There is no actual Red Barn, just like there’s no Grand Ole Opry.
“You create the vision in your mind,” says Ed Commons, producer and director of Red Barn Radio, the Bluegrass radio showcase heard each week at 9 p.m. Saturdays on WEKU-FM 88.9 and 11 p.m. Saturdays on WUKY-FM 91.3. “You can imagine about the music. You hear the interviews and the people. It’s a place people would like to have grown up, a place they would like to go in their hectic lives today where we’re just a little kick back, and you can hear music of another time.”
And its a place that is recreated most Wednesday nights at ArtsPlace in Downtown Lexington.
There, in the theater behind the gallery and offices of LexArts, Commons, host Brad Becker and the rest of the Red Barn crew gather to put on a radio show that brings in Bluegrass musicians from emerging artists to established stars such as this week’s guest, Dale Ann Bradley, three-time International Bluegrass Music Association female vocalist of the year.
Early Wednesday evening a banner hangs over the Church Street side door of ArtsPlace directing guests up a short flight of stairs into the theater where the show is recorded.
A pair of folding tables is set up with CDs from some of the show’s artists, swag from the radio stations, pizza from show sponsor Dominos and coffee.
Within a whiff of the pizza, Becker chats with Charles and Mary Farmer, a couple that drives up from Stanton four or five times a year for Red Barn tapings.
“It’s a fun evening’s entertainment,” Charles says. “And for $5, what more can you ask for.”
Unlike its rootsy-radio sibling, Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour, which tapes Monday nights at the Kentucky Theatre, Red Barn doesn’t try to record a show in real time. The artists play several sections of four-to-six songs, and they take a couple breaks for Becker to conduct interviews. Commons will later splice the parts together to form a 59-minute show.
“We call the live show ‘gathering our assets,’” Commons says. “We try to gather a minimum of 40 minutes of music recorded, Brad does a couple interviews, and we also do a live give-away each week for our audience.”
Wednesday night, Becker conducts a quiz based on the James Still book Rusties and Riddles and Gee-Haw Whimmy-Diddles, distributing a few items such as WEKU coffee stein.
The laid-back format, allowing for do-overs if artists aren’t happy with how a song went, is well suited to guest artists, many of whom are getting their first crack at radio exposure.
“For the most part, the bands we have on are amateurs, and happy to be there,” Becker says.
Commons is quick to point out that saying a number of their guests are amateur does not mean they are of amateur quality.
“It’s amateur in the sense that an NCAA athlete is an amateur,” Becker says. “In Bluegrass, I would say coming to see the caliber of players that we have on the program is like watching SEC basketball. This region is a hotbed for incredible players that no one has ever heard of. And there are players on the program who are going to go pro, not necessarily in the bands they appear with on Red Barn.”
But the stars do come out occasionally.
The Farmers recall coming one night to hear the Grascals, shortly before they were names IBMA entertainers of the year in 2007. And the show has been visited by established stars such as Sam Bush and J.D. Crowe.
And that’s great, but that’s not the focus.
“The bands we really strut are the ones who really represent our mission – the regional bands with names like the Wild Boogers, the Rubber Knife Gang, the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys, all from this state and this region,” Becker says.
Commons says, “our mission is not to have all the top-tier Bluegrass bands traveling through the region on the show … Our mission is to explore what our region is about in music.”
That’s also why the show’s interview segments tend to shy away from discussing specific albums or performances, and lean toward exploring music making in general.
Last Wednesday night’s guests, Howard’s Creek, was a collection of long-time Lexington musicians, allowing Becker and the players to talk about the city’s music history, such as Bluegrass music at Martin’s Tavern.
Commons says that intention is why the show has attracted supporters such as LexArts, Lexington’s arts umbrella organization.
“They were interested in the humanities aspect of what we are doing,” Commons says, “of documenting the music of this region and the people who make it.”
And part of the musician’s stories will include a stop at Red Barn, a place you can really only find on the air.