For a long time after musician Page Wilson died in 2011, the old reel-to-reel tapes sat in cardboard boxes in his ex-wife’s garage.
The question wasn’t so much whether the tapes were worth saving — they contained recordings of Wilson’s imaginative down-home radio show that took listeners into his own version of the Chickahominy Swamp, the earliest episodes going back to the 1980s — but how to go about doing it.
The tapes were deteriorating and fragile, and the contents needed to be digitized to be saved, but that was easier said than done.
“You can’t just slap these old tapes on a machine and record them,” said Tim Timberlake, a longtime radio man and local music enthusiast who was friends with Wilson and his family and spearheaded the effort to preserve the tapes and bring parts of Wilson’s long-gone show back to life.
A degraded tape could “come apart” and leave it unplayable and forever ruined if an attempt is made to play it, Timberlake said. The trick is to stabilize it so it can be played at least once and recorded in a digital format.
That stabilization is what happened — more about that later — and after years of fits and starts and the considerable efforts of many, this labor of love is ready for public broadcast: The first of eight episodes of “Page’s Kitchen” will air Saturday at 93.1 or 107.3 FM at noon and also at 8 p.m., which appropriately was the time listeners would tune into Wilson’s “Out O’ the Blue Radio Revue” show. The show can also be streamed live on VPM.org.
Timberlake is producing the show under the auspices of JAMinc, the Richmond nonprofit that promotes music education and appreciation.
The documentary radio series, as Timberlake is calling it, will feature the segments of Wilson’s shows when he invited musicians to gather around his “kitchen table” at his “swamp” hangout to talk and play and enjoy some brisket or gumbo (provided by local restaurants).
The “theater of the mind” Wilson created for the listeners also charmed the musicians, who played along and opened up about their work.
“Page’s Kitchen” will feature past interviews with stalwarts such as Delbert McClinton (the first of the kitchen sessions in 1989, and the first episode of “Page’s Kitchen”) and the Indigo Girls (also the first episode), Mary Chapin Carpenter, Robert Earl Keen and Marcia Ball, as well as some, like Wilson, whose voices have since been silenced: John Cephas, J.J. Cale, Townes Van Zandt and Tony Rice.
“The more we dive in [the tapes], the more we realize there’s gold in here,” Timberlake said.
Among the folksy touches of “Out O’ the Blue Radio Revue” were the slamming screen door, footsteps on the wooden floor and — at the end of the show (or sometimes in the middle of the two-hour show when she was younger and had an earlier bedtime) — his reminding his young daughter, Virginia Blue, it was time for her to go to bed and wishing her “sweet dreams.”
“It was cool,” said Virginia Blue Wilson, who turns 29 on Saturday, the same day “Page’s Kitchen” debuts, and was often listening at home when her dad mentioned her. “My mom said I would go up to the radio and say, ‘I’m right here, Daddy!’ because I didn’t realize he wasn’t right there.”
When she was older, she sometimes was in the studio for the show.
“I really was accustomed to it,” Wilson said of hearing her name on the radio. “I don’t think I realized how cool it was at the time. That was kind of just my life.”
Though episodes of “Page’s Kitchen” are not replays of “Radio Revue,” Timberlake said, they will end with Wilson’s familiar sign-offs, announcing bedtime for Virginia Blue.
Wilson was in her freshman year of college in South Carolina when her father died in March 2011. Her mom — and Page Wilson’s ex-wife — Jude Schlotzhauer rescued the tapes and went through the boxes and inventoried what was in there. The tapes remained in her garage until she and Virginia Blue turned them over to Timberlake to begin work on what has become “Page’s Kitchen.”
The project would never have progressed beyond a good idea without broadcast engineer Guy Spiller, a sage of all things audio and visual whom Timberlake describes as “a genius.”
Spiller led the effort to preserve the tapes and then digitize them, which involved hours of “baking” the tapes at low temperature to re-bond the oxide layer to the backing of the deteriorated tapes so they could be safely played again in order to convert the contents to a digital format.
Charlie Reilly offered a big assist in cataloging the tapes and lending a hand to Spiller during the painstaking and time-consuming process, Timberlake said.
