As host of NPR’s nationally syndicated World Café, David Dye has been turning audiences on to an eclectic blend of blues, rock, folk and world music for nearly 25 years. The critically acclaimed and award-winning program, produced by WXPN in Philadelphia, is broadcast to over 250 National Public Radio stations throughout the country.
Each week, Dye delves into revealing interviews with internationally known artists as well as emerging musicians and songwriters. As World Café’s host, Dye had conducted nearly 4,500 interviews.
On Tuesday, Dye will sit down with Frederick Reads special guest Rosanne Cash at the Weinberg Center for the Arts to discuss the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter/author’s extraordinary life and career.
Dye had just returned from the SXSW (South by Southwest) Festival in Austin, Texas, when I caught up with him on a Sunday afternoon — the day before St. Patrick’s Day. During the course of a 45-minute conversation over the phone, we covered a lot of territory, including the relationship between music and language, his favorite interviews — and if he could go back in time, who he’d like to interview — and the magic of Rosanne Cash.
How was Austin — what were some of the highlights for you?
I really liked seeing a new, young songwriter from Oklahoma, 20-year-old Parker Millsap. Powerful performer and a good writer. On our Sense of Place week on the radio, we had a chance to talk with Patty Griffin, who was a real joy.
What drew you into broadcasting?
I can’t tell you the exact thing, but I’m pretty sure the seed was planted in junior high school, for some reason. I remember being really attracted to music early on and realizing I really didn’t have much talent, and the fact that I got just as big of a kick out of playing music and turning people onto things as I did performing it. … My first day of college, I ran up those stairs to the radio station and I knew it was what I wanted to do. And I got really lucky getting a part-time job while I was still in college.
As part of the Frederick Reads events, you’ll be chatting with Rosanne Cash about her life and work, as well as this year’s theme: The Music of Language. What are you thoughts on how music and language relate to one another?
I think this is a fascinating concept, and it’s hard for me to remove talking about the language we use on the printed page, the formal everyday language — it’s hard to remove the lyrics from that. I think communicating emotion through music is easy — I mean, it’s not easy, but I love when you combine the melodic and rhythmic aspects of music with the lyrics. And it sounds like an easy thing and everybody does it, but there are some masters of it; Joni Mitchell is a real master of it. If you go back and listen to her albums, she manages to meld the two in a way that you don’t even notice the emotional depth of what she gets by the combination of those things. … For me, it’s the emotions that are conjured, and it’s funny, with music being so portable — recorded music — when you consider here we are in this day and age and I can take my iPod with me and have more music at my disposal for going on a walk … and I can have an emotional interaction specific to a time and place because of having the music with me. I think that’s really powerful.
What is the essence, or the power, of music to be able to transport someone when they have the blues?
I think anybody alive realizes that is one of the primary uses of songs. Your marriage has just ended, you’ve had a great loss, there is music that can go directly to the emotional place you are at and tell you you’re not alone. I’ve asked people about that, if they realize, in a weird way, how utilitarian music can be for people. It sounds cold, but it’s not.
Who is your favorite singer-songwriter storyteller?
I’ll tell you, my favorite is James McMurtry (son of Larry McMurtry, author of “Lonesome Dove”), and it’s funny, here’s another offspring of another great artist just as Rosanne Cash is with her father. I think James McMurtry is one of the sparest, most deep, storytelling songwriters. He just knocks me out; he’s so strong.
I’ve always loved James McMurtry and indoctrinated my daughter early on. I think she knew all the words to “Too Long in the Wasteland” by the time she was 5 or 6. She’s about to turn 15 and it’s still one of her favorite songs.
Now that’s great (laughing).
I interviewed Rosanne recently and asked her the same question: Why do you think the South has such a strong footprint in music and literature?
