High Fidelity

It’s become common practice for musicians to scowl when they enter a nightclub and spot two turntables. DJs are killing music, cries the guitar-slinging set. They’re conditioning people to dance to computerized breakbeats instead of live instrumentation. They’re the first step in a harrowing metamorphosis from humanity to android rule. Soon, robots will run the stage, and displaced rockers will have to rise up and rebel against their metallic oppressors in a scene straight out of Styx‘s eerily prescient Kilroy Was Here film short.

Well, here’s another, less paranoid way to look at the situation. First, let’s split local bands into two categories: radio-friendly pop and “other.” Members of Anything But Joey, you’re free to go. Everyone else, think of it this way. You’re making records, building a regional following, touring a bit, and that’s all well and good. But after you retire from the concert circuit, how are people going to hear your music?

You can’t count on commercial radio to perpetuate your legacy, especially given the Federal Communications Commission’s recent vote clearing the way for more corporate consolidation in the media. A lot of college and community-station programs are out of the equation as well, because many DJs enjoy breaking new music and might be hesitant to save space for golden oldies, even from appealingly obscure area acts. The fact that all your recordings will be available only on CD, a by-then hopelessly antiquated format, won’t help matters. Your best approach might be to buddy up with the record-collecting crowd instead of shunning it.

This Friday night at Mike’s Tavern, Scott O’Kelley and Wendy Vit host the Hillbilly Hop, spinning country, Western swing and rockabilly 78s. They’ve also thrown Platter Parties, which focus on garage, psychedelic and surf rock. They don’t call themselves DJs, because “that implies performance or manipulation,” O’Kelley says. “Our deal is just to play one cool song after another, with as little dead air as possible.” Also, professional turntablists would probably spin in a grave before using the grade-school-style phonograph machines preferred by this pair.

A true collecting couple, O’Kelley, 43, and Vit, 32, met nine years ago at Music Exchange. Records of all formats and genres dominate the top floor of their Brookside home. Starting with ABC‘s Lexicon of Love (Shoot that poison arrow!), alphabetized LPs line the walls in sizable stacks. Especially artistic covers rate special display cases; 45s and 78s, most of which are stored in plain sleeves, fill crates in the middle of the room. O’Kelley selects one, Jack Taylor‘s country-blues, pre-Elvis rendition of “Hound Dog,” and drops the needle.

Most of his obscure albums, he explains, come from his father’s stash. A former sociology professor at a small Arkansas university, the elder O’Kelley had planned to open a record store after retirement. When the time came, though, he decided he’d had enough of working. So he opened his vaults to his son, who eagerly mined the gold. When he and Vit held their first Hillbilly Hop at the Dolphin Gallery on a First Friday, 90 percent of the 78s they played came from this collection.

O’Kelley also obtains rare vinyl through eBay, thrift shops and estate sales. Among his finds are the Westport Kids and cuts from the Choice label, both of which are Kansas City products. “It’s been overshadowed by the jazz scene, but country was really big here,” O’Kelley says, referring to the ’30s, when the hillbilly Brush Creek Follies appeared on KMBC radio.

A fan of the new breed of Kansas City country crooners, O’Kelley has opened for Rex Hobart and Pendergast singer Tony Ladish‘s former band Sandoval at Davey’s Uptown. “We were off to the side,” he recalls. “I don’t know that anyone knew what was going on. They might have just thought it was the CD jukebox.”

O’Kelley and Vit no longer open for live acts, after some rough experiences. “The bands start setting up and loading up their gear while you’re spinning, so everything gets jostled,” he explains. “They’ll walk in front of you and set their equipment down. Not that they’re being rude, but would they do that to another band?”

No, they wouldn’t, because fellow groups are part of their fraternity. But musicians, the next time you’re following someone like O’Kelley to the stage, it might be a good idea not to stomp as hard as you can to try to make the records skip. Instead, assuming that they’re not house-music DJs (or if they are, that you’re a live band that sounds like techno), try being polite and slipping them a copy of your record. Years from now, those spinners, or someone else within their collectors’ circle, might become your best friends.

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