“It was no small task to get the quality that we have,” he said.
The resulting quality of the digitized recordings made it an easy sell for Timberlake when he had to go back to the artists or their survivors and seek permission to air the old interviews. Everyone agreed, he said.
In addition to the sweet memories, for Virginia Blue Wilson the recordings represent a tangible celebration of her dad’s life and music.
“I think a lot of people who listened to my dad’s show could tell that something ... unique was happening,” said Blue, a clinical mental health counselor. “What he did has kind of transformed into versions of [NPR’s] Tiny Desk Concerts and things like that with live musicians coming [into the studio].
“This is really great we’ve been able to bring these to life,” said Wilson, whose voice will be heard in the opening and closing segments of the show, “and to remind people about how it was, but also be a window for others who maybe weren’t aware.”
Page Wilson was a singer-songwriter who was a masterful guitarist with a powerful bass voice, as my former Times-Dispatch colleague Randy Hallman wrote in Wilson’s March 2011 obituary.
“Talk to those who knew Page Wilson, and the theme emerges,” Hallman wrote. “He loved his music, but he loved people even more. He spent his life helping other musicians and anybody else who needed a hand.”
He displayed a deep love of Virginia and the music it spawned.
He was only 56 when he died.
Ames Arnold shared Wilson’s appreciation for music, and he helped produce the radio show in its early days.
“Page did not really know everything about the music,” Arnold said. “But he knew people who did, and was good at putting people together.”
The “kitchen” segments fell to Arnold to arrange, but it started off slow — for good reason. Blindly calling musicians passing through town to play gigs and requesting them to come to a studio they had never heard of to record an interview with people they didn’t know was not the easiest ask.
“Nobody wanted to do it,” Arnold recalled. “It was pretty discouraging.”
In the spring of 1989, well-traveled blues rocker Delbert McClinton was coming to town. Arnold thought, “What the heck?”
Arnold contacted McClinton’s manager, Wendy Goldstein, who is now McClinton’s wife, and she didn’t say no.
“I had three calls with Wendy,” Arnold said. “She was very careful about what he got involved in. I think I convinced her that we were a bunch of good guys, true fans who would just love to have Delbert in the room. On the third call, she finally agreed.
“Talk about elation. Man! Not only did somebody agree, but it was Delbert McClinton, who we all loved.”
Arnold met McClinton at his downtown hotel and took him to a studio on Grace Street, where Wilson and a few other local musicians awaited.
“Delbert seemed a little reluctant,” Arnold recalled, “but he and Page hit it off.”
It was May 1989, and the McClinton appearance served as a launching pad for the “kitchen” segments.
“I was very glad to be a part of that,” Arnold said. “A really one-of-a-kind experience.”
Scott Fraley was involved with the show from the early 1990s until Wilson’s death.
The first “kitchen” session he remembered attending was one with Keen and Van Zandt. One of his most memorable ones involved J.J. Cale.
The session was being recorded at the Flood Zone, and Fraley said he walked in and saw a guy wearing white painter’s pants and a white shirt. Fraley introduced himself and said he was looking for the studio where J.J. Cale would be playing. The man helpfully pointed him toward the studio.
“I went in there and Page was sitting there and I said, ‘Where’s J.J. Cale?’” Fraley recalled.
Soon enough, the man in the painter’s pants and white shirt ambled into the studio. It was J.J. Cale.
“He was just like his music,” Fraley said with a laugh. “Very soft-spoken, very congenial, very laid-back.”
“Page’s Kitchen” is “a really good thing,” but will be “kind of bittersweet for me,” said Fraley, thinking of his friend. “He and I worked closely for years, then he left us real suddenly.”
When he was recording the “kitchen” sessions, Wilson was “in his element,” said Fraley, who hopes “Page’s Kitchen” will be extended beyond the initial eight episodes to include local musicians who appeared in the original segments.
“You know what an extrovert he was,” he said. “He tried to make people as comfortable as possible with his repartee and food ... in a very relaxed setting. That brought out the best in a lot of people.”