Monday, February 06, 2012

Rocked: DJ David Hall’s Untimely Death Shocks Nashville

The voice of Nashville Rock Radio for 32 years has suddenly fallen silent. David Hall (left), WRLT Lightning 100’s Program Director and afternoon drive-time DJ passed away over the weekend, leaving fans of Music City’s best radio station (including me), in utter disbelief. Yesterday (Sunday, Feb.5th) would have been Hall’s 58th birthday. Above, he is shown spending time in the WRLT studios with three members from the consortium of ten local artists known as Ten out Of Tenn (second left to right, Butterfly Boucher, Matthew Perryman Jones, and Tyler James). As was his mission in 18 years with the station, Hall was a tireless supporter of local Nashville artists.

An Unexpected Death in the Family
If you’re a fan of arguably Nashville’s best radio station, 100.1 FM, WRLT Lightning 100, you’ve probably already heard the news and if you’re like me, you’re likely still in shock.

As I write this, I’m listening to Lightning 100, as I so often do and have done since 1992; immersing myself in what I truly consider to be the best part of my experience living in Nashville as a west coast transplant. However, today I’m having a really tough time keeping the lump in my throat down. Seems I keep hearing a familiar voice during the commercial breaks, some of the song intros and station IDs; and each time I do it takes a second or two before I realize that the wonderfully personable man behind that voice it is no longer there; that he now lives only via Memorex and in our memories.

And I swallow hard, again.

WRLT was the first Nashville radio station I heard back in the summer of 1991, when Michelle and I visited here to scope out Music City as a possible relocation site, to provide an environment in which to better raise our two elementary school-aged children as well as a place where I could continue my then-six-year-long career as a graphic designer and art director in the music industry. Nashville was the perfect choice on a number of fronts, but when I heard this radio station I was blown away from the get-go.

At the time in question, we were in a real estate office in Franklin, TN, waiting to be helped. They had Lightning 100 piped in, playing in the background. That blend of fresh, alternative rock was so much different than what I was used to hearing in Los Angeles that I audibly said, “Whoa! What station is THAT?”

“WRLT,” the receptionist replied. If for no other reason, I knew I’d found a home right then and there. But little did I realize at the time just how unique and special Lightning 100 was in comparison to Music City’s otherwise relatively bland and staid radio landscape, dominated by Country, Top 40 Pop, and same ol-same ol’ Classic Rock. By the same token, I would discover after moving here several months later just how wonderfully diverse the Nashville music scene is, featuring numerous musical genres via live venues on any given night. Nevertheless, you’d have been hard-pressed to surmise that reality by sampling the local radio fare, were it not for Lightning 100.

WRLT has proved to be a radio stalwart; a true champion of the musical Darwinism that typically chews up radio stations and spits them out like the ‘chaw tabaccie’ refuse my Kentucky-bred Papaw used to deposit into an empty coffee can sitting on the floor beside his easy chair.

Unfortunately for all lovers of the extensive musical pedigree this great city boasts, Nashville was a little less cool on this appropriately overcast Monday morning. All of us who have loved and have been loyal to RLT throughout the years awoke to the realization that we have lost a great friend.

Lightning 100’s David Hall has left us – way before his time.

New Rock For Y’AAAL
One of those chiefly responsible for WRLT’s continued success over the past 21 years, Hall, the station’s program manager and afternoon drive time voice, passed away over the weekend, presumably sometime Friday evening or Saturday; the details of his demise having yet to be announced as of this writing. WRLT’s website posted a brief notice of Hall’s death at 12:45pm yesterday, Sunday, February 5th, the day on which he would have celebrated his 58th birthday.

The famous air-slogan, “David Hall RRROCKS y’all,” is as familiar as that of any Nashville radio personality in history, and actually predates Hall’s 18 years behind the mic at Lightning 100. Nearly half of his 32 years in Music City were spent as a mainstream/classic rock jock for FM stations, WKDF and WGFX in the 1980s and early 90s, both of which have shuffled their formats as well as their nicknames more than a of couple times since.

Meanwhile, Lightning 100’s progressive, ‘AAA’ (Album Adult Alternative) format has remained unchanged since ‘Radio Lightning’ made its debut on March 5, 1990, giving WRLT the singular distinction of such format consistency versus any of its Music City contemporaries over that time period.

