'Mayberry' lives on to a bluegrass beat

SUN JOURNAL

Mount Airy: A local radio station seeks to preserve this quiet town's mountain music heritage as residents embrace its role as the model for native son Andy Griffith's popular TV show.

February 15, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

MOUNT AIRY, N.C. -- Ralph Epperson, the founder of WPAQ-740 AM, is telling a story about how he and the community once tried to give the radio station a name to go with its call letters.

"We actually held a contest, but we never got anything that seemed to suit." Someone suggested that WPAQ might stand for "We Piddle Around Quietly," Epperson says, chuckling. "I don't think that was what we were looking for."

So the station, which began broadcasting Feb. 2, 1948, became known as the Voice of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has been one of Epperson's two true loves. The other is Earlene, his wife of 46 years.

Asked his age, he allows that he is "78 years old, like those 78 RPM records we still like to play."

Epperson studied broadcasting and electronics at John Brown University in Arkansas and spent two years in Washington working on radio engineering at the Naval Research Laboratory. But he missed the bluegrass and old-time music he had grown up with.

So in 1947 he returned to Ararat, Va., about 10 miles from here, and persuaded his father and mother to mortgage their farm and help him build a radio studio.

The next year he got his license, and six years after that he married Earlene, the daughter of a minister who used to do a weekly religious show at the station.

The 10,000-watt WPAQ is lodged in a building made from trees that grew on the Eppersons' farm. It sits on a hill just outside town and has a wonderful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Epperson's favorite music is made around living room hearths and on back porch swings.

"I've been fascinated with radio and electronics all my life," he says. He passed that love on to his children. Daughter Deborah manages a 100,000-watt station, WBRF, in Galax, Va., and son Kelly co-owns the 5,000-watt WSYD in Mount Airy -- the competition, the two men joke.

But Kelly's station leans toward commercial country music, in contrast to WPAQ's diet of the lively music of the area. "I've always loved our music," Ralph Epperson says. "I thought it should be preserved and given a wider spread. I want to see the music perpetuated. I think it's worth perpetuating. It's the kind of music that appeals from the heartstrings to the shoestrings."

Only once, in the 1970s, did WPAQ deviate from its mission, when it briefly tried rock 'n' roll. It soon returned to the programming familiar since the late 1940s: local news, old-time bluegrass and gospel music, religious services and the reading of local obituaries.

On Saturdays, the "Merry-Go-Round" show runs from 11 a.m. till 1: 30 p.m., followed by Elbert Marshall's half-hour "Blue Ridge Echoes." Then from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. is Epperson's program, "Blue Ridge Spotlight." All three feature shadings of local mountain music.

"Why should we be like everyone else?" Epperson asks.

Why, indeed? Kelly Epperson, 38, says the latest Arbitron ratings ranked his father's station No. 3 of more than 30 in the greater Winston-Salem-Greensboro area and No. 1 in nonmetro Surry County.

Funny, his father never mentioned that during a morning devoted to talking up bluegrass music and the new Fishers Peak Traditional Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which will help tell the music's story. Nor did he mention that the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music voted WPAQ the top bluegrass station in the country. Or that it is the winner of a North Carolina Heritage Folk Life Award. His wife supplied those details.

"Ralph is like a silent father of the community," says David Bradley, executive director of the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce. "They don't toot their own horn at WPAQ; it toots itself."

About noon, Epperson folds his lanky frame into a seat in the Downtown Cinema, with 80 or so other people who tap their feet, clap their hands and occasionally get up and dance during the live "Merry-Go-Round" show.

This afternoon, the New Pilot Mountaineers, an old-time Blue Ridge mountain music group, and the Nunn Brothers, a traditional bluegrass group, are the featured performers. Members of both groups pick Epperson out and make a point of shaking his hand.

"Mr. Epperson and WPAQ have inspired what I call a deep appreciation for traditional acoustic music," says John Isham, a Nunn Brother not named Nunn. "The music is all around these parts, but Mount Airy and the station is the heart of it."

WPAQ's "Merry-Go-Round," a staple for 51 years, is the third-longest-running radio show of its kind. Only the "Grand Ole Opry," which went on the air in 1926, and "Jamboree USA" on WWVA in Wheeling, W.Va., since 1933 are older.

Live radio music is part of the charm Mount Airy exhibits to its many tourists. The town is actor Andy Griffith's hometown and is said to be the model for Mayberry, the fictional town in the "Andy Griffith Show" of the 1960s. The show is in reruns, and the town prospers.

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