It was Sept. 16, 2003, when a burly fellow named Cullen Kehoe first joined radio personality “Mayor Joe” Stutler and sound tech Gordon Robinson from what was then “The River”—local adult alternative station FM 100.3—for a new singer-songwriter showcase at Market Square’s Preservation Pub.
“[Pub owner] Scott [West] wanted to do something, and he approached the River with the idea,” Kehoe remembers. “Joe’s boss came back and said, let’s do this. It was at the height of American Idol’s popularity.
“The idea behind it was to give these local artists a way to get on the radio. So every Tuesday night was recorded, then the production guy went through and pulled out the best stuff and put it on an hour-long program on Sunday.”
There’s been lots of water under the bridge since that initial batch of Tuesday-night songwriters hit their first plaintive high notes, strummed their first tentative chords; but the showcase has persevered. And on Sept. 17, Kehoe will preside over its 10th anniversary celebration in the Pub’s upstairs Speakeasy.
“We’ll be giving out awards—some real, and some fun—and a whole slew of alumni will be coming back to play,” he says. “We’re also trying to bring back every host who’s ever done the show.”
As to the alumni, Kehoe notes that the showcase turned into a launching pad of sorts for several notable local and regional performers. Grandpa’s Stash, Christina Horne of Hudson K, Roman Reese, Jonathan Sexton, Medford’s Black Record Collection, and Cutthroat Shamrock are but a few of the popular local artists who started out as showcase regulars.
“Every week they were able to come down and improve their craft and get support from the Pub,” Kehoe says. “Cutthroat would come in with their Mohawks straight up in the air. Grandpa’s Stash would come in to play two songs carrying their entire drum kit over their heads.”
A few things have changed since those early days. The River changed formats in 2005, depriving the showcase of its on-air presence. And Kehoe departed in 2006, to run a family business.
But Kehoe returned to the industry, and triple-A format FM-105.3, in 2010. And when West sought to find an on-air venue for songwriter night again, the pairing was a natural. “We started talking about bringing our Homegrown show here,” Kehoe says. “He asked about bringing back singer-songwriter night to the airwaves. And it was a perfect fit.”
And Kehoe adds that more than just the hosts and the call letters have changed at singer-songwriter night. “The major difference for me is the caliber of talent,” he says. “The talent has always been there, but it seems to have multiplied. Before we had a few good people week in and week out. Now we have new people come in constantly and blow us away.”
A musician and former aspiring songwriter himself, Kehoe says he feels a special empathy for the performers who show up week after week for the showcase, looking for a little recognition, and maybe a better grasp of their own artistic voice.
“I used to do what these people do,” he says. “I know what it’s like to face people at an open mic. The coolest part for me is, I get to see people progress and go do other things.
And develop a real sense of community. Because other cities don’t have that sense of community for open mic-ers, singer-songwriters. There’s so much more of that here.”