May 2019 marks the start of the 30th year of the National Bluegrass Survey, a monthly compilation of the top 30 bluegrass songs from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine and Bluegrass Country’s Lee Michael Demsey.
Every month, the survey is published in the magazine and the songs are played during the Lee Michael Demsey Show. More than 50 radio hosts contribute to the survey, from broadcast, satellite and internet stations in the US, Canada and Australia.
Demsey has compiled the survey from its start in May 1990. “Pete Kuykendall [the late founder and editor of Bluegrass Unlimited] and I were shooting the breeze one day and came up with the idea, and I ran with it,” Demsey says. Although the process has been modernized from phone or fax reporting to e-mails, the format and ranking process has remained the same. Every month, stations report their top ten songs, and Demsey weighs and tabulates the results. “Some of them base their choices on actual spins that the songs receive on their shows, plus listener feedback on new music they play. Others do their lists from more a gut feeling for what the best current songs are.”
The results, Demsey says, reflect the ongoing debate about what constitutes “real bluegrass.” Some of the participants stick to their guns and play mostly traditional tunes, both from the founders and pioneers of bluegrass and bands that follow in their footsteps. Others play music that has a more modern spin. “I think the chart has always accurately reflected the diversity of bluegrass, with both traditional and new music having a good deal of success on the national survey,” he says, adding that artists, management, promoters and labels all love to see their songs climbing the monthly chart.
“It gives them bragging rights,” he said: “Something they can talk about on stage at their shows, put in their press releases, feature on their web pages and tweet about.”
One of the things Demsey enjoys most is preparing the monthly countdown show on which he plays the top 30 songs on Bluegrass Country and bluegrasscountry.org, along with artist interviews and special features. “It’s fun watching some songs skyrocket up the list while others inch their way up,” he says. “Some songs fall off quickly, but others hang around for many months, upwards of a year.” He contrasts this bluegrass longevity to the country or pop charts, where songs tend to stay around for a shorter time before being replaced by another single, chosen by the record label.
“On the Bluegrass Unlimited survey, it’s more the job of the disk jockey and the listeners to determine which songs jump off the CD to have success.”
Lee Michael Demsey is a mainstay at Bluegrass Country radio. He started as an engineer at WAMU-FM when he was a senior at The American University, was the station’s rock DJ in the 70’s, and made the transition to bluegrass in 1982 when WAMU was expanding its bluegrass programming. In 1991 he was the International Bluegrass Music Association Broadcaster of the Year.
Over the years he’s best known as a proponent of the contemporary side of bluegrass, though he honors the traditions of the pioneers and occasionally dips into more progressive sounds. “When I hit 65 last year I promised myself I’d cut back,” he says, and gave up his daily show to concentrate on a three-hour Saturday show plus the long-running Editor’s Picks and Open Mic shows.
But he has no plans to abandon the survey. In fact, he’s working to increase the number of participants. “I think the folks who read Bluegrass Unlimited and listen to our shows on Bluegrass Country enjoy knowing what bands and songs are being heard, and I know I enjoy bringing it to them,” he says.
Listen to the National Bluegrass Survey countdown show from 11 to 1 am on the last Saturday of every month, and check the top 30 list at bluegrasscountry.org.