the Back Porch in the summer of ’97. That was when we did our first live performance with Chris Jones and Jesse Brock. It was a hot August night with the bugs and crickets chirping . . . not long after that we moved to the camper in November.

Tony Lawson, Square Room, Knoxville, July 2010

I asked about his background that led him to that moment.

I’m from Campbell County. I grew up between LaFollette and Jellico. My dad was a coal miner up there in the hills and my mother was a housewife and she sang in a little group called the Woodson Gap Singers, a gospel group out of church, that went through the hills singing at churches.

I was an only child for thirteen years. I went to Wynn High School between LaFollette and Jellico at Habersham and left there in ’76 and went to ETSU. My parents sort of let me become whatever I was going to become . . . they were good to me and very supportive. I loved music and ever since an early age, I can pretty much tell you where I was . . . when a song or album came out.

I remember the first song I requested. I really liked instrumentals when I was a small child. I must have been a twangy guitar player in a previous life. I was always making twangy sounds with my mouth. I loved the Bill Justis song “Raunchy.” It was the first song I ever requested.

That was when we lived in Pineville, Kentucky, before we moved to Tennessee. We lived in a little mining community called “KayJay,” in Knox County. Actually we lived in little place called “Wheeler,” right outside KayJay, where the mines were and my granddaddy had worked in those mines, but went off to work outside of Norton, Virginia in a mine called Pardee. He retired and came back and we lived next to him until I was about three or four years old.

Tony Lawson of WDVX, Relix Theater, Knoxville, July 2013

We moved to Tennessee in a coal truck. Dad built our house, up in the mountains, out of recycled wood from an old boarding house. He took other recycled material from other buildings they tore down and bought some things at the supply store and hardware store and built a house. He was a survivor, of the mountains, from the mountains, he and my mother, both. It was no big deal to them.

We were pretty poor. They gave us these little flutes at school and I played that a little bit. I listened to a lot of music and a lot of radio. I loved radio. I loved listening to sportscasts. I loved baseball on the radio and basketball. John Ward was the ultimate. I played baseball and basketball. My dad listened to WLAC, Nashville. He listened to the blues with Hossman and John R and then I’d listen to pop stations.

As I got older I began finding the left-hand side of the dial a bit. As public radio stations were signing on, like WUOT and WETS in Johnson City, I was finding different kinds of programming. There was one day I was cruising the FM band and found WQUT in Johnson City/Bristol/Kingsport.

It was commercial 101.5, but it was progressive. It was before classic rock. The first song I heard on it was Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock” . . . but the next few songs, I did not know what they were. I just knew it was cool and interesting and then . . . I would hear Kiss and Led Zeppelin, then I got turned on to John Hartford and John Prine, the Grateful Dead.

Red Hickey at the WDVX Studio, Knoxville Visitor Center, 301 S. Gay Street, Knoxville, March 2017

I intensely began to like this radio station. That and playing ball and hanging with my friends was all there was the last couple of years I was there. My father became disabled. My goal was to work at that radio station. That’s why I went to East Tennessee State. My second year there I began working there in September 1978.

The general manager passed away and no one “got” what the FM was doing . . . they really didn’t know what they had and made some bad decisions, I felt at the time, to move away from the legacy it was building. I was the youngest guy there . . . it was a great crew. When it came time to do WDVX, I harken back to how I felt in those early days — something that could bring that vibe.

The consultants figured out how to make money off FM, that they were going to have to get more direct with the programming that they would generate, so everything became more tunneled. You had a format for this, a format for this . . . it began taking the imagination out of what creative people could do in this format.

I went to be a music director and then programmed a 100,000 watt rock and roll station in Charleston, South Carolina. I was twenty-four-years old . . . We were being consulted by the heavy consultants out of Atlanta. That was when I started learning commercial radio and getting my dose of it and whether I liked it or not . . . I learned a lot . . . I thought I was an old person at the time. I was gathering and learning.

Fred Eaglesmith Traveling Steam Show, WDVX Blue Plate Special, Knoxville, January 2016

Talking about how to decide what to play . . . We were near the navy base. It was a ratty place with three trailers pulled together, with a covering that leaked badly. We had a front door with a big spotlight. Late one night the light came on and I wondered who would be at the door. It was a policeman. He said, “Can you play ‘The End,’ by the Doors, please? I said, ‘Yes sir!”

I jumped around a bit . . . North Carolina, triangle area. I found myself back in East Tennessee for a short period of time and worked with Don Bergraff, our engineer here, for WNOX, which was AM country at the time at 990 and we were moving an FM station, KIX 95, from Clinton into the studios at Whittle Springs in 1994.

Somehow, they parked us at the tower site above Emory Road in a train caboose. We had a studio in a train caboose for that whole summer . . . we kept the refrigerator, which was good. We had to take the refrigerator out of the camper, later. We could bring our beverage of choice — because management would never venture up there — and Smoky Mountain Market hotdogs and play five hours of honkytonk music and then go away.