There are a few big reasons for the station’s longstanding commitment to its new-but-not-too-trendy style of supporting both recent and classic rock, folk, roots, and modern alternative music. One is the fact that WRLT remains Nashville’s longest-running independently-owned radio station. It has been broadcasting the same eclectic format to local Music City listeners for more than 21 years (and to a world-wide audience via the Web for nearly as long). It is one of only 50 remaining ‘Triple-A’ stations across the country and has always ranked near the top in that category. Years ago, owner Lester Turner, Jr. vowed never to sell out to the ever-expanding corporate radio machine that has since engulfed nearly every other major American market. Lightning 100 remains a shining jewel of independence in a sea of lackluster, cookie-cutter sameness.

I believe another big reason that Lightning 100 is still Lightning 100, has been the continual work and influence of David Hall. Already a staple of the Nashville airwaves, after a five-year stint with Album-Oriented/Classic Rocker, WGFX, The Fox, Hall brought his affable, music-loving personality, silky-smooth baritone voice, and extensive radio experience to bear on WRLT’s still-forming progressive chops in 1993. In addition to his role as PM drive-time host, Hall was hired to serve as RLT’s Music Director. He jumped into the role with both feet.

The Compass Points SXSW
Hall was one of, if not the first Nashville Radio executive to religiously attend and bring back on-air product from a fledgling music industry showcase held in Austin, Texas called, South-By-Southwest — well before it grew into the multi/social media behemoth that it is today.

Hall made the trip to Austin an annual pilgrimage every March; mining and returning to Nashville with musical gems from such little-known artists as Spoon, the brotherly vocal trio, Hanson, and a group called, Uncle Tupelo, which would later split up to form the bands, Wilco and Son Volt, both of which would become staples of Lightning 100 on-air playlists in the 90s (…and Wilco still is today).

Other notables who would find their way into our ears via the WRLT airwaves (…and most of whom have remained there over the years), at least in part due to their SXSW exposure include The Old 97’s, The Flaming Lips, The White Stripes, Norah Jones, Leslie Feist, and Amy Winehouse.

Nevertheless, Hall didn’t restrict his search to out-of-state showcases to find the best new and progressive tunes; he was also instrumental in supporting the up-and-coming careers of then-resident Nashville singer-songwriters, Cheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, and former Sixpence None The Richer lead vocalist, Leigh Nash.

Hall had an ear for great music, and particularly so for female singer-songwriters. In addition to the aforementioned Crow and Griffin, Lightning 100 has held a consistent spot in its musical lineup for female folk-rock duo, The Indigo Girls and fem-rocker, Melissa Etheridge (one of David’s personal favorites), as well as for a pair of onetime aspiring Canadian songsmiths; Alanis Morissette would go on to dominate the 1996 Grammy Awards, and a little more than a decade later, the aforementioned Feist would strike gold when her song 1-2-3-4 was featured in an Apple iPod Nano commercial.

We can say that we knew them when; relishing the opportunity to have witnessed their live performances in intimate Music City venues, and to boast that we were hip to their talents well before the most of the world; all thanks to the work of our ambassador to new music, David Hall.

Recollections & Lamentations of a Radio Groupie
I’ve mentioned it before, but I sorta have the tendency to teeter on the brink of obsession with the things that really float my boat, and music definitely falls into that category. I don’t think I’m alone in that tendency, however; I think a lot of people love music because of the way it speaks to them; it becomes a part of their lives in a way the artist who created it at best could only imagine.

However, my children’s generation, the Millennials, and to a lesser degree, the GenXers before them, have thoroughly embraced the new medium through which today’s music is delivered and consumed, e.g.: social media, digital download, iTunes, etc. Radio has become optional to a large number of young music consumers. My son, for example, hasn't listened to the radio at all since he was in high school (he turns 30 this year). He buys 100% of his music on iTunes; he doesn’t own a home CD player; the only one he has is in his truck and he rarely uses it; he listens to everything through his iPhone. Yet he goes to more concerts on average than I ever thought about attending — even in my heyday — and is as fanatical and devoted to his bands as I have ever been to mine. This is all without a disc jockey acting as the middle-man in his musical discovery experience. His bond is with the artist directly; not with a radio station or DJ through whom the music is delivered.

It’s largely a generational thing; that’s kind of obvious. I am a product of my longstanding radio-indoctrination just as my son is a product of his age group’s digital download paradigm. Nevertheless, a larger percentage than ever of today’s young consumers are obtaining their music digitally; they’re learning about cool new bands by word of mouth and through social media. As a result, fewer are discovering and/or reinforcing their musical tastes via radio, all but eliminating the parallel emotional bond that comes with the shared experience — the human element of discovering new artists and their music through the agency of that familiar on-air voice; music delivered by a friend.

