Larry Nixon And Tim Woodall
The Faces Behind The Pinecone Bluegrass Show
In 1984, Raleigh, North Carolina’s WQDR radio (94.7 FM) changed its format from rock to country. That same year several Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) area musicians and dancers got together to form the Piedmont Council for Traditional Music (known as PineCone), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving, presenting, and promoting traditional music and dance. Although these two events seemed unrelated at the time, within a few years WQDR and PineCone would come together to form a successful partnership that endures to this day.
North Carolina has long been a hotbed for traditional music. Raleigh’s first radio station, WPTF (now sister station of WQDR), was home base for several of the earliest bluegrass-type bands, including the Monroe Brothers (1937-8), the Stanley Brothers (1948), and Flatt & Scruggs (1952). By the 1970s, festivals were springing up all around the state, and bluegrass bands were performing regularly at North Carolina colleges. In the mid-1980s, PineCone started a concert series at the Raleigh Little Theater, which soon moved to the larger Stewart Theater on the North Carolina State University campus.
As the series grew, WQDR began getting requests for bluegrass from listeners, so station management turned to the PineCone board of directors for guidance. It happened that board member Larry Nixon had some experience as a disc jockey. He agreed to team up with PineCone member Tim Woodall, who also had an interest in radio, to host a weekly program. On Sunday evening, January 29, 1989, the PineCone Bluegrass Show debuted on WQDR, with it’s theme song, “Nashville Blues,” from the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album.
Both Nixon and Woodall were musicians who performed on weekends and also had full-time weekday jobs. Nixon was a partner in an engineering firm and Woodall worked in industrial sales. To ease the burden of an additional Sunday evening radio gig, they agreed to alternate weeks as hosts of the show. Nixon and Woodall initially brought in albums from their own collections, augmented by LPs and CDs donated by Durham’s Sugar Hill Records and the Record Bar retail chain. Soon they were on the mailing lists of multiple record labels, and in 1990 they became Bluegrass Unlimited chart reporters.
“I used to carry two suitcases full of CDs for the show every Sunday,” Nixon recalls. “We had two turntables and then we got two CD players. [Now] everything’s on the computer, so we started loading in all the bluegrass. We’ve got about forty-eight hundred songs in the library now.” Woodall adds, “At first, they had people running the board. We’d hand them an album and they’d cue it up. But after a while we decided we could do it ourselves.”
Although there was a learning curve for the technical chores, both men already had a broad knowledge and appreciation of the music. Larry Nixon grew up in Elkin, North Carolina, in the foothills just east of Wilkesboro. His grandfather, Dickie Wall, was a well-known clawhammer banjo player from Surry County. “In about 1926, he injured a finger, and he never played the banjo after that,” Nixon says. “When I was twelve, he gave me his banjo, and I still have it.” Larry also inherited his father’s fiddle and his grandmother’s guitar, and has been working at restoring all three instruments.
When he was in high school, in the late 1950s, Larry worked at Elkin’s local radio station, WIFM. “The station always had a high school DJ for weekends,” he recalls. “Saturday afternoons was the ‘Dinner Bell Jamboree.’ In that era, there was no separation between bluegrass and country. We played bluegrass, and our theme song was ‘Remington Ride,’ by Don Reno and Red Smiley. And I loved Flatt & Scruggs. That’s where I got the bluegrass connection.”
Having started with a baritone ukulele, Larry took up the guitar when he was about seventeen. After enrolling at NC State University in Raleigh, he began playing in a beach music band. He also acquired a SilverTone guitar and learned how to play with a thumb-pick in the Chet Atkins style. “That opened the world to me,” he says. And then, “A guy gave me a copy of the Elementary Doctor Watson album. Changed my life! I have all of Doc’s LPs that he ever recorded.”
In the 1980s, Larry began participating in jam sessions at Hoffman Stringed Instruments in Raleigh. “Hoffman did [repair] work for Tony Rice and Norman Blake, so he had national musicians come in,” Nixon recalls. “They’d show up at the picking sessions. That’s where I really started playing bluegrass.” Around that time, Larry began playing bass in a bluegrass group called Sweet Dixie, led by guitarist Lindy Brown.
