Interview: Defending Folk (and Country) with Radio K's Mountain Connection

This interview originally appeared in Paper Darts magazine.

On any given day, student DJs at the University of Minnesota’s Radio K station are giving listeners “creamy filling” cultural commentary that might or might not include deadpan weather reports and even more deadpan unsolicited advice to angry sports fans. They may also be mispronouncing band names. (It’s one of their most heavily-marketed selling points, actually: Radio K. Mispronouncing band names since 1993.)

More prestigiously, the station was also nominated for four separate CMJ music awards, including Best Radio Station and Best Programming, just last September. And the station produces what could safely be called an egalitarian mix of specialty shows, ranging from British to instrumental to metal music to even—one of my favorites—a show simply called Mountain Connection. It’s run jointly by two people: senior Halley Rose Nevels and sophomore Ross Koeberl. (Ross also pulls double-duty as the station’s Music Director and, shortly before meeting me, had just spent 27 hours at the studio. Don’t worry: he also makes time for classes, and he even washes his own dishes.)

They formally describe their two-hour show as a mix of music “that came from the past and became the folk and American music of today,” but are also keen on including world folk and more contemporary music as well.

I talked to them about how to defend country; if folk is dead; forgotten women musicians of the '50s, ’60s and ’70s; and more.

Dakota: Why did you start Mountain Connection?

Halley: I really wanted to start a folk and bluegrass show. Our dynamic right now is kind of the same as what I had with [former co-host] Shelby. Shelby would bring in new stuff and I would have old bluegrass stuff.

My favorite genre could be described as old people, in the ’50s, recording on their front porch. I’ve played songs that were literally: an old lady, on her porch, in ’64 in the woods in North Carolina. And in the middle of the song she hacks something up. And she keeps going. And I’m like, yes! This is my genre! These are my people!

Ross definitely brings more bluegrass, but he also brings a lot more new music. Especially since he has so much exposure to it as a Music Director.

Ross: We also have the common denominator that a raw song is like, a young guy who is really sad and hammering really hard on a guitar and screaming.

Halley: Sad acoustic boy screaming.

Ross: Yes. Fairly popular genre.

You can’t actually relate to Zeppelin unless you’re climbing a mountain and there’s a beautiful woman on top.

Dakota: You know, I don’t know where I would’ve been in high school without Conor Oberst just…screaming.

Ross: That’s the sad boy who set the precedent.

Halley: I know, I wish I would have known about Crywank in high school.

Ross: I would have been exactly as uncool as I was, but I would have had better taste. I was still listening to Led Zeppelin really hard then, and you can’t actually relate to Zeppelin unless you’re climbing a mountain and there’s a beautiful woman on top. And you make love on the mountain. Which I especially wasn’t doing.

Halley: I was at an Amon Amarth show last night and I was screaming alone, like, “I will overthrow the throne!” And I’m—I’m not actually going to overthrow a throne, I do not relate to this, but I’m going pretty hard right now.

Ross: It was a metaphor. The mountain was a metaphor for high school.

Dakota: So I was driving a couple of weeks ago and listening to Mountain Connection. And you both had a country set planned, but you were like, “Don’t worry guys! It’s totally not from the ’90s. Before that! We promise!”

Halley: There has to be an asterisk there, whenever you’re like, we’re gonna play a country song.* Pause. [We’re gonna play] Loretta Lynn.

Ross: No mention of a truck. Maybe a mention of a dog leaving. Timeless themed. (Laughs)

Halley: (Hands a pickle and a piece of celery to Ross.) Here, you can have this.

Ross: (Looks at the pickle, which is very fancy looking.) I just want this. With a little bit of lemon, maybe. I mean, what a great new restaurant concept.

Dakota: Just the Pickle? That would have to be the name of it. Just the Pickle. The euphemisms alone…. So do you plan what to say for each show?

Halley: If there’s an artist we’re really excited about, or if there’s a really cool back story, we’ll make notes to make sure we say certain things.

Ross: I tell the same story every time I play a musician named Connie Converse. She graduated top of her class, and was going to do big things with her life. She moved to New York, and got really into folk, recorded some stuff, and then became a secretary at a school in Michigan. One day, she wrote letters to her family saying, “I’m bored.” And then she packed up her car and disappeared. No one’s ever heard from her again.

The guy who recorded just a couple of demos in his kitchen with this woman has been passing them around for years, and eventually someone went for a wide release. And I heard it. And it’s one of my all-time favorite things. And every time we play it on the show I tell this story. And I’ll draw it out.

There’s so many facts that we can get really excited about during a show where we get to curate the content so heavily.

Halley: We feel bad—there’s a couple key artists who we play, and we can go on a tangent about. Like Jean Ritchie. She’s from Kentucky and known as the mother of folk. I found out she lives in Berea, which is like half an hour from where my parents live in Kentucky. And I found her son on Facebook, and I really want to send him a message, because she’s ninety, and say, “Is there any way I could go to Berea and talk to your mom?”

