WMUK's 'Grassroots' celebrates 35th anniversary

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Photo of Lorraine Caron and Mark Sahlgren.

Caron and Sahlgren

KALAMAZOO—"Grassroots" co-host Mark Sahlgren remembers the blizzard that stopped Kalamazoo dead in its tracks in 1987.

But it didn't stop his radio show from going on the air. Sahlgren, who has been "Grassroots" host since its first broadcast on April 3, 1977, hiked to WMUK-FM with his backpack stuffed with albums. The storm may have halted vehicular traffic, but it wouldn't stop Sahlgren from bringing bluegrass, folk and roots music to listeners across Southwest Michigan.

With a postal service mentality for making its weekly audio delivery, "Grassroots" is celebrating its 35th anniversary. Since its inception, "Grassroots" has been beaming its self-described mix of "real music for real people" across the region no matter what. Listeners can tune in from 10 a.m. to noon every Sunday at 102.1-FM. It is rebroadcast from 8 to 10 p.m. the following Saturday each week.

The show's lengthy service to the local acoustic music scene was celebrated Friday, Feb. 15, at the Cooper's Glen Great Lakes Acoustic Music Festival. The two-day festival runs Friday and Saturday, Feb. 15-16, at the Radisson Plaza Hotel and includes a salute to Sahlgren and the show's "new" co-host, Lorraine Caron, who has been at the mike a mere 19 years, along with recording engineer Martin Klemm.

Sahlgren is well into the 36th year of spinning albums and now compact discs for both diehard bluegrass fans and casual listeners who just happen to tune in and are drawn in by the show's catchy pickin'-and-grinnin' style of music and thoughtful commentary from Sahlgren and Caron.

"Mark has done this for almost 36 years as a volunteer," says Caron, who works for WMUK. "He's not a station employee. He's never received any compensation for doing this."

How it all began

"Grassroots" goes back to several members of the local bluegrass band Sweetcorn kicking around the idea of starting a bluegrass music program. Sahlgren, a longtime guitarist for the band, was joined by Sweetcorn soundman Fred Sang and fellow members Dick Atwell and Bill Halsey.

They ran the idea by WMUK managers and got the OK. All four were in the studio together, spinning music and talking. Somehow it worked out and the show took hold and grew.

Sahlren, now retired, worked for 35 years as an art teacher at what is now the Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts. Somehow he always found time to put together a "Grassroots" show every week. Caron joined the WMUK news department in 1993. A singer, who years later also became a member of Sweetcorn, she was immediately drawn to the show's downhome blend of music and thought how it would be great to be part of it.

That chance came as other co-hosts bowed out one by one, leaving Sahlgren on his own. He asked Caron to join him and they've been spinning records and talking roots music ever since.

"I've loved this music for a long time," Caron says. "And I've always loved the kinds of things Mark tells us about the music on the show. I've learned a lot from listening."

Klemm joined the team a few years ago, taking over recording duties for the show's former recording engineer Mark Tomlonson.

Being on the show is the highlight of Caron's workweek. Sahlgren says the partnership has really panned out.

"It's pretty cool because we've been good friends," Sahlgren says, as banjos and mandolins tinkle in the background. "We get along great. Music is such a beautiful art form. Working with Lorraine has been just wonderful."

The two hosts put together about an hour of music on their own that they'd like to play and bring it to the studio each week. Some weeks, a truly inspirational process unfolds and the music just flows. Other weeks are more of a struggle, but a good show comes out nonetheless.

"Here's what I've figured out," Caron says. "This music is so cool, that even when I'm not inspired, there's no way we can put together a bad hour of music, because this music is so great."

Most of the music is out of the mainstream, Sahlgren says. And that's the beauty of it.

"That's what I love about it," he says. "It's pure music."