Rambling preambles notwithstanding, I’m not attempting to indicate that the younger generations have completely foresaken broadcast music today, nor have they lost the ability to love a radio station and its on-air personalities as much as I have grown to love Lightning 100. Mostly, I suppose, it’s to excuse myself for being such a weirdo-radio-enthusiast back in the day that folks might well have assumed that I owned stock in Tuned In Broadcasting. I make no bones about the fact that I adore WRLT and have always considered the Lightning 100 family to be a part of my family; all of which makes David Hall’s death so much harder for me to take.

Back in the 90s, I guess I was sort of a Lightning 100 ‘superfan.’ I took part in every contest and/or station promotion that I could. I showed up at all the live remote broadcasts; I was an early adopter of, Nashville’s very first radio station website, where I engaged the staff and other Lightning listeners on the site’s message board, implemented by then-Noontime-to-3pm DJ, Mary Brace, who also doubled as RLT’s original webmistress.

I was that ‘seventh caller’ lots of times; I won lots of stuff, and due to that involvement in those early years, I was asked to participate in a ton of onsite focus groups to help assess whether or not the artists and music the station was putting out there was what the listeners wanted to hear.

Through it all, I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know (or at least, be known by), a number of the Lightning 100 staff. And while I don’t for a minute assume that he ever considered me anything more than a dedicated listener, David Hall always had time to say hello whenever we crossed paths; he always seemed to make the effort to make me feel welcome.

In recent years I would most often saw him at 3rd & Lindsley, working the crowd before or after the Nashville Sunday Night broadcasts that Hall emceed from the 2003 on, following the weekly concert series’ original host, former RLT overnight DJ, John Larson’s departure for the enchantment of New Mexico.

Even after not having seen me for a year or more at a time, Hall never forgot my face or my name. But as special as that always made me feel, remembering names and making folks feel comfortable in his presence wasn’t a particularly remarkable feat for him; he treated everyone that way. That’s the kind of man he was. As warm and engaging as he came across on the radio, that’s exactly how he was in person. David Hall was a big man with a big voice and an even bigger persona.

Perhaps my favorite among all the memories of my encounters with Nashville’s premiere rock radio personality came when my daughter Amy and I attended a 2008 NSN performance of one of our many mutual favorites — the recently reunited Sixpence None The Richer, featuring Leigh Nash.

Amy’s musical tastes have always run in a vein very similar to my own. While attending college at UT Chattanooga, she had access to a really good progressive campus radio station and subsequently turned me on to a number of cool artists, most of whom I would soon thereafter hear on Lightning 100. Amy was quite familiar with MY radio station, and what a shameless RLT fan I’d always been, so I kinda assumed that she would take what happened next in stride.

The two of us were seated at my favorite spot in the room, there at the elbow of the bar, just opposite the stage. As showtime approached, the crowd quickly thickened around our location. As such, when I looked up and saw David approaching, carefully making his way through the crowd and following along the narrow pathway that lay between the bar stools on which we sat and the tables just 2-3 feet in front of us. As he reached our position, our eyes met and he extended his hand in greeting, pausing momentarily to say hello. I didn’t realize that Amy had no idea who he was as I introduced her to him, but not the other way around — I really didn’t think that I needed to. We went on to make brief small-talk before Hall continued, scooting on past us to whatever location it was that he was originally headed.

Then Amy gives me the, “um…and who was that again?” look. I’m not sure if I was more surprised that she’d have to ask than I was embarrassed that I hadn’t conducted a more proper introduction.

“So...did you not know that was David Hall?” I asked.

My daughter’s eyes grew about the size of the beer coasters on the bar we’d been leaning against all night.

“David Hall rocks y’all???” she squealed, at a decibel level more than high enough to be heard rather easily above the din of the still-gathering crowd. “That was him? Do you know him?” she demanded.

“Not really...but kinda, I guess,” I said with a sheepish grin. “He’s just a really nice guy.”

And indeed he was; as well as being an astute musical mind and a fervent supporter of local Nashville talent.

Hall was a figure the Nashville music community will never forget and will miss deeply; that most definitely goes double for me.

So rest in peace, David. Mission accomplished; you most certainly rocked us all.

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