I found it on the AM dial. A Hollywood cowboy mimicking the distinctive Alpine sound of the Moser Brothers, a wildly popular touring group of Swiss yodelers from the first half of the 20th century. I only know who they are because I looked them up after stumbling upon a trove of 78s at an estate sale. But I was tickled to make the connection to this 40s cowboy who could have watched them pass through, or heard them on the radio, just a few years before.
That show was brought to us by a “cattle report” website and featured a mix of Hillbilly and Country obscurities meandering as late as the 1950s. The host radiated a sincerely self-aware love of the music without a trace of hipster irony.
That is the wonder of AM radio. Someone releases beloved sounds into the ether with faith that they will serendipitously find a receptive ear. You are a tossed a little something and may choose to listen to it or let it pass by.
Online attempts to recreate the experience get it backward. Either you seek out a podcast finely tuned to your established interests or you give your blessing to a series of songs tailoring themselves ever closer to your liking. Giving thumbs up and down like Caesar you skip past whatever fails to strike your fancy in its opening bar.
Good radio asks you to muscle through a song to reach the next one, perhaps discovering on the way what the artist was trying to do, however imperfectly. A good show will “show” you something; sometimes it pays to let go and trust the DJ.
My musical interests have always been scattershot, gravitating to the foreign and the unusual. I love AM radio because it can feel like finding a wonderfully curated Salvation Army record bin. As the clouds shift above and the earth turns below soundwaves waft in and I capture what I can. Operatic Bollywood numbers will morph into a Mexican brass band and have me questioning the origins of jazz. Bluegrass will follow bagpipes. Polka tunes will have me moving in my seat even as a groaning shelf of Dana Label records gathers dust.
When I’m lucky my mind will sync with a DJ’s 1500 miles away as he spins obscure doo-wop records on a hot summer night. The Golden Oldies that have aged out of FM radio can still be found on AM. Early rock is often mixed in with popular tunes. Closely listened to, these mid-century throwaways sometimes achieve a lyrical clarity worthy of the literary honor recently awarded Bob Dylan.
For older music I enjoy, it is really about the tone of AM. My best excuse for preferring the sound of records is a belief that musicians record with the medium in mind. Jazz bands approached the recording studio and hotel broadcasts differently, and not just because of length. A record had permanence, could be listened to repeatedly and studied. How each band chose to address a medium was up to them, but they were aware of it.
The haunting sound of many recordings from the 40s into the 60s is a response to the ubiquity of radio and the playback equipment available at the time. The dawn of LPs and better equipment inspired yet another change of tone.
I wouldn’t go so far as saying I prefer the compressed sound of radio, even if it can bring new qualities into focus. But I do appreciate that so much vintage music continues to thrive on AM. Traditional Jazz deserves a broader place in this mix. Most areas can tune in a good Big Band show, but pre-swing jazz is harder to find. With geographic luck and atmospheric cooperation, encyclopedic hosts and amazing rarities are to be found. We need to encourage them by tuning in to these shows and sending feedback to the stations going out on a limb to host them.
When chance reveals new appointment listening I’m in heaven. Recently I shared an enjoyable bout of insomnia with a midnight show consisting entirely of double entendre blues songs. There is an apparently bottomless well of them out there.
So if the riptides of the internet keep tossing you onto the same old shores remember that you can always cede control of your playlist to the airwaves and refresh your ears with the peculiarities of AM radio.