Some time in the early half of the 20th century, as America was climbing from the Great Depression, a young Mount Airy resident stumbled upon what would become his life’s work — the old time Blue Ridge-style of mountain music that would become a hallmark for Mount Airy and the surrounding area.
That man, then a child growing into his adult years, was Ralph Epperson. He died in 2006 at age 85, but not before becoming one of the key figures in the worldwide fascination with bluegrass and old-time music through radio station WPAQ, which he founded in 1948.
On Saturday, WPAQ will mark its 65th year of broadcasting with a live concert at the Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy.
“He fell in love with this kind of music,” Kelly Epperson, his son, said this week. “He just thought the music was so special, there just had to be a way to make it available to more people.”
The elder Epperson was an engineer by education and spent some of his early adult years in Washington, D.C., working at the United States Naval Research Laboratory.
Upon returning home, he soon embarked on an effort to share that music he loved with the surrounding community, securing an FCC license to open a radio station.
In that initial application, Kelly Epperson said his father told the FCC he wanted, at least in part, to “preserve and perpetuate the music that is part of the culture of the region.”
By all accounts he has been wildly successful in that effort. In fact, some might say the elder Epperson was a key figure — perhaps the key figure — in the modern popularity of bluegrass and mountain music.
Tim Frye, the station’s afternoon DJ and a five-time nominee as DJ of the Year by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music, said when he visits the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., even the biggest stars and promoters recognize WPAQ. And, he said, some have told him it was Epperson and WPAQ which kept bluegrass from becoming extinct during a part of the last century when stations across the nation abandoned the music for more modern formats.
The station remains popular with those in the industry. Frye related a common story he hears, that when groups touring the nation are within the broadcast range of WPAQ, they turn to the station to hear what an old-time bluegrass broadcast sounds like.
Occasionally those very bands will take a detour from the highway and visit the station. The Grammy-nominated group The Grascals, who appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno earlier this month, was one such act that recently visited.
“They wanted to tour the station,” Frye said.
Other performers have dropped in at the station to see where the legendary acts from the early days of bluegrass and mountain music recorded and played live, and to sometimes pose with the old 1948 RCA microphone seen in pictures of those early acts.
Most important, though, are the folks Epperson and Frye talk to and see every day — the listeners and community folks who have supported the station through the decades.
“There aren’t many stations where you can call up and make a request and expect to hear the request,” Frye said.
“Some might have request lines, but here you can call and talk to the DJ, on the air,” Epperson said.
That direct contact with the public, both men said, is a point of pride for the station. The two men, along with others who take shifts on the air, often joke with and engage in light-hearted banter with callers. At other times they may entertain prayer requests from those listening.
“I’ve never forgotten what Mr. Epperson told me years ago when I started here,” Frye said of the elder Epperson. “He told me not to think of this as a job, but as a ministry. And it is, it’s a ministry to the community.”
At the core of that ministry is the music Ralph Epperson fell in love with so many years ago.
On Saturday, some of that music will be on display with live performances by a number of performers.
Kelly Epperson said choosing the groups to play during Saturday evening’s event was difficult, because of the number and quality of those who have appeared on the station.
“We wanted to pick area groups that we felt like represented the station,” he said. “It was hard, it was really hard to narrow that list down. That’s why we created the jam sessions.”
Those sessions — one beginning at 5 p.m. and another set to start around 10:15 p.m. — are for any local group or musician who wants to take part in the day and perform with other local musicians.
Among those scheduled to perform are the Nunn Brothers at 6 p.m., the Round Peak Ramblers at 6:30 p.m., Dewey Murphy along with members of the groups Carolina Travelers and Travis Frye and Blue Mountain at 7:05 p.m. (Murphy recorded with the Murphy Brothers in the 1950s), the Slate Mountain Ramblers around 8:15 p.m., and then various tribute artists beginning at 8:45 p.m. The Marshall Brothers and High Road are scheduled to take the stage at 9:15 p.m. followed by Nick McMillian and Back Step at 9:45 p.m.
Additionally, throughout the evening videos and stories of the station’s history will be shared with the audience.
“And we’ll have cake,” Kelly Epperson said. “You can’t have a birthday without cake. It’s our birthday, but this is our gift to the community.”
He said a similar event held at the station’s 50th anniversary quickly filled the theater.
“I arrived about an hour early and I was amazed,” he said. “People were standing out in the street waiting to get in. We filled the theater, filled the balcony,” and ended up having to turn some people away.
“So I encourage people to get there early,” he said.
The event is free of charge, and also will be streamed live on WPAQ740.com.
Reach John Peters at email@example.com or 719-1931.