By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of Taylor Square Photography
Leading the house band for “The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour” takes musical versatility, and Paul Tate stepped up to the challenge when he joined the Yalobushwhackers.
“Well I’ve been playing music all my life,” says Paul Tate, guitar player, singer and all around musical wizard of the Yalobushwhackers, house band for “The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour,” the Oxford, Mississippi-based literary and musical radio program. “I started playing piano at 7 or 8, and I guess I was 11 going on 12 when I played my first gig at Blue Mountain College.”
Tate, who plays just about every instrument he’s laid his hands on, said that first gig made him nervous even if that first jangle of nerves is a distant memory. The first time he joined the Yalobushwhackers, that’s a different story.
Everybody in northern Mississippi knows “The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour”; they’ve heard it or been to a recording or they’re loyalists who never miss a show. When Tate took the stage and saw the crowd – some 500 or 600 strong as he remembers – the band had only jammed together a few times and they had a short, inexact sound check. Though Tate knew the show, he didn’t know the show, all the cues, the stops and starts, and the rhythm of the well-tuned live performance.
“Oh man, I remember playing a couple of times when I needed to be silent. I mean, welcoming listeners to the show and introducing the guests doesn’t need me playing guitar in the background,” he says. “There was a lot to take in that first night.”
By his reckoning, he must have done something right because Tate’s been with the Yalobushwhackers since that show in 2016.
“The nerves I had then, that was just regular performance stuff; if I’d given thought to the history and importance of Thacker Mountain, I think I would’ve been a lot more nervous.”
“The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour” started in 1997 when Richard Howorth, owner of Oxford’s Square Books, and local musicians Caroline Herring and Bryan Ledford decided to put on a sort of nouveau variety radio show. Featuring performances by a house band – the Yalobushwhackers – as well as interesting musicians and authors who stopped by Square Books for readings and talks, “The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour” found a loving and loyal audience. Thacker Mountain records and broadcasts the shows live on Thursday nights in fall and spring, and Mississippi Public Broadcasting replays the shows on Saturday evenings, giving it a reach and an audience that spread far beyond Oxford. Currently Thacker Mountain broadcasts 30 shows a year: 12 in spring and 12 in fall, with five or six road shows across Mississippi.
Word of Thacker Mountain didn’t just reach the average listeners; musicians and literary figures found it, too. Chris Offutt, Lee Smith, George Plimpton, Billy Collins, George Saunders, former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway and Barry Hannah are among the writers who have appeared on the program. The musical side is just as impressive. Acts from Marty Stuart and Del McCoury to Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Charlie Musselwhite, Drive By Truckers, Super Chikan Johnson and the late Col. Bruce Hampton have graced the stage for a few songs.
The array of musical guests means the Yalobushwhackers need to be well versed in a variety of genres and styles and have a deep well of songs in their repertoire. And that fits Tate just fine. As he says, “one of my gifts is that I can play just about anything you put in my hands” and the same goes for his band mates. Since Thacker Mountain records on Thursdays, the Yalobushwhackers need to know what they’re performing by Sunday or Monday, so that deep musical skill is a necessity.
“Being in the house band, it’s a challenge,” Tate says. “Every show we play the show’s theme song then do a few more – which is what we do, we’re musicians – but we don’t just play anything. We find songs that match the guest author and the tone of that episode. One show it’s jazz, another show it’s bluegrass and then country. Next time it’s hard rock, and then blues.”
There’s a certain nostalgic romance to “The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour.” It’s a radio show with no current podcast presence and virtually nothing on YouTube. Videos posted to their Facebook page often include the whole show, but there’s an “I was a member of the audience and I shot this” raw quality to them. The Yalobushwhackers have an even smaller digital footprint. But that’s the fun of it: if you want to see the Yalobushwhackers and “The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour,” you have to go to a show; if you want to hear them, you need to tune in to Mississippi Public Broadcasting on Saturday nights, gather around the radio, and enjoy.