It would be the most incredible experience. She’s been such an influence on folk music, for so long, that it would just be an honor to go and talk to her.

There’s a mild folk revival, but as a trend, people never take it the full way. And learning the banjo is really hard. We can both vouch for that.

Dakota: Who else do you admire?

Halley: Sibylle Baier is another of my big influences.

Ross: It’s weird. There’s practically a subgenre of women folk artists from the ’60s and ’70s who no one remembered until three or four years ago. Like Vashti Bunyan. She made some weird album and faded off, and then Animal Collective collaborated with her and she just came back with a bang, and everyone was really excited about her all of a sudden. It’s the same proverbial tale. A lot of them died in obscurity, too.

Halley: With Sibylle Baier, she had all these home recordings she made throughout the ’70s. And then I think it was her son that got a hold of them and got them released in 2006. Possibly my favorite album. She has this really clear, gorgeous alto voice. Her guitar playing is really simple. Just a few simple chords but she makes it so beautiful and dark.

Ross: I think the good thing about folk is that it is always dealing with themes that are pretty relevant. And especially with music that’s being re-discovered, I think it just adds a renewed sense of relevance. As though it was valued at the time, and we can still reconnect with it.

Dakota: Do you hear a lot of contemporary folk? Or is there really, practically, no new folk?

Ross: I don’t know. As a music director, I get 80 albums a week. It’s a constant flow. And I don’t get that much folk.

Halley: It is nice to get bands like Trampled by Turtles, Pert’ Near Sandstone, bluegrass groups like that.

But it is distressing. That sounds a little dramatic. But it’s distressing to me that there is a pattern of bands that start out really bluegrassy. Really raw recordings. The Avett Brothers and their self-titled album are a prime example. A Carolina Jubilee is just incredible. But their new album sounds so manufactured.

Ross: It became trendy. There’s a mild folk revival, but as a trend, people never take it the full way. And learning the banjo is really hard. We can both vouch for that—we used to have banjos sitting in the corner of our rooms that I was so nervous to touch. Because I’m like, this is going to sound horrible, and my roommates hate it when I play banjo. Which is not a shock. I am that roommate now, the one who practices banjo.

Dakota: Better than having a roommate that’s like, “I play the saw now.”

Halley: That sounds awesome!

Dakota: It was horrible.

Ross: It is really hard to become proficient in that, in banjo. And because of that, bands try it on as a flavor, and then it’s like, oh this is just a pop-rock song and here’s three banjo notes. From the outside, from the label of folk, people just see it as lazy. And that there’s not that much innovation. But there are always interesting things that will pop up once or twice.

Bon Iver is a good example of that. He just went off in the woods and did his own thing and it happened to catch on.

Dakota: Yeah, and the fact that [Iver’s other project] Volcano Choir is from Eau Claire? Which most of us know as, just, that place you pass on your way to Chicago.

Ross: There’s always that. [We’re] always shocked when something does come out of a location that seems really quiet.

Dakota: Right. Wet Hot American Summer was shot both in Honesdale and on Lake Wallenpaupack, AKA rural Pennsylvania, which surprises me. I used to live there for three years while working for a [now-defunct] magazine.

Halley: What? That sounds awesome. Is there a sign there?

Dakota: No, they totally don’t capitalize on that at all.

Halley: There should be engraved plaque. Here in the year of our Lord 2001…. Michael Showalter was here.

Ross: What Minnesota town was Grumpy Old Men shot in? They love Grumpy Old Men. They brag about it, all over the place. It’s awesome.

Halley: They’re so into Grumpy Old Men.

Ross: I would be, too.

Dakota: So has anything made your stomach drop while on air?

Ross: I was doing my training shifts overnight, and I would come two hours early to hang out with the guy who would be before me. So I was hanging out from like midnight to 4 in the morning. Just completely dead tired. So we’re not really paying attention, and suddenly I heard [a song] drop the F bomb and I was like “Ohhhh this is bad. Matt, what do I do?”

And he was like, “Oh just leave it on. I’m sure it won’t say it again.” And then it does, and I just slam it off, and I’m like, “I’m never listening to you again. There’s gonna be like two minutes of dead air while I get ahold of the situation.”

Halley: Especially when you first start, it’s like, “the FCC and their hounds are outside the window howling.” I was sure I was going to get FCC-arrested. It’s so nerve-wracking.

Ross: Unfortunately, too, a lot of independent musicians are a lot more free to include “fuck” in their band name. Like, Holy Fuck and Fucked Up. And then like, you go “We just played this song by Fffff—Buttons.” It’s always entertaining to listen, especially if you know the person, and you can just drag on them for years to come.

Mountain Connection airs on Radio K on Sundays from 10am to Noon (Central Time), both locally and online.