Dan Rather was born 10 years before America entered World War II, is more familiar with long-ago singing cowboy Tex Ritter than his actor son John, and took a stab at playing bassoon as a child growing up in Texas. In other words, he’s admittedly the last person anyone would associate with rock & roll. “I once said to my wife Jean, ‘Why didn’t I catch on to rock & roll earlier?’” Rather says. “She said, ‘Dan, for one thing, you were working all the time.’ And that’s true. I began covering the civil-rights movement in 1962 and I was home 31 days a year. The movement was exploding, so for whatever reason I was unaware of rock & roll.”
Belatedly, the iconic newsman is catching up. Starting in 2013, he launched the AXS TV series The Big Interview, in which he sits down for Q&As largely with figures from the entertainment world. But pop music has dominated the series, resulting in the somewhat surreal sight of Rather grilling classic rockers (Neil Young, John Fogerty, Bob Weir, Robert Plant), indie-alt acts (R.E.M., Jack White), arena rockers (Styx, Foreigner), metal types (Gene Simmons, Bret Michaels), prog veterans (Geddy Lee, Yes’ Jon Anderson), and country acts (Willie Nelson, Shania Twain, Charlie Daniels).
“I’m sorry to say that during the first fifth of my life I was ignorant about music,” Rather says. “Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate a lot of music, including classical and pop music. And even now a few things about rock & roll.”
The show’s eighth season, which launches April 15th, will include episodes pairing Rather with Robbie Robertson, Huey Lewis, Debbie Harry, “American Pie” songwriter Don McLean, and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, among others. So it seemed like the right time to finally sit Rather down and ask, “What’s the frequency, Dan?”
The Big Interview is starting its eighth season, and right from the start, the show featured pop musicians. How did that become the focus?
Until a few months back, Mark Cuban owned AXS TV. Eight years ago he wanted to reposition his cable and satellite channel to pop culture. At that time I was doing a hard news program for him, and Mark, who has been wonderful to me, said, “Look, I need for business reasons to reposition the network and what I want you to do is do an in-depth interview program. It would be good for you and for us.” It was clear he wanted to emphasize musicians.
Quite frankly, my first reaction was, “Gosh, I don’t know. You’re asking me to interview musicians, but if Hank Williams or Ernest Tubb didn’t sing it, I don’t know it.” Quickly, he said, “Why don’t you try it? If it doesn’t work out, we’ll try something else.”
So that’s what happened. I thought I’d two or three interviews and say, “Mark, this isn’t my thing.” I had to start virtually from ground zero. But somewhat to my surprise, I found it a challenge and pretty interesting to get enough up to speed and carry on a decent interview.
You grew up listening to country music, right?
Yes, in the Texas of my youth, the Thirties and Forties, it was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Roy Acuff. I wasn’t exposed to other types of music until college. I went to a small college in Texas and some students there were into popular music at the time. Once on campus, a boy introduced bebop as a way to dance. And this is not a joke, but the college administrator at the time seriously considered indicting him! [Laughs] It was so scandalous.
Rock & roll began when you were in your mid-twenties. What did you make of it then?
My first reaction was, “Wow, this really is — how can I call it — happy music.” In 1954 or ’55, I was working at the radio station in Houston, KTRH, which had a live program every day. Various artists would come in to be interviewed and play a record or something. One day this young man who was not my age but close enough to me was introduced to me as “this young man who’s up and coming.” It was Elvis Presley. He said he was either driving a truck or had been driving a truck.
What rock events do you wish you had covered — Woodstock or Altamont, things like that?
Yes, all of those. Especially Woodstock. It was one of the premier cultural events of the second half of the 20th century. I wish I had been there. The reporter in me always wants to be where the biggest story is, and for one fleeting moment Woodstock was the biggest story around.
I once did a story on Studio 54. Not that it was rock & roll, but God knows it was a happening place. I remember being told in doing my homework for that piece that “disco is beginning to displace rock & roll.” Of course, it never replaced it. I never got into disco. It was empty compared to rock & roll.
In the first season of The Big Interview, you sat down with Melissa Etheridge and Linda Ronstadt. Did those interviews whet your appetite for doing more?
Absolutely. Linda Ronstadt, for instance. I knew who she was and I had heard some of her music. But her life story is epic.
This was a whole new world, this world of studying musicians, and one thing I remember that stood out that first year or two was what good businesspeople many of these people are. Toby Keith, for example. I did know who he was. You can think what you will of his music, but I had no idea he was such a terrific businessman. And that’s much more common [among musicians] than I would have thought.
How much listening do you do for prep?
