WSEV blazed a trail of tales

April 16, 1999

By Walker Johnson, Special to the News-Sentinel

If you are lucky enough to be invited into Mary Sue Poe's Sevierville home, you just might be shown a very special 45-rpm record.

The label is Gold Band; the "A"-side song is "A Girl Left Alone" and the writer and singer of the country tune is a 10-year-old girl.

You see, Mary Sue worked at Sevier County's WSEV, 930-AM, at the same time the 10-year-old and her uncles were airing a live show from the studios.

They used the station's tape machines to lay down "A Girl Left Alone," then had the record pressed from the tape.

After you are shown the record, Mary Sue just might ask, "Would you like to hear a smidge?"

The first thing you notice is the age of the vinyl, reflected in the scratches and sound quality.

Then a young, high, distinctive voice rises above her uncles' guitars.

There is no need to read the label or ask who this kid is. That voice is one of a kind and it belongs to Dolly Parton. The song is 43 years old, and it was among her very first records. WSEV was the location of the recording.

The Dolly record is just the beginning of the remembrances of the station by Poe.

She was one of the first onboard the station and has an abundance of memories concerning its growth.

WSEV was fashioned after one of the South's most popular radio stations, WSB in Atlanta.

Poe explained the plan: "Skip Trotter had the vision for WSEV, and he was the force behind the station. Skip implemented the WSB-style of 'block' programming where the day was broken down into different segments. We signed on at in the morning with country music.

"We then played pop stuff from 8 until 11, and at 11 we had a live gospel show from Robertson Brothers Hardware."

Afternoons on WSEV were very active and almost always out of the studio.

"From 2 until sign-off we were on location," she said. "WSEV had a remote studio in downtown Gatlinburg in front of the New Gatlinburg Inn. It only held three people and sat right on the street. The show was called 'Tourist Time' and featured interviews with people from out of town, along with popular music played right from the studio."

In the mid-1960s when "Tourist Time" would throw it back to the home studio for the local news, a young college kid named Al Schmutzer would be the anchor. That combination newscaster and station engineer is now the district attorney general based in Sevier County.

The street studio in Gatlinburg wasn't the only remote location from which WSEV operated. Poe said the remote shows were so popular that the station engineer, A.T. Henderson, designed a portable studio. Decades before the days of traveling sound systems and remote vans, WSEV had a way to play music right from a store.

Poe said the remote unit was unique, to say the least.

"Mr. Henderson designed it to hold the turntables, board, records and microphones. He put the entire studio in a case that looked just like a casket, complete with brass handles and lid."

The casket studio turned up everywhere from local town functions to "The Bonnie Lou and Buster Show."

Another piece of history that Poe is especially proud to relate concerns WSEV's entrance into the world of FM broadcasting.

"In 1961 we put on WSEV-FM, and it was the first stereo FM station in the South to go on the air and stay on the air. The afternoon we got it on the air, Skip Trotter and I drove all over the hills of Sevier County to see if we had a good signal.

"Then late that afternoon, Skip and George Myers got a phone line put into the Maury High School gym and did a basketball game on the station that very night. We were on with 22,000 watts doing a game before anyone even knew we existed."

Just about everything at WSEV had a story behind it, even the call letters.

Poe said the listeners were invited to decide just what they should stand for and there were many suggestions. The one that stuck was "We Serve Every Vacationer."

WSEV also adopted the slogan "Your Vacation Station" in keeping with the theme of the calls.

The talent list from the station includes many familiar names. AAA spokesman Don Lindsey was a jock for a while along with former WIMZ newsman Colvin Idol.

Phil Williams came out of Kentucky and landed a job at the Vacation Station, left, and later returned to the FM side.

Today, the famed remote studios are gone, the block programming has given over to country and the ownership has changed hands several times since it went on the air back in '55.

The lineage of the FM is interesting. That 22,500-watt stereo station that Skip, Mary and George listened to on that cold February day back in the hollers of Sevier County evolved into WMYU, Oldies 102.1.

AM-930 is still WSEV and now has an FM sister station with call letters WDLY, 105.5. That 10-year-old kid is still singing there, but this time her songs are on CDs, and the FM call letters reflect her first name.

Note: Dolly purchased WSEV several years ago and created the FM station bearing her name.