Bill Wright, the “Roadtrippin’” DJ, featured four times a week on WHCP in Cambridge and weekly on WKHS near Chestertown, keeps his listeners guessing by winging it each time. “You never know what I’ll play next,” he says, “because half the time, I don’t know either. Until I do.”
For the most part, you can narrow his selections to pop, rock, or folk songs recorded–even if just on a demo–between the 1950s and the day before yesterday. It’s like picking tonight’s lottery numbers. I remember once predicting that the next song on WHFS-FM in Bethesda would be “Walk Away Renee” by the long-forgotten Left Banke about ten years after their one and only hit. There was no prize, and I’ve never matched such a prescient feat since.
Listening to “Roadtrippin’” is a bit like that. It’s fitting that it comes from a DJ who worked at the Annapolis/Baltimore successor to WHFS, known for its free-wheeling approach to playlists, which at other stations demanded repeats of the half-dozen songs everyone expects when you think of, for instance, Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones.
When I listen to Classic Vinyl on Sirius-XM in our car, I switch the channel every time “Stairway to Heaven” comes on. I once grooved to it way back when–10,000 listenings ago. The Stones, however, remain musically ageless to me. I’ve probably heard “Satisfaction” 100,000 times. But my all-time Stones favorite is the relatively obscure “Dead Flowers” with its nasty anti-Valentine lyric, “Send me dead flowers to my wedding/And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave.”
“Hey, I played that just last week,” Wright said during our recent phone interview from my home and his on opposite ends of Easton during a recent sleet ice-over. “Dead Flowers” never got much radio time, possibly owing to the verse that goes, “I’ll be in my basement room/With a needle and a spoon/And another girl to take my pain away.”
But that’s what Wright does on his two- to four-hour “Roadtrippin’” shows. The one thing you can predict is that he’s not going to follow a Led Zep B-side with “Stairway to Heaven.” (Many of his listeners, I’ll bet, remember 45 singles with A and B sides.)
A recent Wright show on WHCP led off with the Byrds’ “Fido” from the “Ballad of Easy Rider.” Dylan also made Wright’s cut that night with “Oxford Town.” Sorry, I didn’t know the lyrics to that one either, though it was one of the deep tracks on his 1963 “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album. On the same show, he spun a mini-set of six Doors’ recordings–none of which were “Light My Fire.”
Wright, 54, earned his ornery streak by resisting playing songs easy listeners might request in his first professional gig as a Winchester, Va., DJ after graduating from the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. New ownership there soon turned the station into “Froggie radio.” Wright and the other DJs were expected to take on reptilian nicknames. “I was Swamp Thing for two weeks before landing a job in Annapolis” at WYRE/WRNR, where he worked with WHFS alums. “It was supposed to be adult contemporary, but I played pretty much what I wanted,” he recalls. “Free form, like I play now.”
After a decade in Annapolis, Wright, a Bowie native, sought a different lifestyle from nearby Crofton, where he was living at the time. “It was overpopulated,” he says of his motivation for moving to the Eastern Shore. Shunning pre-programmed radio, he landed at WKHS, affiliated with Kent County High School, where students get on-air experience on weekdays. But nights belong to the pros; some linked to WPXN in Philadelphia. Wright’s playlist remained as fluid as ever–even more so when WCHP added him to its roster of DJs whose tastes span myriad genres.
Along the way in his itinerant career, Wright picked up a Jammy Award nomination in 2000. The awards go to improvisational jam bands and DJs who play their music instead of whatever major record labels churn out, from Coldplay or Train to whomever. “Mine is the anti-radio show–not a lot of rules,” Wright says.
The title “Roadtrippin’” comes from his longtime preference for the peripatetic circuit of festivals that provide showcases for new musicians, including unsigned ones. “There’s a lot of good grassroots music out there,” Wright says. “If you send it to me and it’s good, I’ll play it.”
The word has gotten around. “I’ll play songs you may never have heard by musical legends along with songs by musicians you’ve never heard of.”
But like many working folks these days, Wright is itching to get back into his “office” –or rather a live radio studio. Uploading at home from his digital library numbering thousands of songs to be recorded for broadcast takes twice the time it would by “just winging it” in the studio. That means eight hours for a four-hour show. He may as well be working full time because he is, essentially.
But this too shall pass. And sometime later this year, Wright will waltz in late at night at the downtown Cambridge studio of WHCP–maybe not at WKHS as it is located in a high school–without a mask, mind you. He will sit at one of the station’s studio consoles and play whatever pops into his well-seasoned brain as he sifts through the music of our times. Music we may have missed along the way.
Call it the Wright Stuff.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer and critic now living in Easton.
ROADTRIPPIN’ WITH BILL WRIGHT
Ten p.m.-midnight Mondays and Wednesdays, 9-11 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, WHCP 101.5 FM (low power signal available only in or near Cambridge), live-streamed at whcp.org Eight p.m.-midnight Thursdays, WKHS 90.5 FM (Worton), live-streamed at wkhsradio.org