This year marks the 20th anniversary of Roots and Wires, Taos’ beloved concert and local radio show producer.
According to founder John Henderson, the fun started the last weekend of January 1997. That’s when Dan Marano, who ran the media literacy forum of the then-existent Taos Talking Picture Film Festival, was talking to Brad Hockmeyer at KTAO-FM 101.9. Marano asked Hockmeyer if the station would host a reggae show, and Hockmeyer agreed to try it out.
The show started with Marano and Henderson taking the lead as DJs for a month, after which Hockmeyer asked them to stay permanently. The “Roots and Wires Sound System” aired on the station for around 17 years. “Roots and Wires” can now be heard Sundays, 7-10 p.m., on KNCE-FM 93.5.
Marano eventually moved from Taos, and Jerry Schwartz joined the “Roots and Wires Sound System” in the spring of 2000. In addition to hosting radio shows, Henderson and Schwartz also own a share in KNCE, the station run out of an Airstream trailer next to Taos Mesa Brewing out near the airport (other partners include Stephen Plyler of Walking Rain Productions, Max Moulton, Kevyn Gilbert, Rita O’Connell of LiveTaos.com and Dan Irion of Taos Mesa Brewing).
Other DJs who have been on the air over the years are DJ Earwig, DJ Houserocker, DJ Kind, DJ Barnmaster, DJ Turbinado, DJ Red, DJ Riddim and others.
“The ‘Roots and Wires Sound System’ has always been a collective,” Henderson said. “That’s something that’s important to us – that different voices are on the radio. Different people are playing different types of reggae. That’s better for the listener, and it’s always been inclusive. A lot of people will say to me, ‘I love your show.’ And I’ll say, ‘Hey, you wanna come in and spin, you wanna come in and play some tunes?’ It’s always been an open door, and I prefer it that way.”
Roots and Wires Presents is active in bringing live music shows to the Taos community. A special subset of the promoter’s live shows is held on an outdoor stage in the center of Arroyo Seco, next to Scott Carlson’s pottery shop. These shows are sponsored by Seco Live, a nonprofit organization that accepts donations and rents out an Airstream trailer to vacationers to fund the free Arroyo Seco concerts. Henderson said that many people ask specifically about the shows and plan their summer vacations around them. More information is at secolive.org.
Andy Burns of Seco Live said, “It’s been wildly successful.” The free concerts attract local residents, business owners and visitors. Burns has been an avid fan of the “Roots and Wires Sound System” radio show for the past 18 years.
“What I noticed right away about their show is that they [Schwartz and Henderson] were incredible teachers. It was like going to a college professor’s class that you like to go to because it was about music history or the blues or Delta jazz. ... That’s how I view those guys — as amazing teachers,” said Burns.
Whether on the radio or in live shows, central to the sound of Roots and Wires is music that speaks truth and digs down deep.
“I can’t stress enough how a deep love for roots music and culture has been a theme,” Schwartz said. “Often, roots music derives its power and joy as a necessity in a world that is not lacking in injustice and oppression. Music that is rooted in the struggle for survival and human rights has always held power and is indeed a catalyst for real change.”
Schwartz continued, “We have always tried to amplify those voices that are often not part of the mainstream music scene. Whether it’s reggae music, blues, funk, traditional or modern African, Latin, Indian or Ukrainian, we love the music and the messages from those whose stories need to be told.”
Over the years, Roots and Wires Presents has brought 175 shows to Taos, introducing more than 100 musicians to Northern New Mexico, with many returning artists. An important aspect of the organization’s concerts is to have as many local artists open shows as possible, Henderson said. “A number of local musicians have said they were able to meet and play for some of their heroes at our shows,” he commented.
Henderson said that growing from a radio show into a producer of live shows unfolded organically and steadily. Initially, Roots and Wires booked only reggae musicians, but eventually expanded into other genres. The first non-reggae show was the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Henderson said the turnout was a remarkable 300 people.
Roots and Wires also went out on a limb in bringing 93-year-old bluesman David Honey Boy Edwards to the Kachina Lodge in 2008.
“That was one of the shows where I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think anyone is going to come hear this. …There’s this old blues guy nobody’s ever really heard of.’ He was with Robert Johnson the night Robert Johnson was poisoned in 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi. I had 450 people show up. People were in the Kachina Lodge – and everybody was sitting down listening to this man telling stories about playing blues in Mississippi in the 1930s. I just remember being in tears at that show. I didn’t know anyone would come. It was oversold.”
The goal of Roots and Wires has always been “to bring world-class musicians to a world-class audience,” Henderson said. He also said it has been rewarding to introduce musicians from all over the globe to the Taos landscape and people. Henderson noted that on a personal level, developing friendships with artists and their families has been an important part of what Roots and Wires is about for him. The producers have played a significant role in developing Taos’ reputation as being an outstanding place for musicians to visit.
Reflecting on the radio show, Henderson said he is proud of its consistency and positive message that is about bringing people together. He shared a story about a woman who called in to the “Roots and Wires Sound System” to say she was dealing with some difficult medical issues, and the show helped to give her faith that she would get through what she was facing. She moved away from Taos, but before moving, Henderson invited her to come and spin for the radio show. She took him up on that offer.
The tradition started by Roots and Wires Presents will continue Friday (Feb. 17), when the promoters begin their “Winter Series” with world folk music by Tim Snider and Justin Chittams of Nahko and Medicine for the People. Tickets are $10 apiece.
The series continues with The Motet on Feb. 24 (tickets $18) and DakhaBrakha on March 11 (tickets $17). All shows take place at 8 p.m. at the Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership (taosmesabrewing.com), 20 ABC Mesa Road, off U.S. 64 west.
On April 14, Seco Live will team up with KNCE to hold a nonprofit festival and free show with funk, soul and groove by Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears in downtown Arroyo Seco. All local nonprofits are invited to set up a table, talk on the stage’s microphone and publicize their activities. Donations for the show go to the nonprofits.
Lastly, mark your calendars now for the official Roots and Wires 20th anniversary party on May 2 with 1960s Cambodian, psychedelic grooves by Dengue Fever at the brewery.
Devoted Roots and Wires fan Julie Schochet speaks for many in Taos by saying, “I think that John and Jerry have been just such a total and complete gift to our community with the music they have bought over these years.
“The music they bring is so cultured and lively and danceable and often unique and inspiring. Sometimes it’s a really well-known name or well-loved genre that you just know is going to be great. But also, there are these amazing surprises, like that band Red Baraat, an East Indian brass band out of Brooklyn — how eclectic can you get? — and they were incredible. It’s always pretty much a guarantee that if those guys are bringing music that it’s going to be not only great music, but a really great time out with the community.
“What they have brought and the experiences I have had there over these last 20 years have really been a huge part of what has made my life in Taos as good as it is. The fact that we have such great music coming through and such a great way to come together – and the venues we have, too, are very fun. It’s been a great contribution. I’m very grateful.”