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Folk Explosion

Photo by Ted Soqui

If you had landed on KRLA-AM 870 at half past 10 one recent Sunday night, you would have heard “Long Haired Radical Socialist Jew,” a new song about Jesus by Coventry, Connecticut, folk sensation Hugh Blumenfeld. At the same time, in KRLA’s studio on the fifth floor of a Glendale office building, Jimmy “Kay” Kalmenson, the host of Sunday Night Folk — the show responsible for sending Blumenfeld over the airwaves — was waving around a copy of Sing Out! magazine with Blumenfeld’s byline on the cover under folk singer Greg Brown’s face. “See, he’s a writer too!” announced Kalmenson, a curly-haired man in a denim shirt whose jovial blue eyes and ruddy face seem always on the verge of a wisecrack. “That’s a big deal, to get a story on the cover of Sing Out! Isn’t it?”

Blumenfeld’s song continued: “Jesus lived in troubled times/the religious right was on the rise/What could have saved him from his terrible fate?/Separation of church and state!”

KRLA is, by the way, a conservative talk station, owned by Salem Communications Corporation, which counts the station among the few secular anomalies in its nationwide network of Christian broadcasting outlets. Knowing all of this, I sat in the studio during Blumenfeld’s song with Kalmenson and his sidekick-producer Jeffrey Smart, real name Schwartz, trying to keep my mouth shut. Kalmenson beamed with mischief. Smart peered up through his glasses. “My advice to you?” said Smart/Schwartz to Jimmy Kay when the song ended. “Keep your day job.”

As it happens, the real, 44-year-old Jim Kalmenson has a pretty good day job — since 1986 he’s been the general manager of the Spanish-language KWKW-AM, which owns exclusive rights to the Dodgers and Lakers Spanish broadcasts. KWKW is owned by Kalmenson’s father’s company, Lotus Communications, a “privately held and debt-free” radio corporation that, unlike Clear Channel or Infinity, doesn’t have to sell a bottom line to investors. It’s not ethical to have a show on your own network, says Kalmenson, but running a radio station does give you big ideas about what radio should be like — ideas that, on Sunday Night Folk, he tries to make real.

To that end, airing Blumenfeld is the least of his offenses. Although he began the night with Lucinda Williams and Big Bill Broonzy (“the greatest version of ‘Frankie & Johnny’ I’ve ever heard”), a little later in the show he’s piling on trouble: a song called “It’s About Oil” by Amy Martin (a “total unknown, total unknown”), Anne Feeney’s “Have You Been to Jail for Justice,” and Tom Paxton’s ’77 folk classic “Born on the Fourth of July,” inspired by Ron Kovic’s book. On a mid-March show the week the war on Iraq began its TV ratings sweep, he played a ’91 tune mocking George Bush Sr.’s military aims (“Only one question remains: Hussein, Hussein, Hussein,” goes the chorus) next to John Prine’s ode to dope, “Illegal Smile,” and the Austin Lounge Lizards’ rouser “Bust the High School Students.” Even on more radical places along the FM dial, where idiosyncratic deejaying is still commonplace, such a lineup would sound subversive.

Somehow, though, it never leads to trouble — or at least, it hasn’t yet, unless you call trouble the listener who complained that Kalmenson was neglecting African tribal folk. Kalmenson calls these baldly political anthems “topical music,” an extension of the genre known to him as “singable classics,” which is itself a code word for all-American folk. He presents it all sort of whimsically, like he doesn’t really mean it, introducing sets with, “Now, I’m a non-political person” or “You know, some people have strong feelings about what’s happening overseas, and I’m just interested in what they have to say.” It bewilders him that anyone might take offense, which is maybe why almost nobody does. Phone calls that come in during the show are unfailingly supportive. In December, his Arbitron ratings shot up to 1.6 — matching KNX-AM 1070 (“Traffic every six minutes!”) for the same time slot. Filmmaker Christopher Guest’s new comic homage to the culture of folk, The Mighty Wind, could boost that number a few points higher.

