Andy Doerr advocates travel, both the traditional kind and the one you can do through rhythm, harmony, and melody.
“I think everybody should live in a foreign country,” he told me when I sat in on his Wednesday night show, Roadtunes Sessions. “And if they can’t do it physically, they should do it musically. It gets you out of your borders.” As a first-generation American from a German family who spent years of his youth living in Denmark, he knows well what he calls “that in-between state” that comes from the experience of multiple nationalities.
How great a surprise could it be, then, that Doerr hosts a show that mixes the music of American singer-songwriters with that of more traditional, but no less adventuresome, Irish performers? Or that he’s always trying to get past his program’s borders, no matter how far outward he’s pushed them? “This year,” he said, “I’d like to learn more about African music.” It’s all part of what he calls the “Duchampian building process” that has characterized his show since it debuted on KCSB in January 2006.
It’s Doerr’s second nature to take on new musical challenges, whether as a DJ, a player, or an appreciator. As far back as college, when he studied agricultural science at Cal Poly, he’d regularly hear praise for his musical selections from strangers who happened to walk by his home’s open window. “I’m still trying to learn traditional Balkan music,” he said when describing his latest listening ventures. “It’s complex. It’s a stretch, I admit, but for most people, some musics are more accessible than others—it’s in our wiring.”
As a guitarist, he’s also active in the local folk and Irish music communities, which have formed around the one genre which, for all his musical explorations, he seems to love most. It all started with Jethro Tull. “I would listen to them in junior high,” Doerr remembered, “and they did the best job of integrating acoustic music with rock. Then, of course, I heard John Redbourne, Bert Jansch, Pentangle—they all had their own way of doing that. Somewhere along the way, I got into Kevin Burke and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, and, according to me, it’s never been done better than their albums Portland and Providence.”
And what inside Irish music draws him so? “Irish music is all about the subtleties. It’s something about the pulse. It’s different than jazz, different than bluegrass. You can combine rock rhythms, Balkan rhythms. One miracle of Irish music is that it can support all that, and when it becomes what I call the ‘Irish blues,’ it’s as heartbreaking as anything.”
As easily as selecting and mixing the music came to Doerr, the rest of radio’s skill set wasn’t quite as immediate. “Microphones gave me the willies,” he admitted, but no bout of that common radio neophyte’s malady ever came on strong enough to stop him from embracing the medium. The results have surprised even him. “This show changed my life fundamentally,” he said. “It’s connected with the community. It’s introduced me to really funny characters in the Irish music world. It’s given me the opportunity—it forces me—to listen to a lot of music. It’s given me side benefits I didn’t even expect.”
Starting the show also tapped him in to the wider network of folk music DJs. “I came across what’s called the folk DJ list, a global discussion forum for the about 800 of us there around the world,” he said. “We talk about the music and the business. Folk artists post as well, asking if anyone wants to hear their albums. I myself am on the radar of certain artists and labels, and boy, do they send me stuff.” For this and other reasons, Doerr has to do a lot of listening in preparation for each Roadtunes Sessions session, always listening out for those elusive musical qualities that captivate him no matter the material’s tradition or country of origin.
Not that it’s always clear what, exactly, those qualities are. “If you had me explain why some things speak to me and others don’t, I couldn’t tell you,” he admitted. “Some music I’ll listen to and think, this is it. There has to be a certain movement in the beat, a driving force. There are artists with a certainty about their playing, as if they’re saying, ‘This is what I do. I know what I’m doing. I’m totally professional.’ Like John Doyle, a guitar hero. He’s produced records, he’s played with Joan Baez. What he does is so head-and-shoulders above everything else.”
As with so much else on the station, it’s hard to imagine hearing a show like Roadtunes Sessions anywhere but KCSB. “Even in L.A., you maybe only get 200 people at a time hearing Irish music, and obviously it just doesn’t happen on the more conventional airwaves. The programming freedom we have on this station is unparalleled, and you can hear it on a program like this, where I more or less mash the entire NPR dial into one show.” Doerr’s involvement with folk and Irish music’s presence in Santa Barbara—roles he’s taken include directing the 39th Annual Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention and Festival in October—keeps him connected to what’s going on locally as well as globally.
No fan would be startled to hear an influx of African music—or even the traditional Balkan stuff—into Andy Doerr’s playlists in the near future. Even if you’re disinclined to get past your borders on a plane, much less to pull up stakes and move to another country, you can let him guide your musical tour every Wednesday evening. The KCSB listenership seems to provide willing riders: “I’m amazed at how much some of our listeners listen,” Doerr said. “One family told me they have KCSB on in their car all the time. They’re on this road with me. I hope they’re enjoying the ride.”
Roadtunes Session airs Wednesdays from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM.