Disc jockey chooses music to help with the hard times

Wednesday, December 17, 2008 | 5:39 p.m. CST; updated 8:05 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 18, 2008
Steve Donorio, the "Radio Ranger" at KOPN/89.5 FM, checks his levels as he begins a tune during his Sunday radio show.

COLUMBIA — It's 11:58 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7. Steve Donofrio, a disc jockey at KOPN/89.5 FM, is perched in front of a sound board, headphones tousling his curly black hair. Through a large window with aqua trim, in an alley off the 900 block of Ninth Street, it looks like a sunny summer day, except for the visible breath of occasional passers-by.

Suddenly, the sounds of horse hooves hitting pavement blare from speakers back in the radio studio; it's high noon, and Donofrio is Columbia's Radio Ranger.

Donofrio's songs for the hard times

Bob Dylan “Union Sundown” 

Noah Earle “Butter and Bread”

Jerry Foster “Third World USA” 

James McMurtry “We Can’t Make It Here”

Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch, Fats Kaplin “Everybody’s working for the man again”

Townes Van Zandt “Marie”

Mary Gauthier “Mercy Now”

Skip James “Hard time Killing Floor Blues”

Fred Eaglesmith “You Can’t Trust Them”

Guy Clark “Homeless”

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Music can complement any emotion or event. There's music for graduations, for falling in love and for hard times — like when a nation's economy takes a spill. No matter if the current recession leaves listeners hankering for new, old, upbeat or sorrow-ridden songs, Donofrio is likely to play at least one during his three-hour shindig each week. He plays a variety of music he calls "a continuum of emotions and topics" on his "Rootin' Tootin' Radio" show, as everyone looks for music to trip a different trigger.

"A lot of songs come right from the news and news often repeats itself," Donofrio said, "so even if a song is really old, I can play it and it really speaks to the conditions of society right now."

As headlines change, Donofrio, host of "Rootin' Tootin' Radio" for more than 23 years, works to keep his radio show somewhat current and always relevant to listeners. Lately, that's meant playing his usual variety of honky tonk, folk, alternative country and bluegrass tunes — but also more about economic hard times.

He named Bob Dylan's 1983 "Union Sundown," a song about U.S. jobs being shipped overseas, as an example. "It could have been written two days ago," Donofrio said.

Donofrio also noted that Noah Earle's song "Butter and Bread" reflects current headlines — though Earle, who has lived and played music in Columbia since 2001, didn't write the song with the intent to slap a melody on newspaper copy.

"I don't often sit down to write a song specifically to persuade people, or with a specific message to send," Earle said, "but writing the song was part taking influence from things I see happening around me and part autobiographical."

The song reflects his impoverished youth and the W.B. Smith Feed Mill closing down in Columbia in 2006.

"Butter and Bread" appears on Earle's 2007 album "Postcards from Home." In a verse mid-song Earle sings, "started working at the feed mill but they tore it down, rezoned residential and they just broke ground." Shortly after, his soft, twangy voice continues, "living on the same side of the street as you, got some odds to beat but that's nothing new. So we plug on through ... I'm the butter and the bread and the red, white and blue."

"There's nothing as intimate as the human voice. In its most basic form, music is just a voice expressing itself in melody," Earle said. "It's about being reminded of your link to other humans."

Other listeners seek music that remind them things could be worse, rather than the comfort that theirs is a shared experience, Donofrio said. On Dec. 7, he played "Marie," a Townes Van Zandt song about a man who can't find work, is homeless, then he learns of his brother's death and, at the end, the man's lover and the child she's pregnant with die.

Then there are listeners, he said, who just want to forget about their troubles. "A lot of people gravitate to songs that lift their mood, it's an easy comfort," Donofrio said.

Popular music in particular has always helped people escape reality, said music historian Michael Budds, a professor in MU's School of Music.

"That's the entire point of popular music, to have a good time, to dance," Budds said, adding that throughout history, when economic hard times hit, this interest in a good time intensifies.

"This was especially true during the Great Depression," Budds said.

Then, popular music was delivered to society through Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals. Songs were sung by characters in fantasies, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in films such as "Swing Time," and happy endings were a must.

"It was all about avoidance of reality and embracing of the fantasy," Budds said. "Women like Ginger Rogers may have had a snag in their hose, but they always got what they wanted by the end of the movie."

And while popular music crooners sang reality-rooted songs like "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" during the 1930s, there weren't many, Budds said, and they were probably sung by a character in a musical who was down on his luck at the end of act one  and had everything he ever wanted plopped in his lap by the end of the show.

Donofrio includes a helping of reality he calls infotainment in his show. Every week, he includes segments like "common sense quotes," "tree time" and "critter de jour." The MU graduate, who double majored in forestry and horticulture, gives mini-lessons on Missouri's outdoors; American holly trees and cedar waxwing birds were two recent topics.

Lending airtime to local musicians like Earle is another weekly ritual. Lee Ruth, a Columbia musician and music teacher since the mid-1960s, has watched the number of music lessons he gives drop from its usual 40 to 50, to about 30 a week since the economic slipped. But the relevance of his song, "Third World USA," has gone up, again, Donofrio said.

An early verse of "Third World USA" says, "You used to be a company man, the company had a retirement plan, no need for me to save my dough, they'll take care of me I know." A later verse says, "Now I'm living on the street, lucky to find some food to eat. My family's scattered far and wide, living on the other side."

"The song got requests when I started playing it in 1991 and it's still relevant today, probably because there's more people now who have dropped into third world USA and are facing its challenges," Ruth said.

Donofrio expects in a year or so songs written specifically about the recession will pop up, like they did in the years following Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.

"Musicians are artists who see, then document what people are experiencing," he said. "Their songs are audio newspapers."

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Jess Blumensheid December 17, 2008 | 7:00 p.m.

Beautiful article, Kelsi. I like the touch with the sound clips.

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