Now, years down the pike, he's still playing the sounds he loves, and in June he will learn whether he receives the Radio Personality of the Year award from Country's Fourth Annual Golden Voice Awards Show. In a complementary honor, Trimble is also up for induction into the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame the same month. He's flattered by the fuss but not sure he's ready for the honors.
"'Golden' you know what that means," he says with a laugh. "I like the [idea] but it also means you're old."
Regardless of age, Trimble, 64, continues to give his audience an off-the-cuff mix of country and early rock 'n' roll weekdays on WCLM 1450-AM from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. On a station with a gospel, rhythm & blues and talk format, Trimble plays the Platters, Loretta Lynn and Little Richard. Flatt and Scruggs, Fats Domino, Merle Haggard and Big Joe Turner could easily air in the same hour. Put this with the call-in "brain game" and a listener hears anything but the usual computer-driven radio format.
"When I started in radio everything was like this a little hillbilly, pop, rock," he says with a matter-of-fact drawl.
Trimble got his start at a Paintsville, Ky., station while in high school. The Army called in 1960, and his radio background got him into the military's entertainment division. Sent to Fort Lewis near Seattle, Wash., "Hell, I thought I was going to Washington, D.C." Trimble learned about booking acts and running a 23-piece variety show that played on army bases and in soldiers' homes and prisons.
"You know the Army, man. You gotta serve everybody," he notes with a grin.
After the Army, Trimble returned to Kentucky. But he soon headed to Arkansas where he landed several short-lived radio jobs with variety formats. It was not until he joined a Little Rock station that he found the direction that forged his lengthy career.
"That's when I learned about country. I learned everything I possibly could," Trimble recalls.
Trimble had been around country music since his youth, but he suddenly discovered the genre opened doors. Striking out for Indiana in 1967, he was hired at the first full-time country FM station. Not only was the signal heard in Atlanta but John also started hosting a live Friday Night Opry Show. Country music became Trimble's full-time bread and butter.
"I was a walking encyclopedia [of country music]. I personally think '67 was the best year ever [for country] Buck Owens, Ray Price they were good. Small-label record companies in Nashville."
A year later, Trimble and his family returned to the Seattle area where his wife had kin to DJ at KMO. During the Army days, John had learned that Willie Nelson, Buck Owens and other country hit-makers were no strangers to the region. Trimble was in the right place at the right time.
"That was the turning point. It was a good station [in] a hotbed of country music. Everything fell in place." In addition to broadcasting, Trimble booked Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Hank Thompson and others into clubs. It was then he became Big John Trimble.
In 1972, Big John's boss approached him with an idea that appealed to the disc jockey's affinity for an interactive audience.
"He says, 'We would like to start a truckers' [call-in] show [and] you're the only guy with a Southern drawl.'" Trimble jumped at the chance and "instantly truck drivers started calling. I found out everything about truck driving [regulations]. That's what they wanted to talk about." After a year in Seattle, Trimble's boss took him to Spokane, where his show was heard from the Continental Divide to the Pacific. The stay, however, was short-lived.
"First off, I went through a winter there," Trimble says. "I thought, 'Man, a Southern boy don't need to be up here.' So I went to Shreveport, [La.] in late '74 and broadcast from a truck stop."
John was in his element broadcasting live radio from the truckers' stopover on the interstate. Drivers stopped by for on-air chats, and country music stars en route to Dallas dropped in.
"Willie [Nelson] stopped by one night about 11:30," he recalls. "He told me he was sorry but he didn't have but half an hour. He didn't leave 'til 5:30."
It wasn't long before Richmond station WRVA came knocking. The station had plans for a show at the Jerrell Truck Plaza in Doswell and it wanted Big John. Trimble first declined, but a higher offer and recommendations of the truck stop by truckers changed his mind. In May 1977, he moved to Richmond. Dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, Trimble says he made an impression.
"They weren't quite sure what they got when they got me," Trimble remembers. "It was a culture shock." But Trimble got free rein, and he also broadcast his beloved Opry-style live presentations during his stay at WRVA.
"WRVA never suggested anything. All they knew [was that] it brought a ton of money in the door."
After 18 years, the station changed its format. "Big" John moved to WXGI 950-AM where he played classic and new country music during two different stints. After a change in programming an WXGI, Trimble left for WCLM, where he started broadcasting in January 2002.
In addition to his show, Trimble is building a theater in Fairfield Commons to host his live East Coast Opry shows. And, in keeping with his love of anything-can-happen radio, Trimble plans future live broadcasts from the theater.
These days Big John Trimble has little use for mainstream radio ("folks in radio take it so damn serious"), but he is happy spinning tunes his way even if there is a certain irony to it.
"All those years when it was country, we couldn't call it country. Now that it's not country, they call it country," he says. "Just give me a stack of records and leave me alone." S