“I just like to play things that reflect what’s going on in the world,” says Kalmenson without a hint of combativeness. “And I’ll certainly play both sides of an issue if both sides exist.” To prove it, he queues up Tom Glazer’s “I’m Gonna Put My Name Down,” a patriotic song about going to war — written in 1941.

“Look,” he says, holding up the star-spangled CD cover whence Glazer’s tune came, Patriotic Songs That Moved America.

“The listening audience can’t see that,” Schwartz reminds him.

 

Next door to KRLA’s Glendale studio is an all-night diner where Armenian nightclubbers mix with Glendale cops, and where Kalmenson and I head for a drink after the show. Kalmenson is worried that I’m going to write about the moment toward the beginning of the hour when Schwartz accidentally let the Big Bill Broonzy CD spin for a minute or two of dead air. I tell him I’d forgotten the lapse happened, which was true at the time. “I guess, yeah,” he allows. “I mean, there are so many big things happening in the world that what does it matter, right?” But the gaffe still weighs on him. Sunday Night Folk is meant to sound casual but not amateurish; Kalmenson’s off-the-cuff ease is deliberate. He doesn’t want to sound like a bush-league idiot, just a real guy.

“Commercial radio today is like a fast-food franchise,” he complains. “Everyone sounds the same, and it’s almost completely mechanized. But I wanted to just be myself, nothing fancy, just a real fan of folk music sharing the stuff I love.”

He shopped the show around to various stations with three sponsors already in tow, including Vanguard Records, Toyota of Hollywood (they hoped folk-music fans would buy electric cars) and Amoeba Records. KRLA was the only taker, and the station’s management didn’t seem to care what it got. Money trumps politics every time.

“For the first month I was nervous,” says Kalmenson, “but after that I found I could look inside of myself and just be who I am.” When he segues into commercial spots without a seam, he sounds — and this is a compliment — like nothing so much as Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion shilling for Powdermilk Biscuits. When I tell him the Amoeba promotion comes off as naturally as a tip from a good friend, Kalmenson lights up. “That’s the best thing you could say to me, because I really do mean it — isn’t that the best record store in the world?” He isn’t kidding. Really.

It’s fan radio, the old-fashioned way — Kalmenson is still like a kid with a stack of Johnny Cash 8-tracks he wants to play for his friends, except his friends are too bored or stoned to pay attention, so he goes and gets himself a radio show. “I wish I could wake up everyone in the city of Los Angeles with one hour of Woody Guthrie,” Kalmenson admitted on his show a month ago. “I don’t know why he’s gotten to me so deeply.”

In the bar, he explains a little more about how he appreciates music: “I heard this woman, Sonia, at this folk-music convention singing about her father who comes home from Vietnam thinking he fought for tradition, and she has to tell him she’s in love with the girl next door. I fell in love with her over that, I really did, even though I knew she was a lesbian. But music doesn’t have to be counterculture for me to like it,” he adds. “I have an affinity for Merle Haggard, too.”

At 2 in the morning, Kalmenson takes us out to his car to hear Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me,” an earnest complaint against anti-war protesters in the Vietnam era. “It’s not about being for or against the war,” Kalmenson explains. “It’s about freedom.” Still, for the sake of balance, I counter with Billy Bragg’s “Help Save the Youth of America” and Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem,” interpreting Earle’s growl for Kalmenson as the song plays: “There’ll be no barricades then/There’ll be no wires or walls/And we can wash this blood from our hands/and all this hatred from our souls.” Somehow it feels like we’ve found ourselves in a profoundly political moment. He lends me Haggard and takes Earle.

“You don’t have to stand in front of the Federal Building to make a point,” Kalmenson insists as he advises me to look out for the Glendale police on my way home. Not, that is, if you can find an audience for the music you think might change the world.


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