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Orin Friesen celebrates 50 years of his iconic radio show, 'Bluegrass from the Rockin' Banjo Ranch'

Orin Friesen at work at KFDI in 1968.
Courtesy of Orin Friesen
Orin Friesen at work at KFDI in 1968. He started his first all-bluegrass show on KMUW in 1966 before launching his current show in 1973.

The milestone will be celebrated at a concert Sunday at Bartlett Arboretum with musician Michael Martin Murphey.

Orin Friesen will celebrate 50 years of his radio show, “Bluegrass from the Rockin' Banjo Ranch,” Sunday, Oct. 8, at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine with a sold-out performance from acclaimed musician Michael Martin Murphey.

Friesen began his radio career at KMUW in the 1960s and has enjoyed wide success as a broadcaster, musician and historian since then. He was named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s first Broadcaster of the Year and later honored with the Distinguished Achievement Award for his achievements in the world of bluegrass broadcasting.

“Bluegrass from the Rockin' Banjo Ranch” can be heard on KFDI. Friesen is also the author of the books “Goat Glands to Ranch Hands” and “Honky-Tonkers & Western Swingers.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’re about to celebrate 50 years of your radio show.

I started in radio 59 years ago. This is the 50th anniversary of my current bluegrass show, which I started on a station in Wichita called KBUL in 1973. When it went away, it moved over to KFDI in 1977 where it’s been [since]. It was syndicated for about 15 years, on about 30 radio stations from coast to coast. But the connection at KMUW is that I actually started my very first all-bluegrass show on KMUW in 1966 when KMUW was still up by Wichita State in the old stone building on Fairmount Street. It started out as a folk music show, and then I was introduced to bluegrass. I was always playing bluegrass; I just didn’t know what it was until that time.

Take me back to 1966. Bluegrass music was probably not fashionable at that time.

It was pretty well unknown, especially in Wichita, Kansas. I met a guy there in college named Mike Theobald -- we’re still really good friends -- he walked into class one day and he’s carrying a banjo, and I go, “Hmmm, folk music.” He said, “I play bluegrass music.” He’s from Belle Plaine, Kansas. I said, “You want to play on my show?” So, he and his dad came to our studio there at KMUW, and they recorded a bunch of bluegrass instrumentals for me, just guitar and banjo. Then Mike started bringing me bluegrass records and kind of introduced me to who the key people were. Back in those days, it was the first-generation people like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, those kind of people.

The Dillards -- I had known who they were from “The Andy Griffith Show,” they played The Darlings there -- they were the group that I really took to. They were already, by the time I discovered them, they were getting away from traditional bluegrass. They were adding electric instruments and drums and doing Beatles’ songs and things like that. That was the group that really turned me on to bluegrass. Of course, I went both ways after that and went to the more traditional and the more progressive.

You were sitting on this cusp of an explosion because by the early ’70s bluegrass is in a revival.

About that time the bluegrass festivals all started. In Kansas, I think the first bluegrass festival was in Haysville in 1971. Then, right after that, the Walnut Valley Festival started in Winfield. They had a couple of folk festivals prior to that where they had some bluegrass music. I didn’t know about them until after the fact. But I went down to the Walnut Valley Festival fairgrounds in 1972. The band I had, we got to play on stage. They only had one stage at the time. I’ve been involved with that festival ever since. I’ve never missed a year since the first one.

I think we have this idea of radio in the ’60s and ’70s as being freewheeling and a little daring.

My first commercial radio [job] was KEYN in November in 1968. We were in competition with KLEO on AM, 1480, and KFH had their FM station. They were kind of an album-type rock ‘n’ roll station. There was always this competition there. I probably shouldn’t even tell this story but when the Beatles’ “White Album” came out [stations got them on the same day] but KFH got their mail in the morning and KEYN didn’t get theirs until later in the day. [KFH] started playing all these Beatles songs, trying to one-up us. We were down in the production room recording KFH so when they would play a song, we would quickly dub it off and play it on the station, so it didn’t sound like they were beating us, even though they were.

Orin Friesen with Bill Monroe in 1983.
Courtesy Orin Friesen
Orin Friesen with Bill Monroe in 1983.

Back in those days, being the first to [play] a record was exciting. Nowadays, most commercial radio stations wait until it’s proven. They don’t want to jump on it. But back in those days, we were trying to break records. You wanted to be the first in the city or first in the nation to play a song. If it became a big hit, you [could say], “Wow, we were the first on that.”

That was the time when you had regional hits and there was power in the local stations. A DJ would pick up on an album cut or flip a single over and play the B side and it would pick up steam.

That’s exactly the way it was. I miss those days. People like yourself, where you have a little more freedom in programming, can do things like that. But most Top 40 stations, whether it’s rock or country, hip-hop, they’re kind of playing it safe, and they don’t want to lose any audience because they played something new that they don’t think is proven.

How do you keep your show fresh after 50 years?

I’ve only missed one week and that was when our son died. I’ve never repeated a show. Occasionally, I’ll maybe go back and revisit an interview. My focus has always been on current bluegrass music. I don’t play a lot of the early things. You can go to Sirius XM and get that type of thing, but I like to promote the artists that are out there working now. They’re going to be coming around and doing shows; they may show up at Winfield or they may show up in Wichita at Wave or someplace like that. I like to focus on the current people.

You know who Billy Strings is right?

Oh, yeah.

Probably the hottest thing in the history of bluegrass music. … He stretches out and does [other] things but it’s not one of these edge kind of things, “Are they bluegrass or not?” He’s solid bluegrass. He knows his roots. He knows the traditional, he knows the newgrass. He’s filling stadiums. I applaud all that, and I like the newcomers like him, Molly Tuttle. People like that.

Tell me about this show that’s coming up, Michael Martin Murphey at The Bartlett Arboretum. What made that the right connection for this celebration?

[Robin Macy, who runs the venue] and I were talking about this particular thing, the 50th anniversary of the show, and she said, “We could do something at the Arboretum,” because she does a lot of concerts and has the Treehouse Concert Series. She said, “Who would you like to get?” I said, “Let’s get a well-known bluegrass band.” She knew I was friends with Michael Martin Murphey; he’s one of my best friends in the music business. She said, “What about Murph?” I’m going, “I guess that’d work.” He recorded three albums of his songs done bluegrass style; he calls it Buckaroo Bluegrass. He agreed to do that. He’s going to bring a couple of his bandmembers plus … You know who Ken White is?


Ken’s Robin’s husband, but he’s the new executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association. He’s coming back, and he’s going to play banjo. They’re actually going to do some of that Buckaroo Bluegrass as part of the show. It’ll be cowboy music and some of [Murphey’s] pop and country hits, songs like “Wildfire” and all of that. He’ll also be doing some of his Buckaroo Bluegrass. It’ll all fit in, and I think we’re going to have a good time. 


Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.