Musician's Spotlight has been on the air for 25 years, long enough to survive several evolutionary jumps in recording technology. Host John Floridis cringes when he recalls the hassle of the early years, working with fellow folk musician Brian Kopper. "When Brian and I took over in 1997, we were editing quarter-inch tape with razor blades. We'd slice off bits of tape and save them on a shelf in case we had to use them later. Then, oh my god, we moved to MiniDiscs and it had that magical button that said 'undo.'"
While the editing process continues to evolve, one thing that remains constant is the diversity of musicians Floridis invites to the show. From Alison Krauss to Derek Trucks to Brandi Carlile to B.B. King, musicians of virtually every style and level of fame have submitted to Floridis' microphone. Over the course of a staggering 650 episodes, dozens of local artists have also been featured. For Floridis, a popular Missoula musician with his own career, it never gets old.
"I love to talk shop," he says, acknowledging the impassioned conversations that quickly spin off into geekery when one musician (ahem) interviews another. "Over the years I've worked to try and find the story of the artist. The trick is to bring the artist in and let them get comfortable without geeking out too much." Still, talking guitar gear and technique can be pure catnip. Sometimes he just runs with it.
"John Butler comes to mind. He does this hybridization between acoustic and electric guitars." Floridis begins to describe Butler's complex rig, which combines a Marshall stack amplifier with an acoustic guitar with special pickups, then catches himself. Not all music fans are necessarily musicians, he reminds himself. "I have to think about who's listening to this, who the average listener is. I don't always want to be looking over a musician's shoulder, trying to figure out what they're doing."
Some of the best shows, he says, were the ones where he was pulled into unfamiliar territory and came away with a new understanding of a little slice of the musical universe. "When the Refugee All Stars came through town, I'd never heard much about them, but the music held up. They were actual refugees! They'd formed this band in refugee camps in Sierra Leone." He wrangled an interview with a member of the group, and was unprepared for the horrors the man shared. "I'd sit across from this guy and he'd tell me about being tortured. That was something, to look someone right in the eye and tell them about that." He pauses, obviously still haunted by the episode. "To get somebody who can bring a cultural experience to the table, that's a great thing. It's like going to another place."
One show he's particularly proud of featured his interview with Daryl Jones, the bassist who replaced Bill Wyman in the Rolling Stones in 1993. When the Stones played a Missoula concert in 2006, the members stayed at the Resort at Paws Up. Seeking to connect with Jones to talk about the bassist's non-Stones stints with the likes of Sting and Miles Davis, Floridis circumvented the red tape by reaching out through Jones' website, and was granted access to the Stones' inner sanctum.
"Security was intense," he says. "They had people walking around with German Shepherds." The resulting segment was about Jones, not the Stones. "Daryl was fascinating. It was the essence of a lot of what we're looking for." He later received a message from Jones that said, "I think we got away with one."
"So that was cool."
Floridis and I talked on a recent afternoon about 10 weeks after he'd undergone heart surgery to repair a faulty valve, a condition called severe aortic stenosis. If left untreated, he said with a shrug, "it's 100 percent fatal." His recovery is going great, he assured me, and he's already easing back into his busy performance schedule. Several musicians have connected with him to offer support or to share their stories. "When [Bozeman jazz singer] Jeni Fleming found out what I was going through, she said, 'I can relate. I just had a heart attack.'"
But neither Fleming nor Floridis can hold a health-scare candle to singer-songwriter Vince Bell, who appeared on Musician's Spotlight in the late '90s. Floridis had booked him for a show at the Mammyth Bakery and persuaded him to sit for an interview afterwards. "He was in a car accident and literally died. He was resuscitated, but he was gone long enough that word got out that he'd died." Bad news travels fast, and it took awhile for the news of his survival to catch up. "He was able to read his own obituary."
As Musician's Spotlight celebrates 25 years on Montana Public Radio, Floridis doesn't see himself slowing down anytime soon.
"I'd be hard pressed to think of a time when I wasn't having fun. I always shoot for the highest common denominator. I think you can say that about public radio listeners in general—they're always looking for something deeper."
Like any good interviewer, he's also always digging for the moment when an artist reveals some gem that sparkles on a human level, not just a musical one. His 2004 tour bus interview with B.B. King is a great example, he says, and one of the show's high-water marks.
"B.B. brought a sense of place to his music. He was telling me about home, and how he's still close to friends and family there. When he said that it's not segregated anymore, and he feels more comfortable going home, that was one of those moments." The late blues legend couldn't have been a nicer guy, he adds, even offering Floridis a sugar-free soda ("I have diabetes," King explained).
Floridis the musician who became Floridis the radio host shakes his head at Floridis the B.B. King fan. "I still have that Diet Coke can in a glass bell jar."
Catch Musician's Spotlight every Thursday, from 7:30 to 8 PM, on Montana Public Radio.