50 years (plus 1 day) on Syracuse radio airwaves: Meet CNY’s longest running DJ

Someone should make Bill Knowlton a fun poster – “Bluegrass: Disturbingly Good”.

One of Knowlton’s colleagues at WCNY, host of the classical music station, described bluegrass to him that way many years ago. Knowlton loved it.

“People say jazz is the only art form in America,” Knowlton said. “Bluegrass is something else.”

Knowlton, 84, hosts WCNY’s three-hour program “Bluegrass Ramble” every week, as he has done since 1973. On Sunday, January 22, his show will celebrate 50 years and one day since its premiere.

Knowlton got his start on the airwaves in Syracuse in 1973. He is a staple here and throughout bluegrass country, and has won a Service to the Arts Award from the Onondaga County Arts Council and a Distinguished Service Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association. He is also known as the head cheerleader at over a dozen bluegrass festivals each year, usually wearing plaid pants and a straw hat.

In the recording booth at WCNY in Syracuse, he pared down Bill with khaki, but devoted himself to music. Its show is three hours long, from 9 pm to midnight on Sunday nights. It first aired an hour later, which he said, but eventually his spot was moved up and he began pre-recording the show on Wednesday.

These days, he settles into the booth each week with a half moon of scattered papers and CDs at arm’s length around the soundboard.

Bill Knowlton Bluegrass Rumble

Radio host and CEO Bill Knowlton watches the Easy Ramblers perform as Barn dances “Bluegrass Ramble” at WCNY studios in Syracuse, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014. (Kevin Rivoli | krivoli@syracuse.com)

On a typical Wednesday, last month, he opened two plastic CD cases and stuck the discs in, using his sticky notes on the inside panel to remember the songs he liked. He picked up his ad script, the paper soft and worn out from years of use, and delved into it.

“Welcome to the Bluegrass Ramble from Syracuse, New York…”

Knowlton first came to bluegrass by way of country music. When he was a kid in New York City, a local disc jockey played Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” on the radio, and young Bell said he “fell off a chair.”

“There was no turning back after that.”

He was an early radio recruit and used to ride his bike from his home in Queens to appear on WWRL’s What’s Right With Teens. He was jetting up the Hudson River to Newark, New Jersey for WAAT’s live “Hometown Frolic” shows.

He saw Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, and Faron Young there, but he lived for the bluegrass act that would always open the show.

Technically the “Bluegrass Ramble” was conceived more than 50 years ago, since Knowlton ran it under the same name in a weekly 30-minute spot at Fordham University Station, where he went to college.

He took a decade off the show after graduating, to serve as an Air Force officer in Vietnam. In 1972, he was sent to Hancock Air Force Base in Syracuse, just a short drive from the old brick WCNY building in Liverpool.

Immediately, he began volunteering at the station, and a year later revived Ramble.

Knowlton retired from active duty in 1974 and continued in the reserves, then got a job as Director of Advertising and Public Affairs for the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion. It’s a good thing, too, Knowlton said.

“You can’t make any money being a Bluegrass disc jockey,” he said, laughing.

Bill Knowlton Bluegrass Rumble

Bill Knowlton grabs his microphone to catch some applause from the audience while recording a live barn dance at WCNY Studios. January 10, 2015 David Lassman | dlassman@syracuse.com

Knowlton used to drag vinyl into the WCNY building for a show at 10 p.m., but eventually moved out an hour early and then started pre-recording on Wednesdays.

He never wanted to play, preferring instead to inhabit the space between audience and musician.

“I can’t imagine life without a microphone,” he said.

Knowlton has hit the Gray Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, Pickin’ in the Pasture in Lodi, the Wind Gap Bluegrass Festival in Pennsylvania, the Tug Hill Bluegrass Festival in Lowville, the Brantling Bluegrass Festival in Sodus and many more – about a dozen, packed in summer months.

He makes a trip to Tennessee every year specifically for a day dedicated to Uncle Dave Macon, whom Knowlton has studied and written about for decades.

Countless New York bluegrass groups have paid homage to Knowlton’s recording studio live, including Syracuse-raised banjo player Tony Treshka. Radio host Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, presented it from the Landmark Theatre.

“I know that hat!” Monroe once yelled at a straw hat-clad Knowlton, he said, when they crossed paths at a festival.

Knowlton’s house is now a collection of bluegrass records, because he’s never put out a CD or recorded. He’s hoping someone will take them to archive them somewhere, and he’s also hoping he can find someone to pass the “Bluegrass Ramble” torch on.

Bill Knowlton Bluegrass Rumble

Bill Knowlton is taping his show “Bluegrass Ramble” at the WCNY studios on Wednesday, December 14, with an airing this coming Sunday. “I was there in the beginning, 1955,” he said. “Everyone was listening to Bill Haley & His Comets and I was listening to Roy Acuff.” Goal Struck | jstruck@syracuse.com

He said he’s not retiring now, but he’s thought about it. It’s been half a century since the airwaves, after all.

Not that he’s tired of being the bluegrass guy.

“I always appreciate people who have mentioned I got them into music,” Knowlton said.

“It means a lot.”

Knowlton raised a finger and pressed the play button on the keypad of his mic, then blasted in his best of the hour title.

Well, I’m Bill Knowlton and this is Bluegrass Rumble. We come your way every Sunday night, 9pm to midnight via Classic FM 91 – WCNY-FM in Syracuse, NY and WJNY-FM in Watertown, NY. Classic FM 89 – WUNY- FM in Utica, NY, and of course on the World Wide Web at WCNY.org.

“The saloon is a fun place to sit with the one and only ‘Bluegrass Ramble’, now in its fiftieth year, thank you.”

Joule Stroke He writes about life and culture in and around Syracuse. Contact her at any time jstruck@syracuse.com or on Instagram at julesstruck. journal.

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