Ralph Deward Epperson was born on April 5, 1921, in “The Hollows,” a community more commonly known as Ararat, Virginia. Although Ralph did not play a musical instrument, he played a tremendous role in preserving Surry County’s old-time, bluegrass and gospel music. Growing up he recorded his family and neighbors on lacquer discs. Ralph’s mother, Lula Watson Epperson, wanted him to become a preacher, but as he leaned toward radio broadcasting he thought about spreading the gospel to many elderly and shut-in people in the northwest North Carolina and southwest Virginia area.
After college at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and working at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., he came home to Ararat with plans to build a radio station to reflect the values and music of the area. With the help of his father, Harry A. Epperson, he built the first radio station in Surry County, WPAQ. When asked why he played the mountain music of the area, Ralph explained, “When there are 25 stations doing the same thing up and down the dial, why should I be number 26?” On February 2, 1948, WPAQ hit the airwaves and came into listeners’ homes and hearts.
Over the years, musicians such as Charlie and Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones, Mac Wiseman, Jim Eanes, Mother Maybelle Carter and June Carter, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs performed on WPAQ. Even though more commercial recordings were becoming available for broadcasting, Ralph used his recording equipment to record local groups’ programs and segments for later airplay on WPAQ. Over the years Ralph built an extensive music library by recording performances at the station, including Blue Ridge Spotlight performances and Merry-Go-Round performances, local fiddlers’ conventions, the Autumn Leaves Festival, and local bluegrass festivals and camp meetings. Today, many of Ralph’s recordings are housed at the UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection in Chapel Hill.
Over the course of his broadcasting career, Ralph was presented with many awards. Two of the honors Ralph earned in 1991, were the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society and the International Bluegrass Music Association Merit Award. In 1998, he received A Rose While You Live Award from the National Council from the Traditional Arts. Then, in 2006, he was inducted into the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and in 2008, he was inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame.
Ralph was a marvelous storyteller and his programs on WPAQ were always uplifting and educational. Not only did Ralph play Surry County’s local music on WPAQ, but he also told the story behind the music and preserved it as well. In 1999, Paul Brown produced a CD from Ralph’s personal recording collection on the Rounder Records label. WPAQ: The Voice of the Blue Ridge Mountains provides an excellent sampling of every genre of music native to the area, from black gospel quartets to old-time to early country and bluegrass music. After Ralph’s death on May 31, 2006, Ralph’s son, Kelly, and his wife, Jennifer, as well as the WPAQ staff are carrying on Ralph’s work playing the local old-time, bluegrass, and gospel music of Surry County and the surrounding area.