I’ve thought about this and I’m not sure where I can go except to say that it sure does. If you factor Texas in there, oh my God, there’s such an amazing amount of great songwriters that come from that area. I mean it’s rich. If you talk to a Southern songwriter, they’re going to mention Faulkner and Eudora Welty and they’re going to mention the literature. But it depends where you are. There’s such a sense of place within the places: the flat part of Alabama heading into Georgia or Mississippi, which is endless or, of course, New Orleans. There’s a lot going on … in fact, you can make the argument that a lot of popular music wouldn’t exist without the different things that come out of the different parts of the South.
Rosanne’s new album, “The River and the Thread,” is an exploration of her Southern roots.
The trips she made (through the South) were probably really important to the feel of the songs, but she had some great stories that went with so many of these songs, and the richness of the area in the stories, that was really interesting. It’s just a great record.
Does sense of place bring out the richness in stories?
It’s an interesting question. We actually do a series on World Café called Sense of Place where we go to different cities and try to get the essence of what’s going on there. And to be truthful, we’ve kind of found that now the individual place and its effect on music are far less than it’s ever been, because we’re all kind of interconnected. You look at this new album by Rosanne and you read “Composed,” her memoir — you realize she was a California girl and then she just had this extraordinary opportunity to move all over the place and kind of find herself. So I think the sense of place comes from people’s minds or imagination. In fact, you know what? I think it’s a great question, and I will probably ask a variation on it when talking about this new album with her, about whether it’s the reality of the place or the imagined reality of it.
I listened to your interview with Alejandro Escovedo from Austin — another personal favorite. What have been some of your favorite interviews?
There were some that were thrilling to be able to connect with them. Early in the show’s history, I did an interview with Joni Mitchell and that was, just personally — that was just a high point because she had an effect on my life. Recent ones are kind of all over the place and they’re not really fully reflective of what we do, but Wayne Kramer, who is from Detroit — we did a Sense of Place Detroit — was a founding member of a band called MC5, one of those proto punk bands back in the ’60s and a very political band in Detroit. He is such a great thinker, and I didn’t fully realize it when I started doing the interview, and must admit, I don’t know if they edited or left it in there, but, I kind of just stopped the interview and said, “My God, Wayne, this is the best interview — you’re the best person I’ve ever talked with.” He was so smart and articulate and fun. Another one … was Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, believe or not. He had a really fascinating early life. He lived in Dallas and played in a high school band that would back Jimmy Reed when he would come and play at clubs there in a very segregated city, and he had all these connections with blues music. … Those were some of the more unusual.
If you could go back in time, who would be someone you’d like to interview?
Yeah, great question. I would, obviously, love to talk to Hank Williams. Otis Redding would be great. Then let’s get serious, I would love to talk to Cole Porter. I think that would be just fascinating.
You’ve interviewed Rosanne before. What makes her special as both an artist and a person?
She is just so very open and able to express herself incredibly well. I’ve just been re-reading “Composed” and it’s a really interesting book about her life, reassessing the transitions in her life, and I think I’ll be talking about that a lot because there’s music that goes along with each and every one of those transitions, and there’s been a lot … there’s been different periods in her songwriting and each one of them she’s kind of nailed. “King’s Record Shop” is just an amazing album that was incredibly popular and doesn’t have the same emotional depth as, certainly, “Interiors” or some of the later stuff she’s done — but she did that so well. I sort of call it the Interiors era. I love that record and this last trilogy of songs (“Black Cadillac,” “The List” and “The River and the Thread”) that relate to her father in such a wonderful way. You’d certainly never say the word exploitation. It isn’t even part of the equation. So, I think she’s a very warm and down-to-earth human being. … She’s able to have a genuine conversation that everyone can relate to, and I think that’s really important.
– This story was written by Jason Tinney and it has been edited for print. To read the full interview with David Dye, as well as Jason Tinney’s interview with Rosanne Cash, visit frederickreads.org. Jason Tinney is a writer, performer, and musician. He lives in Frederick. Visit Tinney’s Facebook page, Jason Tinney, Writer.