Coincidentally, Tim Woodall had also played in the Sweet Dixie band a few years earlier. Tim grew up in a community west of Raleigh known as Macedonia, which is now part of Cary. His great-grandfather was a choir director, his uncle taught music, and his mother played piano. Some of his earliest musical memories involve some cousins from Illinois who played piano in a boogie-woogie style. “They would come down in the summertime and stay for several weeks, and they’d go to different relative’s houses—whoever had a piano. [Other musicians] would come over, and it was like a jam. There were twins, one played guitar and one played banjo. That was the first time I’d ever seen a five-string banjo. I was probably about five or six.”
Tim got an acoustic guitar for Christmas when he was about eleven or twelve, and a few years later he acquired a Fender electric guitar. “In high school, I played in a band called the Solid Souls,” he says. “We played Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, soul music.” Tim was an avid listener and fan of disc jockey Charlie Brown, who programmed beach music on WKIX-AM, the main pop music station in Raleigh. Woodall also spent time at what was then WYNA, observing the DJs and exploring the station’s record library. These experiences inspired him to study for a third-class radio engineer’s license, which he had not had occasion to use until the PineCone Bluegrass Show began.
He notes, “We watched the Flatt & Scruggs Show on TV, so I listened to bluegrass, but I didn’t play any bluegrass until I got out of school. I bought my first banjo when I was twenty-one.” Tim credits Earl Scruggs as his inspiration to play banjo. “Earl’s the one that got my attention,” he confirms. “You didn’t see many banjo players on TV. Then, when I really got interested in bluegrass, [J. D.] Crowe was probably my favorite.”
In the 1970s, Tim joined Sweet Dixie. Soon after that, he met guitarist and singer Billy Willis (who would later serve as president of PineCone). Around 1978, the two started a band called Patchwork. Although it lasted twenty years, Patchwork stayed close to home, playing parties and local clubs, and never released any recordings. During that time, Tim also learned to play pedal steel and was often called on to fill in with local country and country-rock bands.
Then, in 1997, Woodall got together with singer/mandolinist Russell Johnson—who was frontman for the successful regional band, New Vintage—to form a new group, The Grass Cats. “[When] the Grass Cats got started,” Tim says, “everybody was playing in different bands, and it was just to play a different kind of music. When you get with a new group of people, you play new songs and it’s fun.”
But as New Vintage was winding down, the Grass Cats picked up more and more work. Over the next twenty years, they released nine albums on Johnson’s New Time label. In April 2003, they were the first self-produced band to have a number one single on the Bluegrass Unlimited Top 30 chart, with Johnson’s original, “Bluegrass Man.” The magazine featured them in a cover story in July of that year. The band went on to have three more chart-topping hits before calling it a day in December 2017. Woodall played banjo for the first fourteen years, then switched to electric bass once banjoist Rick Lafleur joined the band.
Around the time that the Grass Cats were getting started, Larry Nixon teamed up with guitarist David Blevins and bass player Stephen Gage to form the trio Nixon, Blevins & Gage. Larry explains, “I always admired Doc Watson because he got such a great, full sound out of two guitars and a bass. I was trying to do the same thing. David’s a flatpicker and I was a thumb-picker. [We] sat down [to play] and the relationship was just synergistic. Stephen mentioned, if we needed a bass player, he was interested. He showed up and it was great, and we’ve been playing together ever since. We’ve done six CDs so far.”
Nixon has been writing songs for years, and many of them can be found on those CDs. In addition, several have been recorded by well-known artists. The most recent was “They Call it Bluegrass,” recorded by Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road, which peaked at number thirteen on the BU chart in September 2021.
Nixon’s latest project is building mandolins in his basement shop. Since 2018, he has built twelve, five of which he’s sold so far. He estimates that each A-style instrument takes him about six months to make. “I use hard maple for the neck, back, and sides, and I love the Adirondack spruce for the tops,” he says. “From there, it’s just how you carve it.”
