February 2011

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Ark. Retiree Spins Blues-Inspired Tunes for College Radio

Jim Drennen may be in his 50s—but when it comes to his love of music, he talks with the speed and intensity of a teenage MTV fan.

"I'm almost always thinking about music in one way or another," said Drennan, a Jonesboro, Ark., Local 1516 retired journeyman inside wireman. "Many nights a week I'm up till three or so down in the basement," where he stashes his 7,000 pieces of vinyl, countless CDs, cassettes and four-track tapes.

Drennen's individual passion goes public every Saturday at 9 p.m., when he helms the DJ booth at Arkansas State University's radio station to serve up an energetic and eclectic mix of tunes on his show "Blues Where You Least Expect It."

But listeners anticipating standard odes to popular guitar slingers like Stevie Ray Vaughn or John Lee Hooker will be in for a surprise.

"This isn't your daddy's blues show," Drennen said. "You're liable to hear Andy Griffith singing 'How Long Blues' from 1959 to [heavy metal band] Megadeth covering Muddy Waters' 'I Ain't Superstitious.'

"But then again, that's where you would least expect to find the blues," he said.

Drennen has hosted 200 half-hour shows since 2008, all anchored by his encyclopedic knowledge of multiple styles. And each broadcast has a clever, coherent theme—regardless of how off-the-wall the playlist may look on paper.

There's the "Movie Blues" show that aired last February. In that episode, Drennen spun tracks from diverse film stars like Woody Allen (an accomplished jazz clarinetist) and Bette Midler, who offers a comedic take on Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You."

Then there's the show where he spliced together original versions of bedrock standards by legends like Robert Johnson and B.B. King with updated interpretations by '70s rockers Led Zeppelin and Cream, featuring Eric Clapton.

Now in its third season, "Blues" is enjoying continued sponsorship by Local 1516. To show his appreciation for underwriting his first year on public radio, the father of five dedicated an August 2009 program to the local and the broader labor movement.

For the entirety of the 30-minute broadcast, Drennen takes listeners on an audio tour of the IBEW's history, interspersing tales about Henry Miller and the founders' ambitious dream with songs about working people's struggles.

"Let's find out why Henry had the blues, and what he did about it," Drennen tells the audience early in the set before launching into solid labor anthems like "Talking Union," "Which Side Are You On?" and "I Don't Want Your Millions, Mister."

He thanks the Brotherhood and tells listeners, "[The IBEW's] support is the foundation on which I stand today. If it were not for their support, I would not be here."

And not just in the radio booth. In 2007, Drennen was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and required surgery to install a pacemaker in his chest. "Without the union-provided insurance," he said, "I'd probably be dead today. I owe my allegiance to my own local and the International."

Though the diagnosis forced Drennen into an early retirement, he appreciates the time he has to devote to the show.

"I miss working with the brothers and sisters—I miss the camaraderie," he said. "I got to travel quite a bit, and have friends from all over. But I'm still doing something I love, and that's important."

He's also building something of a following.

"[Jim's] got some fans among some members here," said Local 1516 Business Manager Kirk Douglas. "And his show on Henry Miller was interesting. I think it was educational for many of our brothers and sisters who are still learning about Henry Miller's life. We're proud to sponsor his show."

Drennen's next steps involve getting a Web site up and developing merchandise to promote the broadcast. He said he would love to get national syndication at some point, but he recognizes the "outside-of- the-mainstream" aspect of his program.

"It's more of an educational show," he said, "so what better place than the college radio station?"

Tune in to "Blues Where You Least Expect It" online at 9 p.m. Saturdays at www.kasu.org.

Retired Jonesboro, Ark., Local 1516 journeyman Jim Drennen spins records at his local college radio station.