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A More Soulful Kind of Institution

Ashley Richardson and her Secondhand Sounds


Ashley Richardson remembers reading Robert Frost at her childhood dinner table. Far from a youthful literary rebellion against the conventions of domestic dining, these recitations actually came at behest of her father, a professor at San Francisco State University. This fed into interests in American poetry and Southern fiction that would develop in high school. Traveling back and forth between her dad’s Berkeley home and her mom’s various homes in Texas and Arizona, she spent a lot of time absorbing the culture around her, becoming what she thinks of as an “American Americaphile.”

Colin Marshall

“I’m obsessed with American folklore, American imagery, moving west, the open road, national identity, a nation in flux, the yearning for the vintage, all the things Woodie Guthrie sang about,” Richardson said when I sat in on Secondhand Sounds, her program on KCSB. Rare indeed is the Americaphile who’s uninterested in this land’s music, and Richardson is no exception: “Texas turned me on to blues and classic rock. The Bay Area turned me on to soul and R&B. Arizona turned me on to folk and bluegrass. Santa Barbara is a hodgepodge of more ethereal music, with its close proximity to the ocean and nature. Some of my friends here even have a ‘bliss rock’ band.” She brings her experience with these traditions to the airwaves every Monday evening.

“In high school, I’d always imagined how cool college radio would be,” Richardson remembered. “When I got here, I was so enamored with everything going on. Everyone had their own projects, their own passions. It made the big UCSB community seem smaller.” Slogging through the standard training quarter and early-A.M. time slots, Richardson soon found herself in a position to better share her musical passions and, even more interestingly, better understand the musical passions of others. Used to making mixes for her friends, she noticed her place on the radio made other people more comfortable telling her about the music they’re into. “Of course,” she added, “nobody ever said, ‘God, I hate music!’”

Richardson keeps Secondhand Sounds’ first hour in the realm of blues and soul. Then, as the second hour approaches, she steers the show toward bluegrass and folk. (“It gets quieter toward the end, because I get sleepier,” she said.) She thinks of the program’s first half as “the stuff I used to cooking in the kitchen with my mom to,” the music that led her, at age ten, to fall “madly in love with Otis Redding.” For Richardson, the appeal of classic soul and R&B lays in the intensity of its emotions. “It’s the pining,” she said. “It’s the vivid images, the emphasis on physicality, all the ‘arms longing,’ the ‘eyes crying,’ and the ‘hearts breaking.’ They’re so much in our collective imagination. I even liked it at an age when I couldn’t understand that kind of pain.”

The real challenge comes in the second hour, when Richardson’s playlists enter the territory of certain readers’ preconceptions. “Sometimes there’s resistance to the music, especially bluegrass, which they find sonically jarring” she said. “People have all these ideas about what genres are, but if you look at it historically, you’ll see they’re all intertwined. I’ve never understood when people say they like all kinds of music except for one kind they hate. If you hate one thing, you hate everything!” Richardson herself had once a similar problem with jazz. Only owning a single Miles Davis album, she’d never found a path into the genre at large, but a music seminar she took showed her a convenient entryway. “The professor showed how jazz influenced jive talk” — another American verbal form that had fascinated her — “and that did it.”

A UCSB double major in Global Studies and Feminist Studies with a minor in Labor Studies, Richardson has a strong curiosity about institutions, “the effect they have on gender roles on language, on women, and on domestic work.” Given the flow of independent media that swirled around her growing up and the underlying tone of activism of the cultures in which she’d participated, it’s hardly surprising that she views KCSB as its own type of institution. “As an institution, KCSB sprouts off in all directions and makes you aware of what’s going on in general,” she said. “This station taught me that, even without huge financial resources, you can do so much with the right kind of energy.”

An attraction to the nature of radio itself, cultivated listening to Berkeley’s KPFA and A Prairie Home Companion, also has something to do with her enthusiasm for KCSB. “The thing about radio is, it’s such an intimate medium,” she said. “We see newspaper dying, but radio seems here to stay. Personally, I always get excited whenever I hear something spontaneously on the radio that I’ve been wanting to hear. It’s an unparalleled feeling. KCSB creates a comfortable, accessible space for that.”

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Secondhand Sounds airs Mondays from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM.

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