A time capsule of roots music is being unearthed this summer.
Starting on May 29 on VPM Music, the nonprofit JAMinc is presenting a mostly unheard treasure trove of once and future roots music artists. Hourlong episodes feature the likes of Tony Rice, the Indigo Girls, Marcia Ball and C.J. Chenier just hanging out and playing music as guests of one of Richmond's most eclectic media figures of yesteryear.
For over a decade, moderately larger-than-life musician Page Wilson ruled Saturday nights on Richmond Public Radio. His “Out O’ the Blue Radio Revue” show championed what he called “purebred mongrel music,” an Americana mix reflecting the contents of his record collection in the Mechanicsville garage he dubbed “the Chickahominy Swamp."
Wilson blazed a charismatic path to regional fame and minimal fortune, dying at the relatively young age of 56 in 2011. His legacy was a handful of albums, a candidate for the Virginia state song, a brief blizzard of local tributes and the dusty box of tapes recorded for the show’s Page’s Kitchen Table segment.
“It’s remarkable how good they sound, especially given that they’re 30 years old,” says Tim Timberlake, producer for the upcoming “Page’s Kitchen” program. “A lot of these artists have grown in prominence. And a lot of people never heard them until Page had them around the kitchen table.”
There was no real kitchen, actually, just a series of local studios and a bit of radio magic to create the down-home illusion of a screen door slam and a wood floor creak. There was, however, real gumbo and brisket, relaxed banter while tuning between songs, and cheerful commitment to play along with Wilson’s swamp schtick.
The artists were promoting their appearances at local venues from that era. Sometimes they recorded just before the gig, sometimes after. Once, Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark bailed on an appearance after a tequila-loosened Wilson joined him onstage for an uninvited duet. It's a testament to Wilson's rakish charm that the other two greats on that tour, Townes Van Zandt and Robert Earl Keen, showed up undeterred.
While it was Wilson’s show, it was the artist’s spotlight. Page’s Kitchen sessions were just segments on the radio show, roughly 20 minutes edited into two hours, mostly a deejay program. Now featured as the main event, they can stretch out with a backstage intimacy that lets even more personality shine through.
Bringing them to light wasn’t easy. The decades-old recordings would have disintegrated if slapped untreated onto an old machine. They needed to be baked for hours to make sure the magnetic medium stayed bonded to the tape. And getting the rights for broadcast was a challenge: The limited usage rights ran out when Bill Clinton was president.
“That began a months-long process, reaching out to all these artists or their estates,” Timberlake explains. “We had to present the idea of the documentary and hope they would be OK with it. To my surprise, [we’ve] been successful 11 out of 11 times.”
The eight programs run over nine weeks. Bluesman Delbert McClinton opens on May 29, with a second set from the Indigo Girls. The following week is Tim and Mollie O’Brien, then Piedmont blues legends John Cephas and Phil Wiggins. The week of June 19 is off for a pre-scheduled show. The series returns June 26 with the Tony Rice Unit, from an era when the late Rice still could sing. Then in unbroken succession, Marcia Ball and C.J. Chenier, J.J. Cale, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and the big closeout on July 24 with Keen and Van Zandt.
The sound is good, but perfection is beside the point. The show gazes back to the end of the last century and features music in styles reaching back even further. Some artists were at their peaks, some still on the rise. Many have since passed into fading memories and vital recordings.
These lost performances are licensed only for nonprofit broadcast. Some limited-edition merch will accompany the program, including a caricature of Wilson created by Staunton-based artist Bill Nelson. Proceeds benefit their donor, Virginia Blue, the now adult daughter that Wilson once wished a gentle goodnight at the end of every program.
Her voice will be heard in each of these new programs. These tapes are her inheritance, as unique as they are uncommercial.
“Page’s Kitchen” airs Saturdays at noon and again at 8 p.m. on VPM Music, broadcast at 93.1 and 107.3 FM and streaming live at vpm.org/listen/stream?channel=music.