Monday marked the 15th birthday for listener-supported radio station WDVX. The iconic bluegrass and Americana station has played a vital part in strengthening the live music scene in East Tennessee and sharing our musical roots with a worldwide audience.
Monday the station's staff placed a "happy birthday" banner in the studio window above a stack of trophies and awards the broadcast outlet has accrued through the years. In only 15 years of existence, WDVX has raked in eight national bluegrass station of the year awards.
The current plush studio sits inside the Knoxville Visitor's Center just one window away from a polished stage where you can catch a free live lunch show six days at the Blue Plate Special. The setup seems 15 light-years away from the station's beginnings in 1997.
Program Director Tony Lawson started the listener supported station with a 200 watt transmitter and studios built inside a camper trailer. The camper was parked at the Fox Inn Campground between Clinton and Norris.
"My goal was to go to work every day and have fun," said Lawson. "I knew this was going to work when we had the first fund drive 15 years ago. The outpouring of support was incredible. It inspired me and inspired the rest of the people who got this station going."
The 14-foot camper served as the studio for WDVX's first eight years. Today the camper is still used during live remotes and festivals.
"This camper, it brings back a lot of memories," said WDVX morning show host Freddy Smith. "Now it is a rolling museum. We'll take it to festivals and people want to come inside and see where it all began. We had our audio board where there was originally a top bunk. We had a little clock on the wall and we'd answer the phone right here."
Smith started as a volunteer in 1998 and said back then working in the camper was a lot like camping.
"I'd put on four minute songs and dash to the outhouse. That was before we had indoor plumbing," laughed Smith. "Now we have indoor plumbing and a wonderful space in downtown Knoxville. The camper has a lot of history, but it is really nostalgic and appropriate that we are in downtown Knoxville, too. Knoxville is where so many country stars got their start playing live shows downtown in the early days."
Lawson and Smith reminisced about how the staff would joke that the camper had three studios. Studio A was the couple of feet at one end of the trailer, Studio B was the table in the middle, and Studio C was the couch seat at the front where musical guests would play live inside the camper.
"If you sit down here [on this couch] and lean back, you can see all of the pictures [tacked to the ceiling] of some of the first performances ever done in the camper," said Smith.
From the beginning, WDVX focused on creating a scene for live music in East Tennessee. Now the station broadcasts those live performances on three different frequencies: 89.9 FM, 93.9 FM, and 102.9 FM. The station also shares our culture with a worldwide online audience.
"During our fund drive we hear from all 50 states and we've heard from 20 countries around the world, supporting our station," said Lawson.
"We've had some musicians tell us they did a tour in Europe and they found musicians over there with our bumper stickers," said Smith. "It's just really neat to be able to do this."
While the station shines a worldwide spotlight on Americana and bluegrass, legendary musicians have been inspired to write about WDVX. Chip Taylor, the writer of songs like "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning," specifically mentions Tony Lawson and WDVX in his song "Find Me a Killer." In the song he gives a nod to program directors "like Tony Lawson" who work for the love of the music. The lyrics say, "Get yourself to Knoxville and buy yourself a camper" and continue with "get yourself 200 watts and bounce it off of a mountain top, and play me some old country song."
"I was really flattered, especially with someone like Chip," said Lawson. "It just makes you feel really warm inside and know that the station is appreciated."
"We're still able to get the music out to people and that's part of our goal is to keep it alive," said Smith.
The music is alive and thriving in large part due to the contribution of WDVX. Smith said East Tennessee ranks as the top location in the country for sales of bluegrass music.
"I'd like to think we play some small part in that," said Smith.
"I'm very grateful for all of the support because it's obviously something the people have wanted and supported for 15 years," said Lawson. "We struck a nerve."
The music will be on full display this Friday, November 9, when WDVX hosts a big concert at the Bijou Theatre to celebrate its 15th birthday. The concert features a slew of award-winning artists, including Jim Lauderdale and Shawn Camp Band, Buddy Miller, Jay Clark and The Naughty Knots.
Reporter's note: This article includes a Web-Extra video of a WBIR story that aired in June 1998 about WDVX. The piece was shot by WBIR videographer Jerry Owens and includes great footage of the WDVX camper. Mobile users will have to navigate to the full website to view the video or go to the video section of the mobile app.