Jesus of Cool: Of Local Radio, and a Sweet Virginia Breeze

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

This week in Jesus of Cool, Jon Cummings looks back on that lost and long-forgotten phenomenon known as the local radio hit. His focus: the Robbin Thompson Band’s “Candy Apple Red.”

Almost three decades ago, a new pop station transformed the radio market around my hometown in southwestern Virginia. It quickly dominated the ratings and began leaving its imprint all over the landscape, in the form of personality-fueled DJs, wildly popular remote broadcasts and a regionally focused mix of music combining national hits with Southern rock and a smattering of local artists. A lot of people loved it, just as many loathed it, but no one could deny its impact on a fast-growing region that, for the first time, had a state-of-the-art pop station that nonetheless sounded little like its counterparts to the north or west.

The station was WXLK-FM in Roanoke – K-92 to you – and its rise to dominance was a phenomenon the likes of which we’ll probably never see again … not since Congress conspired with Clear Channel, Cumulus and other budding radio conglomerates to practically destroy local radio 15 years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks about K-92 and the lost radio culture it represented, thanks to a confluence of events that has left an unlikely earworm chewing up my gray matter. I know it’s not exactly cutting-edge to bemoan the consolidation of radio, but it’s worth looking back occasionally to remember the regional focus that has been obliterated as music programming has become homogenized nationally and local disc jockeys have lost their status as tastemakers.

But first, about that confluence of events: About a month ago my wife and I finally got serious about the need to replace her leased car, and she decided that she wanted the replacement to be a girlish red convertible – a real midlife-crisis car, female division. At about the same time, my Popdose colleague Jason Hare posted a typically delightful Chart Attack column, during which he betrayed his obliviousness to the car-color references in Lou Gramm’s awesome 1987 hit “Midnight Blue.” As I lamely attempted to school him in the many shades of rural/suburban car culture – while trying to track down the perfect bright-red vehicle for the wife, a process that eventually led to a dealer 200 miles away – the earworm struck.

It was a song from the dawn of the ’80s that few radio listeners outside southern Virginia (or, to be generous, the “mid-South”) probably ever heard: “Candy Apple Red,” by the Robbin Thompson Band. Though it never charted nationally, it played in heavy rotation on K-92 for months during the winter and spring of 1981 – and became one of three songs from Richmond-native Thompson’s Two B’s, Please album to be ingrained into the brains of southwest-Virginia pop listeners that year.

It was the sort of regional hit that once was a common occurrence at radio, where a program director or an individual jock could latch onto a song and drive it to local – and sometimes even national – popularity. Pop history is replete with these kinds of stories, from “Louie Louie” in the early ’60s to “Red Red Wine” and “When I’m With You” in the late ’80s (the latter two having become massive hits years after their initial release, when local DJs in Phoenix and Las Vegas suddenly pulled them from the racks and began pushing them).

The biggest beneficiary of K-92’s efforts in this regard was Thompson, whose greatest claims to fame are his brief tenure as vocalist in Bruce Springsteen’s early-’70s band Steel Mill (he joined during the summer of 1970, and Bruce broke it up in the winter of ’71) and his co-authorship (with fellow Richmond native Steve Bassett) of “Sweet Virginia Breeze.” That Southern-flavored pop tune is perpetually discussed as a potential State Song for Virginia … but it has yet to dislodge the 1840s minstrel classic “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which wistfully celebrates the place “where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.”

“Sweet Virginia Breeze” had a regular presence on K-92 and numerous other pop stations across the state through the late ’70s and well into the ’80s. With the release of Two B’s, Please in 1980, K-92 began pushing Thompson hard – first with a track called “Brite Eyes,” which actually managed to chart on Billboard during the fall of 1980, climbing as high as #66. Later, after months of pimping “Candy Apple Red,” K-92 switched to another nostalgia-tinged anthem, “All Alone in the Endzone,” that explored (via over-extended metaphors) the well-trodden theme of the fallen cheerleader.

Like many other pop stations of that era, K-92 sought to create regional hits as a way to differentiate itself from the competition. Of course, stations had an easier time developing marketable identities at a time when popular-music radio formats (by which I also mean rock, country and R&B) were driven by personalities as well as playlists. K-92, by virtue of its rapid rise in the marketplace, was able to lure DJs from other stations around the region, and eventually built a stable of jocks who could take a listener straight through a day knowing exactly what level of manic energy to expect during drive time or prime time. It was, in a sense, a real-life version of the contemporaneous television comedy WKRP in Cincinnati – with the difference that, while the fictional WKRP always struggled in the ratings, K-92 began a winning streak during its first month on the air that didn’t abate for nearly a decade.

A couple of those jocks were actually memorable, from the local wild man David Lee Michaels to the Roanoke legend Bart Prater, whose persona was based as much on what he was certain to play as what he was likely to say. K-92 had stolen Prater from another Roanoke pop station, WROV, where he had become the region’s most-listened-to jock during afternoon rush hour; listeners could be forgiven for knowing him only by his first name (as I did until I researched this column), but we knew for sure what song would wrap up his daily stint on the air.

At 5:55 p.m. every weekday, Bart would emerge from the afternoon’s last traffic report intoning some wistful B.S. about his mom, or your mom, or some woman he’d met in a bar 10 years before – and sure enough, the acoustic opening strains of the Doobie Brothers’ “South City Midnight Lady” would accompany the last couple sentences before Bart gave way to Patrick Simmons’ smooth vocal singing, “Up all night I could not sleep / The whiskey that I drank was cheap / With shakin’ hands I went and I lit up my last cigarette …”

It’s funny just thinking about the daily presence of a song like that on pop radio 30 years ago. Particularly from the perspective of a contemporary radio landscape in which “Top 40-mainstream” stations’ playlists (focus-group-approved and homogenized for your protection) offer Justin Timberlake singing about needing to “get you naked by the end of this song,” while “Top 40 rhythm” stations play Lil’ Wayne singing about a shawty who “licks me like a lollipop” … but heaven forbid anyone mention smoking a cigarette.

Anyway, to bring this story full circle, I finally procured Gwen’s new candy-apple-red convertible, and a day later settled into the driver’s seat to boot up and program the car’s XM radio. And as I came across “70s on 7,” what should leap out of the speakers but … I shit you not … “South City Midnight Lady.” Thanks, Bart – now I’m dealing with two earworms.