My first year in Vermont, I had a half-hour commute to Burlington each morning from Hinesburg, during which time I listened to Vermont Public Radio. On a particularly wet, raw morning, I immediately recognized the music playing in the background after an “Eye on the Sky” weather update: It was Jerry Garcia’s noodling guitar riff from the Grateful Dead’s “Cold Rain and Snow.”
The brief musical interlude was a wordless tip of the hat to the subject just discussed — a dreary weather forecast. It gave me one of those “aha!” moments familiar to longtime VPR listeners.
A Deadhead myself, I grinned at the inside joke and assumed it was a one-time, tongue-in-cheek offering. Surely VPR, home to classical-music giants and serious news, wouldn’t risk offending its regular early-morning listeners — many of them donors — with trippy melodies best enjoyed after a bong hit.
I was wrong. As I and other listeners have since discovered, VPR has a not-so-closeted Dead fan in its ranks: “Morning Edition” local host Mitch Wertlieb, who serves up almost daily doses of Jerry and the boys.
Wertlieb and I met last week at the end of his shift, which begins each weekday at 5 a.m. He was happy to come clean about his musical predilections and engage in the requisite swap of Deadhead vital stats.
Among them, his first album: American Beauty. His first show: Nassau Coliseum, Long Island, 1979, when he was 13. (His mom chaperoned him.) Tally of shows before Garcia’s last curtain call: “More than 50 and less than 70.” And best GD bragging rights: Wertlieb’s daughter, Gretchen, almost 3, can sing the whole first verse of “Shakedown Street,” which she calls “shakedown the street.”
Wertlieb, 44, confesses that his on-air Dead habit is one way of fulfilling his DJ jones. He got started in radio at Tulane University, where he worked at the campus station, WTUL, on the 2 to 6 a.m. shift.
“They were ridiculous hours,” Wertlieb recalls. “Nobody listened, but I didn’t care. I loved it and knew I wanted to be in radio from then on.”
After college, a commercial station on Martha’s Vineyard hired him; later, he moved to WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio affiliate. There he worked as a producer, editor and occasional host of “Here & Now.” Wertlieb joined the VPR staff in the spring of 2003 and soon began dropping snippets of Dead tunes from his personal collection into the morning roster.
“It was like dipping a toe into very cold water,” Wertlieb recalls. “NPR actually does some really good music, and I liked it, but I felt like it was an opportunity to put a little of my own personality into the show.”
The choice of jam-heavy songs for those interludes — known in radio-speak as “music beds” — makes sense. As Wertlieb explains, shows such as “Morning Edition” need long instrumental passages over which an announcer can speak without the distraction of vocals. Wertlieb chose the Grateful Dead because he assumed there would be a receptive audience in Vermont.
He was right. Today, he claims that nearly 90 percent of the email he receives about his musical picks is positive. In fact, many listeners seem to have an encyclopedic ear for the Dead’s vast archives.
“This one guy sent me an email saying, ‘Did you just play “It’s a Sin” from Lexington, Ky., 1974?’” Wertlieb recalls. “‘Uh, yeah … You knew that from listening to 30 to 40 seconds of it?’
“The Grateful Dead are like licorice,” he adds, repeating a famous Garcia quote: “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
The opposite also holds true. Wertlieb admits he occasionally hears from listeners who are less than wowed by his tie-dye evocations. For their sake, Wertlieb tries to avoid airing clips that are too jarring or spacey. As he puts it, “I’m not going to pull out some feedback portion of ‘Dark Star’ and ruin somebody’s morning.”
Wertlieb plays other artists, too, including Phish, John Scofield, Medeski Martin and Wood, and Guagua, a local band that describes its music as “psychotropical Latin jazz.” But the Dead are the most recognizable, he says, and thus attract the most praise or criticism.
Wertlieb seems proud of the subtle cues he’s worked in over the years. For example, VPR once aired a story on a historic building that was going to be torn down. Wertlieb followed it with a live clip of the Dead’s “Samson and Delilah.” Although he didn’t air the vocals, the lyrics include the line, “If I had my way I would tear this old building down.”
More recently, VPR ran a story about how a federal government shutdown might affect taxpayers in Vermont. Afterward, Wertlieb played an instrumental cover of the Beatles’ “Taxman” by the band Soulive.
“Whether anyone picked up on that, I have no idea,” he says. “But I like to do that stuff as much as possible … I love music. It’s part of my life and keeps me more engaged in what I’m doing.”