Commentary

Shaffer: Country DJ at NC State plays the real country, unless there's a ballgame on

jshaffer@newsobserver.comApril 27, 2014 

— On a Sunday afternoon, with the laundry unwashed, pantry empty and the workweek looming like a toll booth, sweet comfort floats out of the radio via Sam McGuire’s turntable – vintage country music of the whiskey-sotted, broken-hearted, checkered-shirt and string-tie variety.

Between 4 and 6 p.m., he might play “Thanks a Lot” by Ernest Tubb, “Drinkin’ Thing” by Gary Stewart or “The Ballad of Gator McKlusky,” a swamp favorite from Jerry Reed.

Across Raleigh, from Central Prison to the most hipster-infested coffee shops, the FM dial gets tuned to 88.1, where McGuire airs “Both Kinds Radio” under the handle “Big Fat Sac.” It’s cry-in-your-capuccino music, perfectly suited for the weekend’s sad passing.

Requests arrive from as far as Brooklyn, N.Y., where online fans ask, “Can you play ‘Don’t Cuss the Fiddle’ by Willie Nelson?” As Kris Krisofferson once noted, and Johnny Cash proclaimed after his second breakfast beer, there’s something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone.

“It’s so perfect, that time of day,” said McGuire, who turns 34 this year. “When I’m going to work on Monday, I’m not really listening to George Jones. But Sunday afternoon?”

Here’s the trouble. Sports fans also enjoy a lazy Sunday, and at WKNC, a station hosted by N.C. State University, sports trump steel guitars.

On two Sundays in April, Wolfpack baseball completely wiped out “Both Kinds Radio.” McGuire waited in the studio, stack of vinyl practically begging to be played, while the game stretched into 11 innings. Adding to his misery, the Pack lost 9-7.

Between January and February, McGuire’s fans endured five weeks without a show, all of them pre-empted by women’s basketball. As an avid listener, I can only describe such disappointment in the words of Ray Price: “Blue ain’t the word for the way that I feel, and a storm’s brewing in this heart of mine.”

To listen to McGuire, you assume he must have grown up in a family of Hank Williams Jr. roadies, or maybe as the son of a light man at the Grand Ole Opry. Nobody else would have Tex Ritter on vinyl.

But in real life, the man behind Big Fat Sac stumbled into his chosen genre through Nine Inch Nails, the industrial rock band that Johnny Cash famously covered with his version of “Hurt.”

“This is better than the original,” he thought at the time. “This guy’s voice is so authentic. Stripped bare. So real.”

To make matters more implausible, McGuire hails from Liverpool, N.Y., and he first spun records as an indie-rock DJ in Syracuse. Old-time WKNC listeners may remember “Wash Behind Your Ears,” his show from 2003 to 2008.

‘Really started digging’

When McGuire decided on a specialty country show, he spent three years in deep research, combing through record bins at flea markets, buying collections of jukebox 45s on eBay.

“That’s when I really started digging,” he said. “I didn’t want to make it sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about and hear from somebody who actually saw Bob Wills at a dance hall in Tulsa.”

The effort that goes into a show that digs into the 1920s and dredges up performers as obscure as Pee Wee King makes the frequent cancellations all the more frustrating.

But he isn’t complaining. He loves baseball. He loves the Pack. He loves WKNC. “I’ve got their old logo tattooed on my leg,” he said. “It’s home.”

He could switch to another time slot. Sure. And Willie Nelson could buy a new guitar. So for now it’s just hope and perseverance for Big Fat Sac, and as Sunday turns to Monday, to stumble down the stairs to meet the day.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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