Lee Michael Demsey
by Susan Marquez
The airways have carried Lee Michael Demsey’s voice for over forty years. As one of several bluegrass hosts of WAMU’s legendary bluegrass programs in Washington, D.C., Lee witnessed many artists rise to fame. He never tires of seeking out the best recordings for his audience.
Lee entered the world of broadcasting through a backdoor, so to speak. “I got a job as a substitute engineer at WAMU-FM when I was a senior at The American University in Washington,” he says. The station is the University’s professionally run 50,000-watt public radio station. Lee earned a bachelor’s degree in Communications and then began hosting Rock ‘n Roll Jukebox, a program of hard rock music, in 1975, which quickly became the station’s second most popular show after the Saturday morning bluegrass show.
In 1982, WAMU expanded its bluegrass programming, and Lee hosted Capital Bluegrass, a five-day-a-week afternoon show later renamed The Lee Michael Demsey Show. Lee recalls being at a picking party with Pete Kuykendall, the founder and editor of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, in 1989 or 1990. “We began talking about a chart. A guy in Florida had put together a bluegrass chart, but it was not very scientific. Only about twenty or so radio stations reported, and I knew about it because ours was a reporting station.”
Lee explains that he always liked charts. “I started out majoring in math in college before changing my major to communications. I always had a love of numbers as well as music. I followed the Billboard chart and the countdown shows on the radio at the time.”
Lee decided to start his bluegrass chart — Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine National Bluegrass Survey. The first chart came out in May 1990. “I started with twenty reporting stations, then it got up to forty, and finally I topped fifty. When I first started, reporting was done by phone each month, and some folks faxed in their picks. There was no internet back then, so it was a tedious process, but it was kind of fun in a way because I got to talk to the people who were reporting. Now it’s all done via the internet, and I have many who have reported to me for twenty or more years with whom I have hardly spoken.” May marks the 32nd year of the chart, representing 384 monthly top 30 lists.
The radio hosts who contribute to the survey have shows on broadcast, satellite, and internet stations across the United States and in Canada and Australia. Lee says some radio hosts report only songs in the current top thirty, while others report songs that may not be in the top thirty but are songs played on their stations that they like. One of Lee’s favorite things to do is to tell a band they have made it to the chart. “Sometimes, they don’t see much that will give them hope that their song could be a hit. Some of the acts aren’t on labels at all. Some have agents or PR people to help get the band’s name out there, but others are left on their own to create a buzz, which is really a hard thing to do. It’s a tough business, and you have to love it to be in it.” Lee recalls the first chart in May 1990. “Alison Krauss was at the top of the chart. It was for her song Two Highways (written by Larry Cordle) on Rounder Records. She was so honored, at a very young age, to have been at the top of that first chart, but who would have known that she would soon become a superstar?”
From the Smithsonian Folkways to His Home Studio
In addition to his radio gig, Lee has spent time over his career writing liner notes for albums and working at Smithsonian Folkways, where he produced and compiled two volumes of Classic Bluegrass in 2002 and 2005. As he heads into his late sixties, Lee has cut back from his heavy load of five drivetime shows a week to just one weekend show, on Saturdays from 10 am to 1 pm Eastern Time, which airs on BluegrassCountry.org. His show includes plenty of contemporary leaning bluegrass music and artist interviews and features, including the monthly Bluegrass Unlimited Top Thirty. Lee records his show from his home studio in Maryland.
Lee has been honored for his work in bluegrass radio, receiving the Broadcaster of the Year award from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) in 1991. Last fall, he was again honored by the IBMA with the 2021 Distinguished Achievement award as a bookend to that.