Behind the scenes of Thacker Mountain Radio

By John Cooper Lawton

Off Square Books’ business day ends early on Thursday afternoons in the fall and spring. Around 4 p.m., the employees begin to transform the historic book store into a live-music venue. As bookshelves and novelties are relocated, Thacker Mountain Radio Show workers begin to file into the changing landscape.

“Off Square Books is such a homy place with almost a living-room-feel to it,” said Jim Dees, the radio show’s host. “It’s very cozy and intimate. I think of that friendly vibe, and all of our crew is that way too – trying to be helpful and put everyone at ease to make it like you’re visiting someone’s house.”

An hour and a half before the show starts, the floor is cleared and chairs for the audience are rolled out. Members of The Yalobushwhackers, the Thacker Mountain Radio Show’s house band, practice their set list. While the band warms up on stage, Jeffery Reed, the radio show’s sound engineer, performs sound checks.

With only an hour left before the show, the chairs are finally set up. The crew slides the chairs across the floor as members of The Yalobushwhackers practice individually. Regular audience members begin to arrive and mingle with the crew as they set up, among them is Merrill Binford “Snooky” Williams and his wife, Mary Lou.

“We get there early because my wife likes to sit up front,” Williams said. “It’s fun to be up front. Up there you can see the tuba player isn’t wearing shoes.”

Kathryn McGaw, the show’s executive director and producer, arrives right before the night’s musical act and author come. She runs around rampantly as she attends to the final touches. For her, this night’s show began nearly six months ago.

McGaw credits much of the radio show’s success to the community. Thacker Mountain Radio Show is a non-profit and, therefore, relies heavily on its sponsors, volunteers and connections.

“Thacker is a part of Oxford,” McGaw said. “It is a total community effort.”

Square Books is a big component of this effort. The historic book store is extremely active in the literary world. McGaw said she would have a much harder time finding reputable authors if it were not for the cooperation of the bookstore’s owners, Richard and Lisa Howorth.

“I feel really grateful for a community and a board of directors that supports art,” McGaw said. “Without them we would not be able to do this.”

Thacker Mountain Radio Show strives to “celebrate and document” the literature and music of the South. McGaw said the show tries to book acts that share Southern art. However, she said that does not limit the show to only booking musicians and authors from the region.

“We are not looking to be characterized by just Americano,” McGaw said. “The South is more of an influence and cultural movement than it is a region. It is not bound to one part of the country. The bottom line is what will be a good show.”

Thirty minutes before the show, Dees walks into the building and meets with the author and musical act. He says showing up right before the beginning of the show gives it an “air of spontaneity” that a live show needs.

Dees usually prepares for the show a week in advance. He begins by writing a short bio on the performers on Thacker Mountain’s website and the show’s newsletter. Dees will often read part of the author’s works and listen to some of the musical acts music before the show.

This year, Thacker Mountain added an interview segment to the show between Dees and the author. According to him, his 10 years as a journalist prior to becoming the radio show’s host has made his ability to engage the authors while interviewing them much easier.

“I put myself in the audience,” Dees said. “I would be interested in where the person is from, where they went to school, what they’re interested in and how they decided to turn to writing.”

By the time the show is ready to begin, all 160 chairs are taken and people are standing in the back. Members of the audience can be seen talking with the author or buying his books at the counter. The bookstore seems to transform into a family gathering.

“It’s almost like church because the same people sit in the same seats every week,” Dees said. “That first four or five rows, I probably know just about every one of them. I can almost even distinguish somebody’s laugh. It’s a very friendly atmosphere and very comfortable.”

Six minutes before the show begins, the house lights dim, and Dees walks out to the podium. The small disco ball lights up the room as Dees warms up the crowd.

“We’re reading literature on the radio! Who does that?” Dees said.

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