Surry Arts Council and WPAQ will be holding the stations' annual birthday celebration Saturday at the Earle Theatre — a tribute to the legacy of the long-running radio station the late Ralph Epperson started, with the first broadcast airing on Feb. 2, 1948.
The free celebration kicks-off at 6 p.m. On the schedule for the night are seven bands — The Nunn Brothers open the show, followed by The Zephyr Lightning Bolts, SC Broadcasters, Slate Mountain Ramblers, The Country Boys, The Buckstankle Boys, and Back-Step. The emcees for the evening are Kelly Epperson, Ivy Sheppard, and Brent Carrick.
Ralph Epperson died in 2006 at the age of 85, and the legacy he left behind continues with his son Kelly Epperson carrying on the family tradition of celebrating and preserving the bluegrass and old-time music that is a cultural hallmark for Mount Airy and surrounding areas.
“Ralph Epperson was a genius and a visionary, though he wouldn't tell you so,” last year's emcee Brack Llewellyn told the crowd. “He was one of the most humble men I have ever met.”
Kelly Epperson said that he is excited about the line-up of bands and encourages everyone to come out for the free show. “There will be room out front for people to come out and dance,” Epperson shared. “We just want everyone to come out and have a good time, but remember to get there early to get a good seat.” At last year's celebration, the line extended out the door and down the sidewalk before the concert had even started. “It was standing-room only,” Epperson remembered.
Harry Epperson, Kelly Epperson's grandfather and the father of Ralph Epperson, built the structure that still houses the station. Ralph Epperson worked through the years to keep the station thriving — making his own repairs, selling ads, and recruiting local talent to play live on air.
Kelly said that “it means everything” to him to carry on the family tradition. “My dad started all this and it was his dream to make the music of this area available for more people. He chose radio as the way to do it and continuing his dream is what it's all about. These are really good people who make this kind of music; it's a wonderful heritage and history that we enjoy together and we've had a great relationship for all these years.”
WPAQ can be seen all around the area at jam sessions and fiddler's conventions, live broadcasting and conducting field recordings to play on air. “We have been out in the field at numerous fiddler's conventions and bluegrass festivals throughout the years, recording musicians and live jams…it's not something you can hear anywhere else and we play stuff like that every day. We make room for it in our programming and love share these recordings we have made. Go back to the beginning of the station — my dad thought it was important to preserve music as much as possible and recording live was a great way to do it. We love to go out and record these musicians and individuals who have made such a contribution.”
This year's birthday celebration is no exception. Epperson said they plan to record it and play it back throughout the year, just as they did with last year's birthday celebration concert. “We will preserve this too,” Epperson assured.
Ivy Sheppard of the SC Broadcasters, who broadcasts live on WPAQ on Monday at 2 p.m., as well as the “Surry Spotlight” show on Tuesday at 2 p.m., appreciates the archives and said she loves to go down the basement of the station to look through the old reel-to-reel recordings, and often digitizes them for broadcast. “Many of these reels I've been digitizing, they may not have been heard since they were recorded,” Sheppard shared prior to her Monday-afternoon radio show. “I feel so lucky to have inherited this spot and have gotten so into learning more and more about the music,” Sheppard added.
Sheppard said she was pulling out old recordings and examples of Benton Flippen's music for her next “Surry Spotlight” show. Flippen was broadcast live on the first WPAQ broadcast back in 1948, and on of his fiddle tunes was the very first recording played when the station started live streaming on the internet.
The station helped to preserve and spread the Round Peak style of old-time music that has been around for over one hundred years in this area, along with countless other musical traditions from old-time musicians. The music is often passed down in families, with elders teaching the younger generations to play instruments, and old songs sung to children who grow up knowing the words to the old tunes as well as they know their ABCs. With an increase in popularity in the past decade, many young musicians now travel to this area to learn the old traditions and style of music, with jam sessions at the Earle Theatre and the local fiddler's conventions enjoying record-breaking crowds. WPAQ's website receives hits from all over the world on a daily basis; the station is streaming online for free at wpaq740.com.
Tim Frye, who can be heard on WPAQ Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., was nominated for Bluegrass DJ of the Year at the 2014 Bluegrass Music Awards and National Convention. In fact, he will be absent from this year's celebration, as the awards show will be held this weekend in Nashville. Also nominated is WPAQ for Bluegrass Radio Station of the Year.
During Frye's broadcast on Monday, he shared his thanks for the nomination, which was voted on by the fans. “I just feel lucky to be nominated, especially alongside Judith Burnette, the DJ from our sister station in Galax, WBRF, as well as a big one, Sirius XM's  Kyle Cantrell out of Nashville, and the others too.” Frye said he has been working at WPAQ since 1987, and has “truly enjoyed it” over the years. He added that he is “always amazed” at the huge following WPAQ has, not only from this area and the state, but throughout the country and even in other countries too.
“I hate I'm going to miss this weekend, since I'm going to Nashville, but I can tell you, there are going to be some great bands. Don't miss this one,” Frye assured.
“It will be a big weekend for us, in several ways,” Epperson said, referring to not only the birthday celebration, but Frye and the stations nominations.
Surry Arts Council Executive Director Tanya Jones said arts council is proud to help the radio station with the birthday celebration: “The Surry Arts Council values our relationship with WPAQ and we have always valued their contribution to the music of Surry County and the old-time and bluegrass world. We have worked extensively with them over the years in efforts to preserve our music traditions and heritage.”
WPAQ can be heard on the radio at 740 AM. This Saturday's birthday celebration begins at 6 p.m. There is no cost to attend. “Bring everyone, and I guarantee you will go away with a good feeling,” Epperson said.
Jessica Johnson may be reached at 719-1933 or @MountAiryJess on Twitter.