Jay Armsworthy: Radio DJ and Bluegrass on the Bay
by Shelby Berry
As a bluegrass radio DJ for almost thirty years, Jay Armsworthy fashioned a name for himself with Bluegrass on the Bay, a hard-driving, soulful, traditional two-hour bluegrass radio show currently streaming weekly online with Bluegrass Country from Washington D.C. and six additional radio stations throughout the country.
A native of California, Maryland, bluegrass music affected Jay’s life since he was old enough to turn the radio dial. Still, the radio bug bit him in 1993 when he wanted to start a radio show.
“I approached our local radio station WPTX at an event. I asked about starting a bluegrass show titled ‘The Bluegrass Hour,’ and they started the show a week later on the AM station. From 1993 on, I worked at WPTX every Sunday. Their sister FM station later changed from rock music to country, and they moved me over to WMDM for a new 2-hour show. We had to change the name, and it became ‘Bluegrass on the Bay,’” said Jay.
While radio DJs have been around since 1941 when the term surfaced in Variety magazine, Jay’s first love wasn’t radio — it was the music. Consumed by this love, Jay’s family hosted musical gatherings with family and friends who played music while growing up, and at ten years old, he asked his dad to show him how to play a chord on the guitar.
“Every week, he showed me a new chord, and I would practice,” said Jay. “By 12 years old, I started going out to jam sessions, and I really picked it up from there.”
A few years later, he started his first band called The Backyard Bluegrass Boys and played local spots around their hometown.
“My dad would always play the WAMU bluegrass radio show every week, and he found music that he liked and ordered the records,” said Jay. “He had a lot of great bluegrass records that inspired me to get into bluegrass music. I just always looked forward to listening with him. I loved the rocking chair. It was a soothing thing to listen and rock back and forth. I still do that!”
The shared bluegrass love with his father and time spent at local bluegrass festivals further inspired Jay to pursue music as a career. He loved seeing the tour buses of famous musicians at the festivals and dreamed of owning his own one day.
Eventually, Jay met Ernie Bradley at a bluegrass festival in Maryland and found himself as Ernie’s guitar player for the next six years, really exposing Jay to other parts of the country and venues that he had never seen before.
This experience encouraged Jay to start his band Jay Armsworthy & Eastern Tradition in 1994, and he still plays the East Coast with them today. The band’s musical background consists of traditional bluegrass we all know and love and some energized instrumentation, old-time gospel numbers, and original ballads. Jay joins Scott Walker on banjo, Dale Eyler on fiddle, and Bonnie Eyler on bass.
While the band has seen a variation of members and dabbled into more contemporary bluegrass sounds of an electric bass, Jay Armsworthy & Eastern Tradition at its core is about tradition and preserving the musical sound Jay loved as a child.
Jay has also been a member of other regional bands in Maryland, such as David Davis & the Warrior River Boys and the Paul Adkins Band. He has also hosted an annual fundraiser for the Hospice of St. Mary’s County in Maryland every year since 2009.
After losing two grandfathers within a week the year prior, Jay found a way to give back to Hospice care with what he knows best — bluegrass music. He helped organize and raise over $250,000 for the Hospice of St. Mary’s County, hosting artists such as Danny Paisley, Michael Cleveland, The Grascals, The Gibson Brothers, Larry Sparks, Sister Sadie, The Seldom Scene, Mountain Faith, and others.
Getting the chance to chat with Jay about his musical background and radio career was quite an honor. He has been a pioneer in this industry for decades, and we are honored to know him as a bluegrass musician and a friend.
The Bluegrass Standard: With your background, what made you decide to pursue the business and deejaying side of music in addition to performing?
Jay Armsworthy: Being inspired by bluegrass on the radio and other DJs led me to my desire. One of my idol disc jockeys as a kid was Ray Davis on WAMU in Washington D.C. Ray Davis had one of the coolest voices in radio. Listening to him and other bluegrass artists inspired me to do that myself. We all have good and bad days, but it’s the gift of gab, being able to talk about the music. When I was a kid, it was the same as learning to play music. I also said I wanted to have a radio show and be a music promoter.
BGS: How did your deejaying career lead to you where you are now?
JA: Once the radio station was sold and I no longer had a radio station to broadcast, I felt I wanted to continue doing my show somewhere. I had to do it. I searched other stations and realized that I had the equipment to produce a show from my home studio and send it to the stations. Then I considered a syndicated program on seven stations. All in all, I love to play the music I love.
BGS: As a bluegrass artist yourself, what inspires you to help get new unknown bluegrass artists on the radio?
JA: Independent artists often find it hard to get airplay on radio stations. Mostly, a bluegrass DJ will play an unknown artist before a major station will. I know what it’s like to send a CD to a radio station and wonder if they will play it or not. As long as it is traditional bluegrass, I will give them the airplay. I try to consider every project I receive. On the plus side of playing unknown bluegrass artists, I have total control of what I play. If I like it and know my listeners will, I’ll play it. And most of the time, they trust in my judgment.
BGS: How does your work as a bluegrass artist affect your life as a radio DJ? And vice versa?
JA: As a Bluegrass artist, I have the advantage of playing my music. But, I try not to favor myself. Some weeks, I may not even play anything from my CDs, and someone will send a message asking for one of my songs. Two are requested the most; one is “Heaven’s Door,” taken from my gospel CD, and the other is “Billy the Bluegrass Beagle” from my latest project. To answer your second part of the question, I have played shows with my band and had people say they heard me on the radio or listened to me on the such-and-such station. Being an artist and a DJ has had a lot of coincidences. It is a good feeling when someone says, “Hey, I listen to your show” or “I’ve heard you on the radio.” I’m passionate about doing both jobs.
BGS: What would you say is the most challenging part of what you do as a radio DJ?
JA: Technical issues! (Laughs.) Luckily after years of doing it, rarely does that happen. But it’s always that on-the-edge moment that everything goes off with no problems. After that, the rest is a piece of cake.
BGS: What about the most rewarding?
JA: I’d say the rewarding part as a DJ is knowing I made someone smile or was an inspiration to them. While on the air, I have gotten messages from listeners who said, “I haven’t heard that song in a long time.” or “You’re playing some good ones tonight.” That always makes me feel good about myself as a show producer. I feel like I’m on my game and putting it out there the way they want to hear it. Or if I can play a plum pitiful tune that can make ‘em cry. I know that sounds sad, but I know that I have touched somebody somehow. And that’s rewarding.
BGS: Who would you say were some of your favorite artists to work with over the years?
JA: As a show producer, I have not worked with an artist hard to get along with or please. Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, Larry Stephenson Band, and Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out are among the best I had the pleasure to work with. I’m sure that comes from working with them on several occasions and getting to know them personally.
BGS: After such a long and successful career, what drives you to continue working in bluegrass and bluegrass radio?
JA: The people; making people happy with my music or something I may do or say on stage or over the air. At the end of a show, I try to be at the door and speak to everyone. It’s a good feeling when they tell you how much of a good time they had. That drives me to continue doing this; not the money, but the people. Not to mention the passion and love I have for bluegrass music. I eat and sleep on bluegrass music.
BGS: Where do you see your career in the next five years?
JA: In the next five years, I plan to perform with my band more, add my radio show to more stations, and put on another bluegrass festival in my area. I am about to take on a new adventure. I hope I can make an announcement soon. That is where I plan to be in the next five years.