A minimum of two hours. One of the three people I work with puts together a pitch reel, if you will, which includes music performances. It’s kind of a cheat sheet. I may listen for half an hour or 45 minutes and then another half hour later. What they turn up in research is something to behold.
What did you learn about Neil Young, who was on the show in 2016?
Doing the homework I learned about Neil and his fight against corporations and what he sees as the corporate hold on power in this country. Also I found myself quietly bonding with him. I hadn’t realized he had had a childhood bout with polio. As a child, I spent almost two years in bed with rheumatic fever, which is not as bad as polio but was an incurable disease in its time. Once I began to read about Neil’s bout with polio and how it shaped his life and career, including his ability to mentally focus, I could relate to that.
You also got to say “rock on” to him
Who were among the toughest interviews?
Ringo Starr, but not because he wanted to be difficult. We went to Atlantic City, where he was performing, and we generally ask for at least an hour and 15 minutes. They said, “I’m sorry, but we have a plane to catch so you’ll only have 15 or 20 minutes.” I said, “I can’t do this in 15 minutes.” The person we were working with, who couldn’t have been nicer, said, “Sorry, we’re up against it — you need to take the 15 minutes or we’re gone.” So I made a command decision and we sat down and while I was doing the interview, I’m thinking, “How do I keep him in this chair?” At the 20-minute mark I asked him about a charity he was involved with, and we managed to keep him for least 45 minutes.
Jack White was difficult because honestly I had never heard of him. I didn’t know the music or much about him at all. Normally I don’t get nervous before interviews, but I kept saying to myself, “Have I done enough homework?” He came in dressed in — I can’t describe the costume for the occasion — and I’m saying to myself as we sat down, “What have I gotten myself into here?” But it went well. The book on him is that he’s an uncommonly intelligent person, and he is.
You even ventured into rap with a interview with Ice Cube.
Again, I’ve had to educate myself on rap. I did not come to it naturally. But my younger grandson, Andy, got into rap. At the time I used to drive him to school, and we would listen to rap music going to and from school and he gave me a tutorial on it. I came to appreciate the talent and certainly Ice Cube was one of the most interesting people I talked to. A deep intelligence.
What was the one question you always wanted to ask a music act?
I interviewed Merle Haggard at the end of a tour, not too long before he died. He had driven all the way from somewhere in Ohio to North Carolina, and he was worn out and fatigued. He was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. But he put on a full program, with two encores.
One of my favorite moments in doing all these was when I asked Merle, “Why do you do this? Obviously you don’t need the money and you’ve had every accolade in the business. You’re out here on a rough tour. Why do you do it?” And he gave among the best answers in the whole series. He said, “Because I get lonely.” It was an honest answer and it stood out. I could certainly relate to it.
The new season includes your interview with Huey Lewis, who’s dealing with hearing loss.
I think that’s one of the most powerful pieces we’ve had. He was very frank about his hearing loss and how frightening it was — and remains — to him. Men in particular don’t like to admit their fears, and I can understand that. I lost 40 percent of my hearing during the Vietnam War. And age has contributed considerable loss to my hearing as well. As he was talking, I found it almost unimaginable that someone who would depend so much on their hearing would find themselves losing it. It was very touching.
Who struck you as the opposite of what you would have expected?
Debbie Harry. Again, someone I didn’t know a great deal about. I figured her to be much more remote and slightly aloof, and the direct opposite happened. She just walked into the room and won me and the crew right over. She couldn’t have been more unpretentious. No sense of entitlement about her. She was very honest. She had these issues with drug use and was a punk icon and all that, but she floored me by how approachable she was. She was as blunt as a punch in the nose.
Who are your dream interviews for the show?
I’d love to get Eminem. He’s one of the strongest influences on pop culture and music in the last decade and beyond. Lady Gaga I’d love to get, and Beyoncé. Taylor Swift and J-Lo — we’d do one of those in a second. I’d like to get the Dixie Chicks, who I admire. If you could produce any of those people for me, I’d dance at your wedding.
You also had R.E.M. on after they broke up. Their song “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” was named a bizarre incident in the Eighties when you were assaulted on the streets of New York by a man yelling, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” Had you been in contact with them since the song came out?
I have. I’ve not seen them recently but at least once or twice when they came to town, one of them would call me and say, “How are you doing?” I once went to a rehearsal they did.
Back in 1994, did you know that song was coming?
No. I had no idea. Then someone told me about it and I said, “You’ve got be kidding.”
Did you like the song?
I was sort of neutral about it. I didn’t take it as a slam or a necessarily a compliment. I took it the way they meant it. They intended it as, “Isn’t this a hell of a commentary on where we are in the middle of the Eighties?” What a time that was!