WPAQ began in the days when radio was an essential part of life, especially in the mountains and foothills and small towns, where people depended on the radio for news, entertainment, and camaraderie, as entire families gathered around their beloved radios each night.
A standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy on Saturday night, to celebrate the long-lasting radio station, which broadcast its first show on the station 740 AM, on Feb. 2, 1948, Groundhog Day, with a signal reaching listeners in Surry County and surrounding areas. Now, 66 years later, the station reaches listeners from all across the country and the world, with a live stream available on wpaq740.com.
With a lineup of seven bands, including The Nunn Brothers, The Zephyr Lightning Bolts, SC Broadcasters, Slate Mountain Ramblers, The Country Boys, The Buckstankle Boys, and Back-Step, the free concert delighted the crowd and filled the dance floor with people of all ages.
Various musicians, including Rex Horton, Tom Hyatt and Arnold Nunn, enjoyed a impromptu jam session throughout the night on the second floor of the Earle Theatre, much to the delight of those waiting in line for the restrooms.
Hazel Wallace and her husband Junior said they traveled from the Atlanta, Ga., area to Mount Airy for the weekend, planning their trip around the WPAQ Birthday Celebration, after they caught the show on a chance last year when they were here.
“My daddy grew up in this area, and he always told me stories about sitting around and listening to WPAQ and going to all the fiddlers conventions. Me and my husband listen on the computer now, and we are just tickled to death to be here, and have been looking forward to it all year. We are already makin’ plans to come back next year,” Wallace shared.
“And they just played my favorite song,” Junior Wallace added, as he sang a line from “I’ll Fly Away.”
J.B. “Jingle Bells” Schmidt said he had listened to WPAQ as long as he could remember. “Kelly Epperson’s dad was Ralph, and Ralph’s dad, who helped start WPAQ, was Harry. Harry had two brothers, Jim and Sam, and Jim was my grandfather,” Schmidt said. Music runs in the family — Schmidt said he plays banjo, mandolin and guitar.
Tim Bowman, a member of The Country Boys, said he also had grown up listening to WPAQ. “Daddy always listened, and told me stories about WPAQ as I was growing up. It’s a great station, and I still listen.”
WPAQ’s founder Ralph Epperson made it his lifetime goal to promote the music and culture of the area, the rich musical heritage that Surry County and the Blue Ridge Mountains are known for, with a variety of musical styles such as bluegrass, traditional gospel and old-time stringband, and a unique style known to this area — the Round Peak style, which started in the Round Peak community in northwest Surry County. The Round Peak style is a hard-driving style of old-time stringband music with a unique banjo sound that has attracted attention from around the world, and has become legendary among fans and musicians. Epperson and WPAQ are often credited for preserving the music of the region.
The mission of WPAQ has remained the same for all these years. 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.
Listeners still enjoy live music, musical journeys through the extensive archives, the familiar voice of long-time DJ Tim Frye, local music spotlights, live preaching, and local weather and news. The station is still recording music at local bluegrass and old-time music festivals, and the archives at the station are full of field recordings made through the years, many that are now being dug out by WPAQ DJ and SC Broadcasters member Ivy Sheppard. Music legends such as Tommy Jarrell, Benton Flippen, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Bill and Charlie Monroe, Fred Cockerham, The Carter Family, Mac Wiseman, and more have all gathered behind the WPAQ microphones for live broadcasts.
Live music and preaching has always been a huge part of the station, with many recordings instantly made in the studio, recordings that can still be heard on air today. Many of WPAQ’s recordings and broadcasts are now housed in the UNC University Libraries’ Southern Folklife Collection, as part of the Ralph Epperson Collection, which contains 61 feet of shelf space, representing about 760 items — a diverse collection of oral history interviews with Epperson, open reel tapes, discs, and audio-cassettes.
Live music by local musicians is still presented every Saturday, from the Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy, for WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round show, which is the second-longest-running radio show, only behind the Grand Old Opry.
The national folk revival that took place in the 1960s and ’70s played a huge part in the spotlight on this region, and WPAQ was also a big part of that, as music fans and musicians traveled from all across the nation and the world to this area to enjoy the music and find the old songs.
Kelly Epperson 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.”
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 and on Twitter @MountAiryJess.