This article appears in the January 2011 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
Arriving at the Louisville Public Media studios, Michael Young resembles nothing so much as a building contractor at a construction site as he parks his Chevy truck and steps out. Young is a sizable guy with a goatee, wearing denim and carrying a tall coffee. Maybe it’s the influence of three generations of bricklayers or his day job as a marketing manager for Porter Paints, but the look seems appropriate for the WFPK Roots n’ Boots radio host.
It is Sunday evening. Young is here early to prepare for his three-hour, 5-8 p.m. show, which has been broadcast since 1998. He carries a crate of CDs in one hand and an Americana Music Association tote bag full of vinyl over his shoulder. He spent hours earlier this weekend listening to music and browsing his collection to pull these albums. “I never walk in here with a set playlist,” Young says. “I walk in with a box of CDs and a general idea of what I want to play.”
Young describes Roots n’ Boots as “blurring the line between rock and country.” It could also be described as simply the music Young loves. On a typical night he will play everything from Ray Price to Drive-By Truckers, Dolly Parton to Carolina Chocolate Drops. He makes a point of including obscure older acts and introducing new ones.
“His show is like when radio used to be radio,” says Nick Stump of the Nick Stump Band, a longtime fixture in the local roots-music scene. “I’ve heard more new people that I like on his show that I hadn’t heard before. He just does a great job finding those artists and playing some of the old stuff, too.”
During the show Young spends most of his time cuing songs, browsing his collection, updating the online playlist, and working the phones if the phones are working. He sings along with his favorite verses. Sometimes live acts visit and play. Young often introduces songs with a story about the artist or some other bit connecting the track to the deeper world of country and roots music. As local musician Brigid Kaelin says, “He’s someone who actually likes to read liner notes.”
Authenticity could be Young’s watchword. “People think that if they’re on the radio they have to perform,” he says. “I don’t perform. I’m just me.”
In typical style, Young reaches into his bag of vinyl and pulls Mickey Newbury’s album Heaven Help the Child. He tells of a conversation he had with rock icon Robert Plant about how underappreciated Newbury is. “One of the things I do on the show is give attention to the unheralded artists who aren’t getting their due, or the artist behind the artist who maybe wrote the original song,” Young says. “I love the fact that I can turn people on to things musically every week.”
Frequently enough those new acts are local ones. His only criterion is the quality of the music. (The guiltiest listening pleasure Young cares to admit is John Denver.) Kaelin appreciates his honest appraisal of music. “If I put out a record, he won’t play it if it’s not good,” she says. “He really doesn’t care if it’s a local artist or Willie Nelson. He’ll put them back to back if they’re good songs.”
Young, 45, is himself a little bit country and a little bit city. He spent his early years in Germantown before his family moved to tiny Bushman’s Lake, Ind., in Clark County. After high school he attended Indiana University Southeast, but interrupted his education to join the Navy. It was the first time he saw the ocean. The Navy also gave him his first radio experience as a volunteer night disc jockey on the ship’s station. He got the job, he says, because “I just knew music and I wasn’t bashful.”
Young later returned to Louisville, where he finished his communication degree at U of L in 1993 while holding a position in media marketing at Family Health Centers and working part-time at the AM radio stations WAVG and WXVW in Jeffersonville. He would arrive at 4:30 a.m. on the weekends to write and read three-minute news briefs. Half of making it in radio, he says, is being committed and dependable. “The hardest part was getting somebody to show up at that time. If you could do that, you had a job in radio,” he says.
Young eventually worked his way to WFPK, where he became a part-time fill-in DJ before he talked his way into his own show. In addition to Roots n’ Boots, he also hosts a show on Christmas Day, holiday music being another of his loves. Although he is a paid employee of the station, he adds, “I will tell you that I spend way more money buying music for this show than I get paid.”