That showed me something. All this whole trip I was collecting stuff for what would happen down the road, I just didn’t know it then. When it came time that we found a camper, I called Don and said, ‘What do you think about putting this thing in a camper?’ and he said, ‘Are you crazy?’ and I said, ‘No, because you’ve already done this, you put a studio in a train caboose, so what’s the difference?’ The difference was we had to take the refrigerator out to put racks there.

Joan Osborne, Blue Plate Special, Knoxville, April 2012

I left for Montgomery and programmed an AM rock station and an FM easy listening station and then came back to east Tennessee when my son was born in the summer of 1985. I joined a station in LaFollette and started a new format called ‘All American Music,’ of all things in 1986.

That’s where I first met Wayne Bledsoe. He was a writer for the News Sentinel. We were having what Steve Earle calls a “legitimate country music scare,” that happened in Nashville in ’86 and ’87 . . . You had Lyle Lovett’s first record, you had Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town,’ you had Marty Stuart, Randy Travis’ first album, Dwight Yoakam’s first Album. We were the only station in this market playing these new artists . . .

We showed up a bit in the Arbitron around here. It was an interesting time. We would play The Eagles, John Hartford, Buddy Holly, this new country and we called it ‘All American Country,’ before we even started talking about Americana. Emmylou and Dolly and Linda Ronstadt did Trio . . . It was a wonderfully rich time in music.

I began working at 102.3 and started the “Goodtime Oldies Show,” from ’88 to ’93 and while I was there, in ’91, I did a bit of soul-searching. WNCW had signed on the air and I lived fifty-four miles out of town . . . out near where I grew up. I was listening to WNCW and I was hearing a lot of great music . . . Something was speaking hard to me. It wouldn’t let me go.

I began searching for a frequency on the left hand side of the band with some engineers. I had been diagnosed with “over elation.” I was having too much of a really good time, I think, so I had to call ‘time out.’

I was talking with a doctor friend of mine and I told him I didn’t like anything about what I was doing or who I was at the time. ‘I didn’t get into this for this and I want to do something that is way more meaningful and speaks to me.’ I told him about a station that I envisioned that would play roots music, live music, bluegrass and blues.

Women in Jazz Jam Festival Band, WDVX, Visitor Center Grand Re-Opening, Knoxville, March 2017

Right before I got out of the hospital he came to me and said, ‘You know, I’d really like to hear that radio station you were talking about.’ So, he writes me a hundred dollar check. I realized, ‘Wow, so somebody really believes.’ I took that and found an engineer to do a survey of the left-hand side of the dial.

We were in a channel six tv market here in Knoxville. There were special rules protecting channel six audio at the time that the FCC had in place, so it was very tough to find a spot . . . that’s what most of the stations came off Sharp’s Ridge at the time . . . everything had pretty much been taken. I was broke, so we had to go a non-profit route.

I had an engineer friend who had found a site in the 70’s for WOKI, 100.3, on Cross Mountain. I said, ‘Let’s look on Cross Mountain’ . . . we did it and found two channels that worked and were able to get 200 watts . . . and we got a lease for the tower site and formed our own not-for-profit and took the story out to the people.

By ’92 we had a construction permit, a non-profit and had formed a board of directors. I was 33-years-old and quite a bit naive . . . the not-for-profit had to go through growing pains. By ’93 we had call letters and it was there. Personally, I had gone through a divorce in ’93 and I stayed in the mountains for a while.

I met Benny Smith (station manager at WUTK) in ’93 and we began working together at the Record Bar at West Town Mall. We and Shane Tymon, who works at Smoky Mountain Harley Davidson at The Shed, started a bluegrass show at the station in LaFollette. Benny was promoting shows. He was keeping music alive in downtown Knoxville promoting shows at the Mercury Theater. In the 90’s that was the place and he was rocking. I had so many good times there.

I’d begun working part time at WIMZ. I was working part time back at the station in LaFollette. I asked to do a bluegrass show, ‘Soppin’ the Gravy.’ From ’94 to ’97 it helped sow the seeds for what later became WDVX. Little did I know I was still in the information gathering business and I was beginning to see something I’d never taken the opportunity to know before . . . the culture around here, the picking jams, the different events like the Homecoming at the Museum of Appalachia.

Sean McCollough with Kidstuff, Knoxville Welcome Center, August 2012

We started playing stuff on the radio with the bluegrass shows and Benny started putting together the Bluegrass at the Bijou. We started bringing Ralph Stanley and Sam Bush and all these people to town and later with WDVX we started bringing bigger shows to the Tennessee Theatre: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Blue Highway. That’s where I met Alex (Leach), who was nine, at one of those shows.

