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Berk Bryant, 82, might be retired, but that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his love of bluegrass music by hosting “Sunday Bluegrass” on a Louisville public radio station.
As DJ for the radio program, the Radcliff resident showcases the bluegrass and traditional country music he’s grown so fond of over the years. He has been hosting the program on a volunteer basis since June 1989.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Bryant said of the opportunities he feels he’s been given in his lifetime.
Those opportunities include befriending music stars, acquiring personal autographs and meeting legends of the industry.
Elvis Presley is among those music industry legends.
“I met him three times,” he said, explaining he often attended music shows during his stint working for a commercial radio station.
Bryant recalled the second time he met Elvis while working for that radio station, which helped him gain backstage access at a show. Managing to find his way into Elvis’ empty dressing room, he found a guitar as Elvis returned.
When Elvis walked in and saw Bryant holding the guitar, he put his arm around Bryant’s shoulder and said he’d sing while Bryant played. Bryant had to admit he couldn’t play the instrument.
“The King,” Bryant said, was very accessible to fans, as most musicians were back then.
“He was very polite naturally,” Bryant said. “It was not artificial at all.”
An autographed photo of Elvis is among the numerous pieces of memorabilia that fill Bryant’s home. Posters, photos, newspaper clippings, CDs, vinyl LPs and 45s occupy space in several rooms.
“Some people accuse me of having a museum in here,” he said with a chuckle.
Born in Lynchburg, Va., Bryant grew up visiting a cousin’s farm on weekends, where he developed his appreciation of what some called hillbilly music.
“We called it string music or mountain music,” he said.
The genre went by many monikers and eventually was lumped in with traditional country music, he said. Then in the late ’50s and early ’60s, country and bluegrass were seen as separate genres.
Bryant, who served in the U.S. Army in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, also maintained a connection to music, working at a commercial radio station between his military service stints.
At the radio station, he developed a show called “Country Gentleman Time.” He took the name from a Chet Atkins song.
When he first approached WFPK management about hosting a bluegrass show, the station manager expressed concern they had very little bluegrass music to play. Bryant assured him he had a collection that could fill the three-hour program.
With a collection of an estimated 1,000 CDs and 20 linear feet of LPs, Bryant wasn’t kidding.
“I try to make it a pretty good mix,” he said of his playlist.
Now, more than two decades later, the program has been validation of sorts for Bryant that there is an audience for bluegrass and “older, traditional” country music. In fact, Bryant has a collection of email printouts from appreciative listeners who range geographically from Ecuador to England.
Though he suffered the loss of his wife years ago and his daughter lives in Virginia, Bryant seems comfortable in his Radcliff home.
A man who seems to have few regrets, Bryant would like to meet Alan Jackson, who he considers the nearest thing to an actual country musician, and banjo player Uncle Dave Macon. Overall, Bryant feels he’s done well seizing the opportunities life has given him.
Over the years, Bryant has collected autographs from stars ranging from Minnie Pearl to Hank Williams Sr. When he was in the Army and preparing to go to Vietnam, Bryant was in California, where he met Clint Eastwood who was making the film “Play Misty For Me.” He also has a book personally autographed by Charlton Heston.
Some of the celebrities he’s met he counts as friends, including bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley, who he often talks to by phone. Such friendship doesn’t go unappreciated.
“So many of them ... have been really, really good to me,” Bryant said.
Robert Villanueva can be reached at (270) 505-1743 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BROADCASTING FACTS ABOUT BERK BRYANT: