As the monitor speakers fill with Shines’ distinctive guitar, the DJ nods his head in time to the music and sorts through a stack of CDs he’s brought from his home collection. He’s not a fan of preset playlists, but prefers to pick his songs as the mood strikes. The weekly program is called, bluntly, “Nothing But Blues,” and each Sunday between 4 and 6 pm on WJLX Radio, Oldies 101.5 FM, Steele conducts the only blues-themed show in the area’s broadcast market.
“Some people say the low-down blues ain’t bad,” Shines’ departed voice is singing through the speakers, “But it must not have been them blues I had / I’m leavin’ in the mornin’; baby, don’t you want to go?” “I grew up listening to blues,” Steele tells a visitor. “And of course blues stands on the shoulders of gospel, and on some aspects of jazz. Like the old Negro spirituals. ‘Steal away, steal away to God...’ It’s sung a cappella. I’m working in the cotton field, and I want to worship God. So it’s a very sensual mood, in that genre.”
A Walker County native, he did his first blues show roughly 40 years ago in a faraway radio market, creating a character voice/persona specifically for the purpose. Response was favorable so he kept it up, off and on, as he moved around the country switching between radio DJ and other jobs such as teaching and journalism. He chose his radio alias for its symbolism, he says—Amasa being a Hebrew name meaning “bearer of burdens,” and Steele for strength. At the mention of “Steele” he launches into an elaborate story about how swords were crafted for warriors in ancient Japan, and how they required a slow and painstaking melding of two types of metal, one hard but brittle and the other soft but resilient, and the applications this concept has for life in general.
Stories are a mainstay of his radio show as well, but the on-air type are greatly condensed from the in-person versions, for practical reasons: “Between records you’ve got maybe 12 or 15 seconds to introduce a song,” he says. “You go over 20 seconds, you’re boring somebody. People start thinking, ‘Come on, man! Just shut up and play some blues, all right?’ But in 12 seconds you can give a little dose of musicology. Like, most blues are played in the keys of E-flat and B-flat. Listen to the Rolling Stones. Mostly E-flat and B-flat. It’s called rock and roll, and it’s got some overdubbed horns and harmony vocals and all, but the guts of it, what I call the ‘gravel road,’ is blues, and that’s why people connect with it like they do.” If you’ve never shaken hands with Steele at a promotional event or seen a photograph of him on the station’s website, that’s by design. He insists on staying behind the scenes and keeping his birth-certificate name likewise. “It’s not about me,” he says, “it’s about the music.”
That decision was partly influenced by working for a brief stint in television, and the disillusionment that came with it. “Television is all about, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ When you’re in that field, you’re put under a microscope — how you look, how you dress. And I’m just not a showman.
But radio has an allurement that no other medium has. You can project yourself through a microphone and connect emotionally with an audience. People have a stereotypical idea of the DJ they’re hearing, and that’s where the mystery comes in. Over the years I’ve had people call me up and say, ‘Amasa, I’m moving out of town, going to Cincinnati, and I just want to tell you goodbye.’ This is from somebody I’ve never met, never had coffee with. It’s a connection that’s almost a spiritual thing.”
In reality, Steele is white-haired and pushing 70, but has good posture and moves spryly about the studio, a condition he attributes to a doctor-ordered daily jog across a hillside near his home. The Johnny Shines record ends, and Steele has just handed his next CD to the man at the control board. “Let me bring you up a little history lesson,” Steele growls into the microphone. “Back in the 1920s there was an act enacted in Congress, called the Volstead Act. Which was, Prohibition. And of course, the folks who have a taste for that stuff that’s got ‘Proof’ on the end of it, they decided they’re gonna make the stuff anyway. And occasionally...now see, our engineer, Mister Spark-a-Tronic, he over there laughing hisself to death.
“But anyway, I was told that occasionally you’d get some stuff out of a steel pot that, when you drank it, it would sound like one hundred and thirty thousand railroad trains running through your brain. Bad, bad, BAD whiskey. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Mister Amos Milburn...”
“Bad, bad whiskey,” the song through the monitor speaker begins, “made me lose my happy home / When I left home this morning, I promised I would think / And stay real straight and sober; I swore I wouldn’t drink / That bad, bad whiskey...”
“I try to do a show that’s uplifting,” Steele remarks out of the blue, when his microphone is off the air. He realizes the contradiction, he says, when so many blues songs are about misery and heartbreak and loss, alcoholism and wasted lives.
“Everybody’s heart has been broken,” he explains. “I don’t give a rip who you are. It’s a thing you can link with. It’s something in your heart. The listener can link up with that and say, ‘I don’t have to expose myself to anybody else but this song. This speaks to me.’ Simon and Garfunkel: ‘I am a rock, I am an island...’ That speaks to me.”
He’s aware that his specialty is not to everyone’s taste. “I’m sure there’s people out there going, ‘You ever listen to that Amasa Steele guy?’ ‘Yeah, he’s crazy. He plays this weird music...’ But that’s all right.”
And he acknowledges that blues can sometimes be emotionally draining at the same time: “Two hours of blues is about right. Then you move on and do something else.”
But he keeps coming back to it weekly, and hopes that new listeners will too. “What it comes down to, for me,” according to Steele, “is that there was a man a long time ago named Thomas Fuller who said, ‘If you have one true friend, you have more than your share.’ And I guess my one true friend is the blues.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org