Radio is a unique medium. In the 21st century, it’s one of the last of the informational outlets that engages but a single sense. A news story in a daily paper is augmented by photographs, and even a daily blogger has the vast worlds of Youtube at his disposal. Within radio’s strictly auditory conventions, it would be easy to feel confined. But Tommy Mischke feels differently. A musician, a music scholar, and a broadcaster, Mischke insists that radio is in a privileged position to engage the listener’s imagination.
“The window to the world has always been my ear,” says Mischke. “In radio, there’s just the one sense. But it’s such a great one, and we haven’t exhausted it yet. There’s no visual. There’s nothing to touch. It’s just hearing, and I don’t think we’ve come close to doing all we can do with it.”
It’s an attitude easily distilled to a single principle: “I’d lose my eyesight before I lose my hearing,” he says.
The aural fixation has been a part of Mischke’s awareness since childhood. While Mischke’s father was filling the home with back issues of Time and Life magazines and cluttering the doorstep with dailies, Mischke’s mother was importing musical instruments of all stripes, and all of his 7 brothers and sisters were encouraged by her to play.
“My mother sang,” says Mischke. “She was a guitar player and piano player. We had two pianos in the house growing up. A drum set was there. All my brothers and sisters got into music, and my mom taught me my first three songs on piano. The Green Beret theme, The Marine Corps theme, and “In The Mood.”
I sheepishly admit that I don’t know the song, and he bursts into its opening bars:
"Mister whatchacallit whatcha doin’ tonight Hope you’re feeling good because I’m feeling all right…”
Though his mother was the impetus for Mischke’s musical beginnings, his older brothers provided more formative grist. “They were older than me,” he says, “and they were playing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on piano. Beatles. Blues. I gravitated right away to that.”
As in his journalism (see below) and broadcasting careers, Mischke made a fast enemy of authority. Futile attempts at piano lessons were foisted upon him, spoiled by a kind of ambition that is native to the liberties of youth.
“I never did well in piano lessons” he says. “I never could stand that. I hate any kind of structure. I don’t do well with authority, I don’t like people telling me stuff to do. I never became a real polished and accomplished musician. I regret that.”
The regret seems an afterthought. “There’s an old piano player in Minneapolis,” says Mischke, probing his memory. “Willie Richter. He described his approach as a kamikaze style. I liked that. Crash and burn.”
There are many parallels between Mischke’s musical and broadcasting careers. His 2004 release “Whistle Stop” is a rootsy affair of harmonica and pedal steel, a sound that, like his radio show, harkens to an alternate universe where bygone elements of Americana remain frozen in a bulb of amber. And though he laments the fact that he performed poorly under tutelage, the album has the rough, time-worn finish of an inherited chiffarobe, the kind in which you might hide your most precious keepsakes, informed by a musical history etched in wax rather than burned with lasers.
“I came into radio at a time when no one talked about America as trains,” he says of the music that moves him, “as farms, as wildly different points of view, radically different personalities, crazy cities that seem like they must be in different countries, individuals who are eccentric, exotic places, oceans, lakes, rivers, barges, workers. We’re done celebrating them on talk radio. We’re done celebrating them in the newspapers. There’s so many unique little things about America that I feel only get celebrated in song.”
He has another disc on the way. “Songs For The Livin’,” his follow-up album recorded in the summer and autumn of 2008, arrives on Dec. 4, and once again the antiquity of America shines liked polished rust.
“The ma and pa shop in town,” says Mischke. “The little place has been around since 1940 but the lady’s in her 80’s and her son isn’t going to take over the business. The guy's still driving the old car when everyone else is buying the hybrid. The eccentric individual. With me, all these little parts of America are going away, and that only makes them more beautiful. I find all that in old music.”
-- David Hansen