Where the Holler Meets the Hardtop

"The weatherman's a'runnin' with the dry cows," Moon Mullins used to say on dreary winter afternoons in 1977 and 1978, when the temperatures went to 25 below zero two years in a row. Those were a co

Nov 2, 2005 at 2:06 pm

"The weatherman's a'runnin' with the dry cows," Moon Mullins used to say on dreary winter afternoons in 1977 and 1978, when the temperatures went to 25 below zero two years in a row. Those were a couple of bad years; tempers were short and batteries dead.

Comparing a weatherman to impotent cattle was just the kind of Moon Mullins metaphor that kept us tuning in for his daily afternoon radio show on WPFB-FM in Middletown. He'd moved to Middletown from Louisa, Ky., with a young family to support, and he brought his rich language and his love of music with him.

If you think WEBN's Jelly Pudding was on the cutting edge, you never heard Moon Mullins. He made Bubba the Love Sponge look mainstream.

In fact, so many syndicated shows brag about "radio that breaks the rules" it makes me happy to think back on the glory days at WPFB when Moon didn't even know the rules. He started working as a Bluegrass disc jockey before the era of being politically correct, and he enjoyed a cult status in the Ohio Valley, a region that's enjoyed a number of colorful radio personalities.

In the winter of 1977, my good friend Joe Brashear and I spent a lot of our time plotting for new and better ways to pull up WPFB on the radio. When I was desperate for a fix of Moon's astringent conversation, I had to drive clear up to the Cincinnati-Dayton Road to get the show on the car radio.

Joe, on the other hand, had an office downtown and was in the catbird seat. He had rigged his radio antenna to where he could get WPFB daily.

Joe was an architect, but he was also a transplanted "briarhopper," which is what Moon called folks from eastern Kentucky. Joe was, like many people from that part of the world, self sufficient and proud of it. He described himself as "necky, a redneck with a low boiling point."

The central conflict of most Appalachians, the paradox that's eluded sociologists for years, is the conflict about "home." If you're there, you want to be somewhere else; if you're somewhere else, you're so homesick you can't do anything.

In fact, most of us want what we can't have, and in that we aren't much different from the country boys from Powell County, Ky., who made up Moon Mullins' audience. He was torn between needing a job in a city and longing for "home," where he was accepted for who he was, where he knew everybody and they knew him and treated him with respect. Yet Moon knew the siren song of the city, and he took that conflict and amped it up 'til it was high art.

Tuning in to WPFB was a lot like trying to pick up the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Two hundred miles from Nashville you got a lot of static with only a little sound coming through. Another hundred miles could give just enough clarity to keep you hooked until finally the warm sounds of Webb Pierce singing "I Got $5 and It's Saturday Night." That dark warmth in the car, the cheerful sound of audiences clapping, the music itself banished loneliness.

Moon played music from home or about home, and he played what he thought you "ought" to hear rather than what you wanted to hear. He was always right. "That's good," he used to say if he liked something. "That'll hold water."

Moon Mullins started his own brand of Bluegrass and Classic Country broadcasting in Louisa, Ky., and moved his family to Middletown to be the headline disc jockey for WPFB. The station already had a formidable reputation for Country and Bluegrass music — even Hank Williams played at WPFB's outdoor tent shows in the 1950s. During Moon's tenure, the "position statement" was direct and simple: "We play music for briars," he'd say, and everybody knew exactly what that meant.

"You boys ridin' around with pasteboard in your cozy windows, are ye?" he'd ask brightly, never softening his Eastern Kentucky accent. "You better get on over to Bill and Ernie Sloan's Texaco and get it fixed, 'cause the weatherman says it's a'fixin' to get cold as the back side of a witch's lap."

After listening to the second solo on an Earl Scruggs recording of "Saro Jane," he said, "That sounds like a dominecker hen peckin' corn off the bottom of a No. 2 washtub."

If he didn't like a record, he'd just stop the turntable and say, "That'll be enough of that," and he didn't play it anymore. If the record offended him enough, he'd break it and throw it in the trash.

Of course, that was before Clear Channel made programming a soul-less enterprise. I didn't always agree with what he liked or didn't like, but I knew one thing: He loved the music and respected the artists, and because he played fiddle himself he had some insight into musicians' lives.

Moon's colorful idiomatic expressions made for great advertising copy. For instance, a marital spat could be fixed with one of those diamond-chipped dinner rings, a "Kentucky cluster," as Moon called it. He recommended it on behalf of Rogers Jeweler. "Then, if your old lady's threatenin' to sack up her other dress and leave, why you can cut off her finger and take it with you."

He raved about about Betty's Drive-In in Franklin for their brown bombers (pinto beans), which Betty served with a big onion and a pone of cornbread 'til "way into the night." He thought "My Good Ol' Rough and Rowdy Ways" was the "identical" song for Merle Haggard. One of his regular advertisers was Charlie Elam at Elam's Furniture. They were perpetually overstocked, Moon said. Then he added, deadpan, "Charlie said he has to have a search warrant to find Evelyn."

Moon nailed his fellow briars' schism, their longing for acceptance. In our own country, we were kings.

In the city, who we'd been or who we came from didn't matter. You could hear it when he advertised Don House's House of Drugs. "They'll treat you just like you git treated in one of them country stores down in Powell County," he'd say, a little wistfully, "Or Menifee County or Montgomery County ... right there where the holler hits the hardtop."

CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here the first issue of each month. She hosts her own radio show for the briars every Sunday at 6-9 p.m. on WKNU (89.7 FM).