American Routes founder and host Nick Spitzer explores American culture on the backroads, away from entertainment meccas like New York and Los Angeles.
The idea of Sunday evening radio programs conjures up a pleasantly antique feeling; a warm picture seen in a homey light unsullied by the bluish glare of TV. It's not the sort of thing one would think of as taking off in the 21st century. But that's exactly what folklorist Nick Spitzer's American Routes program did. Since its inception in 1998, the weekly two-hour exploration of American roots music, anchored by Spitzer's relaxed interviews, has grown from a modest national presence on seven stations to its current reach — broadcast by roughly 200 stations as well as XM satellite radio.
As a producer, Spitzer adeptly structures his interviews to illustrate the connective tissue between his subjects and their work and the culture at large. His one-on-one dialogues also reveal a wider context tapping into how American culture is an ongoing conversation with itself.
To mark the anniversary, American Routes released a two-CD set of favorite episodes from the past decade that shows a cross-section of the program's focus: interviews are conducted with torch-passers and -passees like the young neo-traditionalist Cajun band Feufollet as well as R&B pioneers like the late Rufus Thomas and the musical oddity Tom Waits. One episode looks at a forgotten African-American beach resort town where a regional form of soul music flourished; another visits an eccentric collector who turned his home into a radio museum.
"It's cultural conservation through conversation," Spitzer says. As the show's name implies, the programming rambles down the backroads, but in a way that somehow makes the larger geography clearer.
"We've always interviewed people from a cultural perspective more than a what's-the-latest-record perspective, which is what you get on a lot of radio," he says. "We're looking at vernacular traditions and trying to look at society that way."
Spitzer believes there is an intimacy to radio that is ideal for drawing in listeners and making them feel like part of the conversation in a way that television cannot.
"Radio allows a whole part of your imagination to operate," Spitzer says. "It can provide the music and the words and the audio environs to set the scene. ... Radio asks you to do at least half the work. It suggests a certain participatory aspect from the listener."
As they look toward a second decade, Spitzer and his colleagues at American Routes plan to expand their roles as cultural conservationists as well as intrepid explorers in the field, with a revamped Web site archive with streaming files of the past 10 years' worth of shows. Spitzer says the site will help the program locate itself in New Orleans more solidly with more cultural information about the city. American Routes will also host and webcast more live events like this week's anniversary extravaganza.
The 10th anniversary show features performances by Feufollet, Deacon John, Dr. Michael White's Original Liberty Jazz Band, Trombone Shorty, Al "Carnival Time" Johnson and vocalist Topsy Chapman. The show will be recorded for a Mardi Gras broadcast.
American Routes 10th Anniversary Extravaganza
8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 16
House of Blues, 225 Decatur St., 310-4999; www.hob.com