For the past 19 seasons, Beale Street Caravan has broadcast a commercial-free hour of Memphis-centric music to 2.4 million listeners worldwide, on more than 400 radio stations. Hosted by Pat Mitchell Worley, the show covers local artists ranging from the Reigning Sound to Rev. John Wilkins, in addition to favorites from New Orleans, Chicago, and everywhere in between. Their annual fund-raiser always packs a punch, and this year cuisine by Chef Michael Patrick of Rizzo's Diner will be paired with wine and beer and the music of Marcella & Her Lovers. The blowout — at Memphis Made Brewing on June 18th — also includes a silent auction featuring regional treasures of music, art, dining, and vacation getaways, in addition to vinyl grab bags and more. We sat down with Worley to learn more about the most widely distributed blues radio program in the world. — Chris Shaw
Flyer: How long has Beale Street Caravan been around and when did you become host of the show?
Pat Mitchell Worley: The show is about to enter its 20th season. I've worked on the show since the very beginning. Originally, I was hired to be Sid Selvidge's assistant, and I had already been working in radio. At the time, I was the blues director at a radio station, but my role at Beale Street Caravan was just to get artist clearances for Sid and things like that. After six months, I moved on to the Blues Foundation and started working on things there, but I was still doing stuff for the Caravan, and the hosts were the Memphis Horns. They did two seasons telling stories, and the whole thing was scripted.
After the Horns left, Joyce Cobb and Sam the Sham took over, and they were around for a while, but when they left, we didn't know what we were going to do next. So Sid put me on for a season just to try it out. Daren Dortin joined me for a while, but once he left and we got a new producer, we wanted to change things up and so we brought Kevin Cubbins on board. Having Kevin was really refreshing, because it didn't just feel like I was talking at people. Since then, I've been hosting for the past 16 years.
Where did the name Beale Street Caravan come from?
I always thought it was a combination of things. We have always featured blues musicians, and when it first started, we didn't have hosts. It was just guys performing. Now we air pre-recorded sets and famous sets from festivals, but we started out live at B.B. King's club. We'd also go to blues festivals in Chicago and festivals like King Biscuit and the Waterfront in Portland. That was the precursor to what we do now. We've had shows that have taken place everywhere. We even have a show from Venezuela that we air. When we first started, we were able to capture stuff from Rufus Thomas, because some of the greats were still with us.
How has the audience reach grown since the show started?
It's always been sporadically picked up all over the world, but it's been picked up by a lot more networks as we've grown, like Armed Forces Radio, for example. Having them air our show puts us anyplace that American troops are, which is everywhere if you think about it. We are in so many places now. We didn't used to have such a big presence in the Middle East, and we also have a lot of sessions recorded online for people to hear all over the world.
What are the criteria for the types of music you play on your show? Does it ever venture out of blues? Do you ever record in-studio?
Kevin Cubbins will record things live sometimes, depending on where he is. One of our engineers, Matt Brown, might get sent somewhere to record something. But some shows that we play are older and were recorded long ago. Other times, people just submit something they recorded themselves. New Orleans Jazz Fest also records their festival and sends it to us. Kevin lets our audience and contributors know what he's looking for, but most of the stuff we air stays within the region.
How is Beale Street Caravan different from something like Rocket Science Audio, Ditty TV, or the now-defunct Live From Memphis?
I think we are a little more focused than the shows you mentioned. We promote the brand of Memphis, and we want people to listen to our show and decide to make a move to Memphis or at least come here and track down an artist. We have a focus on the region, but we'll have acts from all over on the station. The center of [Beale Street Caravan] is always the blues-roots sound that made Memphis famous, and we like to have fun on air and show the reach that Memphis music has across the world and on other musicians. That's why we fit within the NPR format. Our message takes people behind the scenes.
How big is the annual fund-raiser in terms of keeping Beale Street Caravan in business?
It's our only fund-raiser. It's changed over the years, and we've become bigger and bigger, but we only do one thing in terms of raising money.