“Sadness. Happiness. Bad women. Bad men.” Asked about his personal approach to set-building, KCSB DJ Leo Schumaker said he has returned to these themes, well-worn concepts that are the narrative pillars of the blues, time and time again since his program Bluesland began exploring and promoting the genre in 1996.
“I keep it to three or four songs a set, so people can remember which song was which,” Schumaker said, readying one of the many thematically rubber-banded bundles of CDs he brings to the studio every week. He then returned to the mic to back-announce the previous, climatically-themed double bill: the Muddy Waters Tribute Band with Clouds of My Heart followed by Lee Michaels with Stormy Monday.
When I joined Schumaker, whose show has become a KCSB institution, in the control room one Thursday night, any questions I had about Bluesland‘s fan base were immediately put to rest by the backlog of requests Schumaker had received via the internet (“Facebook, Myspace-I do it all”) even before opening the evening’s broadcast. I’d often barely be able to finish asking a question before the studio phone would ring yet again: Another listener had a question, joke, or desire to hear one particular number. This audience participation prompts improvisation: “Sometimes I have a set and think, no, I’ll play something else instead,” Schumaker said, “or I’ll build a whole set around a request.”
To log more than 1300 on-air hours spinning the blues requires total devotion to the form, and Schumaker’s sprouted early. As an eight year old growing up in Oxnard, he spent a day shining shoes with a cousin and needed something to buy with his earnings. Visiting the local Fedco, he browsed the record bins and happened upon Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Gangster of Love. The chance he took on that 12-cent 45-rpm single paid off. “From that point on,” as Schumaker tells it, “it was the blues for me.”
Schumaker’s relationship with KCSB began when he became a fan of Matt Cohen’s program Jumpin’ the Blues. He called in regularly to talk to Cohen about the blues. “I bugged him,” Schumaker admitted, “and eventually he just said, ‘Quit calling me and get your own show!’” Beginning Bluesland in the days when the studio featured both a mixing board with big, old-style circular knobs and a reel-to-reel machine on the wall, he prepared for his very first 4 a.m. broadcast by hanging a framed picture of his blues hero Muddy Waters on the wall and beginning with a dedication: “This is for you, Muddy.”
“One thing I love about the blues is that it’s about stories,” Schumaker said. “It’s about life.” Inside and outside of Bluesland, Schumaker’s love of the music has enriched his own life. He told me about meeting his wife while browsing the Oxnard public library’s blues offerings. “I ask her, ‘What kind of music do you like?’ She says, ‘The blues.’ So I’m in my favorite place looking for my favorite music, and here’s this beautiful woman who loves it too!” Though he once nearly quit the show due to a relative’s serious illness, he expressed gratitude for having been was talked out of it by KCSB staff advisor Elizabeth Robinson. “She told me, ‘You can’t quit, Leo,’” Schumaker remembered. “‘You need this,’ she said ‘This is therapy for you.’”
Whatever the blues has given him, he’s given plenty back in his tireless quest to advance its local availability and appreciation. Bluesland represents just one front of this effort; Schumaker also sits on the board of the Santa Barbara Blues Society, heading its merchandise operations, its annual Battle of the Blues Bands, and its Blues for Youth program. Especially proud of the latter, Schumaker told me all about the program’s mission to get musicians to play in schools and thus keep enthusiasm for the blues alive. “Sometimes I go to shows, and the audience is all grayhairs!” he observed. “If we don’t do something about that, what we have will die.” Rarely taking no for an answer, Schumaker has successfully pursued such causes as getting Santa Barbara mayor Marty Blum to institute a Week of the Blues in the city.
“I say, always go for the best, then see what you can get,” he advised. “Most people never even ask.” Schumaker’s willingness to just ask has resulted in an impressive array of guests on Bluesland. He’s interviewed players like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top (“He loves blues, guitars, and women-I let him talk about the women”), B.B. King, and George Thorogood, and he’s also talked to record producers, luthiers, biographers, and scholars of the blues. Thus far, his only “No” came from Eric Clapton’s personal assistant. “Eric doesn’t do college radio,” the assistant explained, nevertheless impressed at how close Schumacher had come.
He’s also chatted on the air with many of the great radio DJs, including current KLOS and former KMET icon Jim Ladd as well as Bill Wax, host of Sirius XM’s Bluesville, who returned to help pitch during KCSB’s annual fund drive.
KCSB offers Schumaker one of the few remaining fora in which it’s still possible to be a real DJ, with all the personality, autonomy, and capacity for self-expression that title bears. Substituting for a month on a major local rock station, he came up against innumerable prescriptions: “You will play this song, you will play that song, you will play these commercials.” The same obstacles even popped up during a stint at a nearby public radio station: “I asked if I could do the show live. Nope. I asked if I could do interviews. Nope. I asked if I could do Blues Society announcements. Nope. You have a great listenership there, but dang, it’s no fun!”
Even in his early days at KCSB, Schumaker knew he’d found a station where anything was possible. “I came in to [KCSB training station] KJUC and saw a guy playing three turntables at once,” he recalled. “I asked him what was going on, and he just said, ‘Wait.’ Sure enough, a minute later, all three records came together. And I realized that’s what we’re doing here: making music in our own way.”
Bluesland airs Thursdays, from 8-10 p.m., on KCSB, FM 91.9.
This story has been amended since its original posting to spell Schumaker's name correctly.