I’d gone to my first Merlefest in ’92 and I’d gone back in ’93 and ’94, just seeing what was building in music. This was quite a bit before ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’. The time was just sort of perfect. It was before satellite radio and before the internet and it made what you got over the air that much more important, I believe . . .

What we tried to do the first time with WDVX we tried to program everything . . . over the years, the shows appeared as they were supposed to appear and the people appeared to do them. It happened in its own way. It wasn’t me. It was something we found and opened the door. It continues to happen that way every day, I think. Like with the Blue Plate, who knows what we’re going to find? Let’s just continue serving it up.

It was scary, but I was determined. I got told ‘no’ so many times. What really helped us was one of our founding board members . . . she was a mentor to me in the non-profit world and taught me so much, Marie Cirillo. She was one of the Glen Mary Sisters who left the Catholic Church and came into Appalachia to do service work . . . They all made their mark . . . Living in the country and not knowing anything about how to start a not-for-profit business, there was only one person I knew of and that was Marie.

I went to her and said, ‘We have a chance to do this. I need some help.’ She said, ‘This is a wonderful idea.’ At that time she was doing some work with the Lyndhurst Foundation in Chattanooga . . . She was on a committee that was looking for projects . . . she got us a $5,000 grant. That paid for our earliest engineering fees and attorney fees to file our work that we found from our engineering survey. Thankfully, we got that covered through that grant.

Dave Eggar, Blue Plate Special, Visitor Center, Knoxville, May 2015

We were then a corporation. We were licensed through the FCC. We had a construction permit to build a radio station. So, that gave us the foundation we needed to move forward as an organization . . .

We were in the camper from ’97 to ’03 and then we moved into the basement of a house in Arcadian Springs in Andersonville for a year and a half. Then we began talking with the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation. They allowed us to be a part of the blueprint of this building and to build a stage to do the things here that we wanted to do with live music. We moved downtown in ’04.

We started with live music and made the statement we were going to have live music every day, and what a task that was . . . we later added Saturdays and Kidstuff. Luckily for us, there was something here for us to tap into. I’m so glad we could see and feel the opportunity. Knoxville was really searching for itself. This wasn’t the safest place to be in the evening . . . I said let’s go in and be part of the solution.

Yee-Haw! got started about the same time. Combine the two brands it was pretty strong . . . The theatres went through improvements and more things began happening. We had so many great artists on the Blue Plate in the early years: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Abigail Washburn, David Grissman, String Cheese, Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs.

This section of Gay Street is such a piece of this town’s history. On the 100 block you had the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. All through downtown, WROL. Now, with us in the modern day, I feel like we took a bit of history and brought it through.

Now you have all these options. In ’97 radio was the only offering you could get for the most part. Now we have all this online stuff, Pandora, Spotify, so how do the programming and our goals shift? Doing live music becomes more important . . . This is something you can’t get anywhere else.

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Tennessee Shines, Knoxville, 2014

We have our own niche and we serve it up the way that only we can serve it up . . . If you want East Tennessee, then this is your place. What we’ve got to get better at is how we deliver that and that’s where I’m focused moving forward. We’re upgrading our website to offer many different archives. We’re going to make the best of what we’ve captured and deliver it in our own way.

We’ve got our camper refurbished and we’ve been taking it out. We’ve been taking it out and we’ve gotten some great camper sessions. That’s going to be part of what we do going forward. It’s going to be more about our branding and defining who we really are. There is a lot of work to be done. We’ve got a great staff and a board that’s very energetic about seeing the vision move forward.

We’ll see where it takes us. And we’ll celebrate it every year. I want to turn this into an annual event at the Bijou. There’s no telling who we’ll have from year-to-year. We have a great lineup this year. We joke that Alex was born in the trailer. To have him and someone like Shawn Camp, Steve Gulley . . . Jay Clark and the WDVX band. Emmy Sunshine, especially with her new release, I think this is a defining record for her.

I’m excited this is happening at this time. I think when we do the show . . . we’ll look back on this as a very interesting time. We’re also launching a show at the Museum of Appalachia December 6, a live show called the Clinch River, with Molly Tuttle and Ketch Secor and that’s something we hope happens a long time.

The station working collaborations with communities all over east Tennessee and definitely doing what we do in downtown Knoxville is going to solidify even more of what we call ‘East Tennessee’s Own.” It’s so important. From the early days until today, the balance of urban and rural Appalachia in what we do is very important.

I think it’s been that way since radio and country music started happening. It came from ‘down the mountain.’ I think that that is such an important part of the delivery of our culture and when we can get out into the mountains to taste it, that’s what makes it real . . . I think there is greater opportunity for this town to embrace it even more and to get more out of it and we’ll see where that goes.

Come out tonight to the Bijou Theatre and celebrate Tony’s work, WDVX and twenty-two years of great music shining a spotlight on East Tennessee. Doors open at 6:00 PM, show starts at 7:00 PM and tickets may be purchased here or at the door.