He’s running with the big dogs now.
But that doesn’t bother KMOG country music jock Brandon Iron Sprague, given the lessons of his honky-tonk boyhood.
New Music Weekly has named KMOG a contender for best music station of the year and Brandon Iron as the top music director in the country, thanks to his ceaseless search for new music and fresh artists. Brandon Iron (seems wrong to call him Sprague) scans the charts every week and calls producers and record labels for recordings and backgrounds on every new artist that comes out. He works those not-yet-knowns into his mix of legends and has-beens who catch his expert and sympathetic ear.
As a result, he’s developed amiable relationships with a host of agents, producers and record label executives — the very people whose votes determined the list of nominees. Their votes moved him to the top of the New Music Weekly list.
Given the far larger audience size of the other nominated stations, Brandon Iron remains philosophical about his prospects — but delighted to have made it so unexpectedly into the final round.
Now, he’s on a crusade to uncover unknown artists, while still playing songs that sprout directly from the tangled roots of country western music. Along the way, he hopes to stage his own quiet little rebellion against the Nashville music machine that zealously promotes a “top 40” mentality that makes the radio playlists identical in most markets.
“It’s Nashville. It picks everything that comes out,” he says. “It’s a music machine —always has been. Waylon Jennings got chased out of Nashville and had to go back to Texas and do the whole ‘Outlaw’ thing. Now they’re back where they were” in terms of resisting new music with a distinctive sound.
His passion for the music that animated his life as a kid comes through whenever he lapses into a discussion of the music business — and the struggles of upcoming singer-songwriters.
“My dad was the Karaoke King of Wyoming,” he says. “He was the first person in Wyoming to start using laser disks. We owned our bars and restaurants and I could hang out at the restaurant and do the dishes or hit the road with my dad — and listen to good music, usually sung by a drunk person.”
He has a collection of 3,000 LPs, which started with a gift from his father of Ray Charles’ “Sounds of Country Music.” He’s converted them to digital, but still plays the records, reveling in the sound — and the rituals of needles and grooves and the soothing spin of the turntable.
He knocked around doing DJ work at weddings and jobs that came to hand. About two years ago on a visit to his mother, Connie, who lives in Payson, he met Rocking Ron (Gibson), the then mainstay DJ at KMOG.
Rocking Ron saw his passion and hunger and gave him a chance.
“I am here because my mom was here — and they were willing to give me an opportunity that the city wasn’t and I’m running with it,” says Brandon Iron. He now helps out with his mom’s horse rescue operation, brings in fresh-laid eggs for the folks at the radio station and enthusiastically promotes community causes.
He brings that same passion to promoting new artists that catch his ear and generating an original playlist that captures the full sweep of country music, with its mingling of folk, gospel, blues, bluegrass and rock and roll.
He’s not interested in just spinning the Top 40 lists that dominate country music stations nationally. “That’s easy money. It’s an easy sell. Stations are playing the same exact songs. That’s how songs get burnt out too. You hear it and you just know that some producer with lots of connections is promoting that song.”
He noted that the Top 40 list sounds a lot more like rock and roll from 30 years ago than artists like Hank Williams.
“You look at the rock bands from the ’60s and ’70s — Eagles, Steve Miller Band — if they came out today they’d be country. Today, it’s a lot more like classic rock than Merle Haggard and Lefty. So when you get a real traditional artist, they stand out.”
Brandon Iron feels like he’s effectively subverting the music machine by both looking for the new artists with a distinctive sound and giving air time to once dominant country artists like Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., Randy Travis, Don Williams — and even Waylon Jennings, whose heirs just released a record filled with never-released songs.
“You can call the Top 40 stations and request Willie Nelson — but they won’t play them. Hank Williams Jr. — that’s gold — that’s what made country music. But they’re all on the back burner.”
For instance, he’s been giving a lot of play to songs off the new Randy Travis album. “Most radio stations aren’t playing anything off it — even though it’s Randy Travis. Top 40 doesn’t mean it’s the best music out there.”
Like every other form of media, the old economic system that drove country music has struggled to adapt to the Internet, which has offered a way for new artists to find a following, but has also put younger listeners with few connections to country roots increasingly in charge of the playlist.
“The kids are downloading songs and music. The music is on the Internet — and who’s on the Internet? The kids. So if you can sell Taylor Swift as country, you’ll sell a million of them. The money is in the Internet.”
But that only makes Brandon Iron more determined to find new artists that bridge the void between old and new.
So he’s pushing songs by singer-songwriters like Brent Cobb, out of Georgia. “He’s going to explode.”
And he keeps an eye open for Arizona artists, like Matt Farris, from Lake Havasu. “We were the first station to play him. He debuted at like 750 (on the charts). He’s at 57 this week and still no one knows about him. But I got him on the show — and he did a show at the Buffalo.”
But first and foremost — he’s a fan of Payson, and the opportunities he’s found here.
“I love it. I love it here. I didn’t even think twice when they made me the offer. It all worked out perfect and it’s only getting better. I owe everything to Rocking Ron.”