Chris Teskey: Bluegrass Radio Tried and True
by Stephen Pitalo
To say that Chris Teskey knows bluegrass is like saying Bill Nye knows science, but it stems from a love of exposing friends to great music the way he did when he was young.
“When I was a kid, I tried to be the first one in my neighborhood to buy the latest Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Creedence Clearwater Revival single for 67 cents with my paper route money so I could share that music with my friends,” explained Teskey about his love of promoting music. “I asked other radio hosts if they played a similar role when they were young, and many have said they did. So, it’s the joy of discovering and sharing music that you love with others. You know, it’s that ‘You gotta hear this!’ That’s why I do it.”
With over 30 years hosting bluegrass programs in Connecticut and Washington DC, Teskey serves as program director for Bluegrass Country Radio, advertised as a station created by listeners for listeners. He can be heard on the air most days during weekday afternoon drive time, easing DC traffic irritation with his conversations about the bluegrass acts he loves, both new bands and old legends.
“I have had a program on Bluegrass Country radio since we took over from WAMU in February 2017, so almost five years. I also did a weekly show at WAMU’s bluegrass country before we went independent from 2011 to 2015. I’m currently digging quite a few bands, and I may get in trouble here, but I really like Bella White, Bill and the Belles, Fireside Collective, and I’ll stop there.”
Today, the Bluegrass Country Foundation operates and funds the 50-year-old WAMU in Washington, DC. From hosts to musicians to listeners, Bluegrass Country Radio continues to foster a community of bluegrass fans from everywhere and is currently heard as HD radio at 88.5FM Channel 2 in the Washington area and streaming worldwide on BluegrassCountry.org and via a free smartphone app.
A live person hosts every show on BC and selects the music from the station’s incomparable song library or a personal record collection that probably includes songs the listeners would never hear anywhere else. Their mantra is bluegrass, from the pioneers to the present, from traditional to experimental and everything in between; whether its old-time, classic country, folk, rare blues and jazz, zydeco, roots, and modern Americana, or a taste of Grateful Dead, the broadcasts originate in their Washington studio. Teskey’s interest in bluegrass arose from his affinity for jam bands.
“I was a fan of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers and became aware of Old & In the Way,” Teskey said. “I went to the Green Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Vermont on July 4th weekend in 1976 because Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, and David Grisman were playing, and I knew them from Old & In the Way (O&ITW). When we arrived, a pickup band was playing that called themselves the Good and Old & In the Way Boys, featuring Rowan, Grisman, Vassar, Bill Keith, and Frank Wakefield. It was quite an introduction to the music, but I wasn’t quite ready to take the plunge.”
Working as a DJ at a commercial FM radio station in Connecticut in 1977, Teskey came upon a room full of promotional LPs that had no business in album-oriented rock (AOR) rotation. One was the first album by the David Grisman Quintet, and Teskey knew Grisman from O&ITW and Grateful Dead records. He took the record home and loved it; although it was not quite bluegrass, it was a step in the right direction. When he hosted a radio show at WSHU in Fairfield, CT, which concentrated on The Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, The Band, The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, and the like, he got an unexpected phone call that changed the trajectory of his life forever.
“A concert promoter who I didn’t know, Doug Tuchman, called me and asked if I had ever heard of The Seldom Scene,” Teskey explained, “who he was presenting at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, CT, along with Don Reno and the Tennessee Cut-Ups. When I told him I had not heard of the Seldom Scene or Don Reno, he kind of giggled, I guess because he knew what he was going to do to me. He sent me all the Seldom Scene albums up to that point – I think the new one was Live at The Cellar Door – and my mind was completely blown. I never listened to music in the same way after that. My program became a bluegrass show quickly after that, but I had a steep learning curve. I referred to John Duffey’s tenor as ‘High Lonesome,’ once, and was quickly corrected by another bluegrass radio host who told me to go listen to some Del McCoury records.”
Teskey worked for Green Linnet Records in Danbury, CT, from 1986 until 2004, releasing traditional Celtic records. When the label was sold, he took a year off and started Mad River Records in 2005 while simultaneously starting a bluegrass band in Connecticut. Over time, Mad River Records released 26 CDs, the most recent being 10,000 Days Like These by Low Lily. Teskey currently enjoys playing guitar and singing lead and baritone with a five-piece bluegrass band called Leesburg Pike. He likes to play guitar and sing with other bluegrass musicians in the area in his spare time.
Teskey has quite a few stories from his decades of interviews with bluegrass icons, which he enjoys telling on the air and in person. It’s difficult for him to pick any one interview as the highlight of his career, though.
“That’s a tough one, but the week Bill Monroe died, I had Del McCoury, Bill Keith, and Peter Rowan all call in at the same time. I conferenced them in and got out of the way as they discussed Bill’s music and what it was like being a bluegrass boy. That one was hard to top.”
Another time David Davis & the Warrior River Boys came to WPKN to play live, and Charlie Cline played the fiddle. A real legend. “I set up two RCA ribbon mics and let them rip. Charlie really knew where the sweet spot was on those microphones, I guess from all those years of using that technology. They went bowling after the show, but I couldn’t go. I had to finish my shift.”
The Milk Carton Kids on the Chris Teskey Show
Others he recalled include Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Michael Cleveland, Tony Trischka, and interviews with rock musicians like Robert Plant and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull and jazz guitarist John McLaughlin. He enjoyed asking them how traditional American music informed their music. He learned that bluegrass and traditional music had touched all of them, feeding his resolve and ‘You gotta hear this!’ commitment to his Bluegrass Country listeners.
“The main goal of Bluegrass Country is to continue to provide classic and contemporary traditional American music to the US and the rest of the world and to raise enough money to continue the effort. We are exporting American culture, which seems important.”