The show, though, is something special for Young. “I’m just grateful I have my three hours a week and the freedom to play what I want,” he says. “I’m glad it fills a niche and a need.” He talks about longtime listeners like they’re old friends, many of whom regularly tune in while watching football on mute. “I think a lot of people are looking for something simple again,” Young says. “I think in a strange way, for a lot of my hardcore listeners, those three hours on a Sunday help them do that.”
Later in the week, it is Young now at home watching sports with the sound off. He has his feet up, a glass of Old Forester at hand. He isn’t feeling his best, so he’s listening to the blues because the blues make him feel better.
Young’s home is a testament to his love for music. CDs are stacked in eight piles two dozen deep on the kitchen counter. Upstairs is Young’s collection of more than 10,000 CDs — his estimate — arranged alphabetically from AC/DC to the Zombies. When he opens a closet, there’s more music. “They could probably feature me on that hoarders show,” he jokes. The computer monitor on his desk features a screensaver image of Merle Haggard, second in prominence only to a large photo of Young with one of his nieces.
When asked what it is about music that makes it so important, Young says it really isn’t about just the music itself. “Music is so much emotion to me,” he says. “It may trigger something from youth, a faded memory.”
He gets up and locates in a wood chest an old vinyl Ernest Tubb album, SaySomething Nice to Sarah. When he found it on CD he bought every copy in the store to give to his brothers and sisters. He tells of listening to the album during summers as a boy in Indiana. “It’s something I always equated with good times,” Young says. A family friend would recite one of Tubbs’ lyrics whenever he would leave Young’s house. Now the DJ recites the same vocal lick — “Stay away from Pearlie Mai’s place” — every week as a sign-off for his listeners.
10 quintessential albums of the roots n' boots era submitted by Michael Young
Ease Down the Road by Bonnie Prince Billy (2001)
Louisville’s Will Oldham at his most relaxed, melodic and confident. Features some of his best singing and writing about, uh, love?
If You Knew My Mind by Grayson Capps (2005)
Displaced by Katrina, Grayson brought all his great New Orleans characters with him to Tennessee and put them on this album, which put him on the map. Insanely talented live performer and storyteller.
Begonias by Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell (2005)
Whoever said they don’t make classic country duets anymore has never heard Begonias. These North Carolinians put the hurt back in country.
Filth & Fire by Mary Gauthier (2002)
Lesser known than Mercy Now, this album is grittier, more Southern and more memorable. Plus, “Christmas in Paradise” is the best holiday song in years.
If I Could Only Fly by Merle Haggard (2000)
Merle never really went away, but this still felt like a comeback because of its sheer authenticity and badass-ity. This is what Rick Rubin wishes he could have done for Johnny Cash.
Heart of Stone by Chris Knight (2008)
From outside of Slaughters, Ky., Chris Knight may seem like a savant because he can be bashful, and he’s as country as they come. But he has that thing that Hank Williams had, and that Kris Kristofferson has. He can take what we all have felt and say it poetically in so few unadorned words that it seems like magic. It is.
Tennessee by Lucero (2002)
Like a shot out of Memphis, Lucero took equal parts Springsteen, Uncle Tupelo and the Replacements and put it squarely in the South.
Straightaways by Son Volt (1997)
Son Volt carried on the work of the late, great Uncle Tupelo more so than Wilco. Straightaways has the right blend of muscular guitar hooks and lazy country grooves a la Crazy Horse. And that voice!
Strangers Almanac by Whiskeytown (1997)
How can a man this young write songs this sad and beautiful? After this, hearing Ryan Adams without Caitlin Cary’s voice and fiddle is sort of like drinking decaf coffee. Sure, it may taste good, but something’s missing. Probably my favorite album of the past 20 years.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams (1998)
It’s hard to say anything new about an album that is universally praised as one of the best of the Americana genre, or any other for that matter. Lucinda reminds me of Loretta Lynn — not musically, but in that she writes about what she knows and sings it in such a natural way, with unquestioned conviction. Plus, it features Gurf Morlix on guitar — always a good thing.
Photo: John Nation