“Frettin’ Fingers” host Jim Hilmar talks with bass player Brendan Wires during his show at the KSER-FM studio. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“Frettin’ Fingers” host Jim Hilmar talks with bass player Brendan Wires during his show at the KSER-FM studio. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Frettin’ Fingers’ host fills the airwaves with guitar greats

It was 21 years ago, but Jim Hilmar can still remember the first song he played on KSER-FM.

Jim Hilmar is the longtime host of “Frettin’ Fingers” on KSER 90.7 FM, Everett’s independent public radio station.

For the past 21 years, he’s played swing, pop, jazz, blues, country, rockabilly and R&B over the airwaves and interviewed well-known musicians, such as guitarist Roger Fisher from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Heart and Laurence Juber, lead guitarist with Paul McCartney and Wings from 1978 to 1981.

Hilmar, who also plays guitar, is a record collector and former music journalist. He is an expert in country from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, which he calls the “golden age of hillbilly music.” His band, Some Other Guys, will play rock ‘n’ roll covers May 3 at Tony V’s Garage on Hewitt Avenue in Everett.

Here, Hilmar, 65, reflects on how he got into radio, his favorite memories from the past two decades and why public radio matters to the community.

When did you realize your passion for radio?

I’ve loved radio since I was a kid. I’m an “Army brat” and grew up listening to the Armed Forces Radio Network in Italy and Korea, AM stations in Kansas such as WHB in Kansas City and AM and FM stations in Western Washington, including KOL and KJR, which featured legendary Pacific Northwest DJ’s Danny Holiday and Pat O’Day.

What’s it like having your own show on a public radio station?

It’s really fantastic. I get to share my interest and passion with an audience that is like-minded. And if someone tunes in for the very first time and becomes intrigued by what they hear — so much so that they tune in regularly — that’s even better.

What was your first show like?

My very first show aired on Wednesday night, Nov. 19, 1997, and featured only instrumental songs in several different genres. The first song I played was a bebop steel guitar tune called “Four Wheel Drive” by steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons. Initially I thought that “Frettin’ Fingers” might work as an all-instrumental show. But I quickly realized that as much as I love instrumental guitar music, that might prove limiting, so I decided to include vocals.

Jim Hilmar preps for an edition of“Frettin’ Fingers,” which airs at 11 a.m. Saturdays on KSER-FM. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Jim Hilmar preps for an edition of “Frettin’ Fingers,” which airs at 11 a.m. Saturdays on KSER-FM. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

What’s the story behind the name of your show?

“Frettin’ Fingers” is a reference to fretting the neck of the guitar, which is when you depress a string or strings just behind a fret or frets to play chords and notes. “Frettin’ Fingers” is also my show’s theme song, written and performed by one of my all-time favorite guitarists, Jimmy Bryant.

How does your guitar playing and music knowledge play into the show?

All of the music hosts on KSER have great expertise and passion for their respective shows. As a guitar player, I bring a musician’s perspective to my show, which influences which songs, players and artists I select for airplay. I was a guitar-related journalist from about 1990 to 2002, so I bring a writer’s perspective as well. I’m also a record collector, and that gives me a lot of interesting history to draw upon.

What music do you like to play and why?

For the last five years I’ve been in a band, Some Other Guys, and I’ve been fortunate to play a variety of music that caters to people who like to dance. I enjoy playing everything from the rockabilly of Carl Perkins and The Blasters to the great pop sounds of The Beatles and Tom Petty, and lots more. I’m a real fan of instrumental guitar music by artists like Duane Eddy, The Ventures, The Fireballs and Link Wray, and I’ve written and recorded several original guitar-powered instrumental songs. I also love jazz and country.

How do you decide which artists and songs to feature?

The official mission statement of “Frettin’ Fingers” is “To educate, entertain and inspire.” To that end, I try to feature an eclectic blend of guitar-related music that includes swing, pop, jazz, vintage hillbilly and country music, instrumental guitar-surf, rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues and steel guitar, too. I also feature music from the 1930s all the way to this year.

One of the trademarks of my show is weaving in some brief history, a factoid or two and exploring a specific theme in a set. I also take requests. Through the years, I’ve had more than one listener tell me that listening to “Frettin’ Fingers” on a regular basis is like getting a Ph.D. level course in music history and appreciation every week.

Tell me about your area of expertise, the “golden age of hillbilly music.”

My parents loved to dance and that included square dancing. The music they square danced to was country and I heard it from a very early age. The golden age of hillbilly music for me is the late 1940s, 1950s and in to the 1960s. I was captivated by the singers, song titles, lyrics and instrumentation in country music.

I began reading as much as I could find about the songs, artists and musicians. I discovered I had a knack for remembering a lot of details like which musicians played on which songs, who wrote the songs, what year the song was recorded. I feature country music on almost every edition of “Frettin’ Fingers.” And quite often the country music I play is from my collection of great old 45 RPM vinyl records.

What is one of your favorite memories from your time on radio?

Several years ago, I started getting fairly regular calls from a “Frettin’ Fingers” listener who eventually told me his name was “Danny.” He told me that he liked my approach to doing radio. During one phone call he told me we were going to be working together. I said “You’re Danny, right?” And he said, “Yes, Danny Holiday.” And I said, “The Danny Holiday who I listened to on KOL radio back in the 1960s?” He said, “Yes, that’s me. I’m bringing my ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Time Machine’ show to KSER, and I’ve asked the station management to let me sit in with you a few times so you can help me get familiar with how radio is done at KSER.” To be able to work with Danny, who was born and raised in Everett, get to know him and become friends is a real highlight of my radio career. He died in 2012.

Jim Hilmar has hosted “Frettin’ Fingers” on KSER-FM for 21 years. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Jim Hilmar has hosted “Frettin’ Fingers” on KSER-FM for 21 years. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Who have been some of your most memorable guests?

I’ve had a lot of great guests in the studio with me over the years. Favorites include Neil Andersson and the late Dudley Hill, who were wonderful guitarists and founding members of Pearl Django; Laurence Juber, who was Paul McCartney’s last lead electric guitar player in Wings; Jan Kurtis, a great drummer and music industry veteran (and a treasure trove of wonderful musical stories); Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Roger Fisher of Heart; Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo, two tremendously talented jazz guitarists; Birch Pereira and Jason Goessel, two very talented local players, Liam Fitzgerald; a talented local country-oriented singer-songwriter and guitarist who fronts The Rainieros; Jerry Battista, a great local player who is in several top-notch bands including The Davanos and The Dusty 45s; and Jay Roberts, a fantastically versatile player who is also the son of legendary jazz guitarist Howard Roberts.

How long do you plan to stay on the air?

At this point I have no immediate plans to retire from radio. I still enjoy it. And I really appreciate and value the relationship I’ve developed with my listeners. In fact, some of my listeners have been tuning in to “Frettin’ Fingers” for more than 20 years.

What role does local public radio play in the community?

Like the Everett Herald, KSER radio provides an important local perspective and a local voice to the community. In this age where bigger and distant seems to be the rule, KSER is smaller and accessible. You can actually walk right up to the station, knock on the door, and come in and visit. And during our pledge drives, we really encourage this.

Why support the station?

KSER is local radio staffed by people who live here in Western Washington. There isn’t a corporate headquarters back east dictating our content. We have the freedom to select music and topics for our broadcasts. And that’s something that is in short supply these days. KSER is personal radio. I’ve had many listeners tell me that they feel like they know me, even though we may not have actually met in person. And I think that personal connection along with the great programming is definitely worth supporting.

Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, ethompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.

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