Nixon and Woodall are both retired now, so they have more time for such side projects, including the PineCone Bluegrass Show. The two continue to spend alternating Sunday evenings in the WQDR studios, broadcasting three hours of the latest and greatest bluegrass. Presenting the program live allows them to take listener requests, and now that WQDR is streamed online, they get calls from all over the country. “I’ve had calls from Newport Beach, California; Brooklyn, New York; Dallas, Texas; Louisville, Kentucky,” Nixon confirms, “but eastern North Carolina is where we get most of the calls from.” Woodall adds, “It’s a lot of people that lived here and moved to other states or may have been in the service and listened at Fort Bragg or Camp Lejeune and then were transferred or got out of the military and still listen. I would say the audience is probably twenty-five to seventy-some years old, a pretty wide demographic.”
Another factor in the show’s online success may be the IBMA’s relocation of its annual World of Bluegrass event to Raleigh in 2013. PineCone now produces the IBMA Bluegrass Live festival, which brings over 200,000 participants to Raleigh each year and is considered to be one of the city’s signature events. This increased visibility for PineCone likely translates to more listeners for the radio show, as well as more interest from bands and record labels.
With nearly five thousand songs in the station’s library and new releases coming every week, Nixon admits it’s hard to keep up with all the new music these days. “I used to listen to everything,” he says. “That’s impossible now. I try to play, probably, ten, fifteen cuts a show of what’s on the chart, and the rest is old stuff and new stuff that we like.” How do they decide whether to program material from a new artist? “Whether we like it,” Nixon laughs. Woodall adds, “The quality of the recording. It’s gotta sound good. The vocals have to be good, the timing’s got to be good.”
Of the approximately forty-five songs in a three-hour program, Nixon estimates the ratio of traditional to progressive is about even. “It’s funny,” Nixon chuckles, “when we started, Woodall played all the new stuff and I played all the old stuff. Now it’s flipped!” They make a point of supporting bands based in North Carolina as well as those that perform at PineCone-sponored events. “North Carolina could be the biggest state for bluegrass, now,” Nixon maintains. “I try to play at least one cut from all the local bands every show. We’ve got a lot of national bands here: Grass Cats, Nu-Blu, Lorraine Jordan, Sideline.”
These days PineCone is more active than ever, presenting indoor and outdoor performances, workshops, dances, jam sessions, youth programs and camps, online instruction, and the popular Down Home Concert Series at Raleigh’s Duke Energy Center for Performing Arts. For thirty-four years, Larry Nixon and Tim Woodall have been enthusiastically volunteering their Sunday evenings to promote PineCone and bluegrass music. What motivates them to keep showing up after all these years? “Well, it’s fun and I like the music,” Nixon says. “I’m a music guy. It’s sort of like playing in a band, getting that music release and connection. It keeps you engaged.”
Woodall adds, “I enjoy the radio part of it, and, of course, enjoy doing it to help PineCone. I loved radio back in the Sixties, when there was no playlist. Whereas all the other programs at ‘QDR are regimented, they just let us do what we do. It’s kind of like the way radio used to be. We don’t cue records anymore, but you get to pick what you’re going to play.” He also appreciates the feedback they get from artists. “Sometimes people send you an email and say thanks. Joe Mullins, every time you play one of his [songs], if he sees the playlist, he’ll send an email. Pam Gadd has sent me at least three or four emails, just thanking me for playing her new song.”
Trip Savery, president and chief operating officer of Curtis Media Group (WQDR’s parent company), is a bluegrass fan and picker himself. “WQDR has won three CMA awards for station of the year and is the most listened-to station in the state of North Carolina,” he says. “The Sunday night bluegrass show is part of what makes us different from so many other stations around the country. Tim Woodall and Larry Nixon have hosted the WQDR bluegrass show since the very beginning, and have been a unique part of the station’s ongoing success. We have seen bluegrass festivals in the area grow from their beginnings in Camp Springs and Bass Mountain to now include Raleigh hosting the IBMA World of Bluegrass for the tenth year. WQDR and the Sunday night bluegrass show is proud to be a part of that heritage and success.”
Nixon and Woodall are committed to keeping the show on the air for as long as WQDR wants it. The 100,000 watt station is the top country station in its market, and the PineCone Bluegrass Show is number one in its time slot. No money ever changes hands—WQDR benefits from the ad revenue and PineCone benefits from the free publicity—a winning arrangement for both parties. And a win for bluegrass lovers in North Carolina and all around the world!
The PineCone Bluegrass Show streams live every Sunday from 6:00 to 9:00 pm Eastern at https://www.947qdr.com.
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