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WOSTER: Rockin' out with KOMA united a Midwest generation

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opinion Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

It's probably no coincidence that singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton was born in Oklahoma. A lot of us old folks were (uh, figuratively, anyway).

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Many people know Axton's music. You'd have to have grown up in another universe not to recognize "Joy to the World'' and "Never Been to Spain.'' Both were hits for Three Dog Night. Waylon Jennings did a nice job with "Never Been to Spain,'' but no one sang it as well as the guy who wrote it.

One line in that song goes, "Well, I never been to Heaven, but I've been to Oklahoma.'' I've never been to Heaven. It's on my post-bucket list. We'll see. Physically and geographically, I've never been to Oklahoma, either. That doesn't mean I've never been to Oklahoma. As a teenager in Lyman and Brule counties, I went to Oklahoma nearly every evening. I just cranked up the AM radio and tuned it to 1520. That brought in KOMA with its strong signal and crowd-pleasing rock and roll playlist all the way from Oklahoma City.

When I say I was born in Oklahoma, I mean that in, you know, the metaphorical sense or something. Of course I was born in Mitchell, January, 1944. But when I first heard my first song from KOMA, it was like being born all over again and being totally alive to an incredible new sound that spoke directly to boys and girls just like me. We were all different, us kids from the 1950s and 1960s, but we were one in the music, and the best, latest and hottest music was coming to us loud and clear from the heart of Oklahoma straight through the speakers of our radios.

In my part of the country in those days, many stations shut down about the time the sun went down. That's when KOMA was pumping up the volume. It was one of the few night-time radio stations a kid could find. I used to listen to a station in Del Rio, Texas, once in a while. A friend's big sister used to argue that a station in Sioux City was the best, but I rarely was able to find it. Sometimes on clear nights, a signal came in from a pretty decent rock and roll station in Chicago. Those were all iffy, though. KOMA was always there and always playing Buddy and Elvis, Jerry Lee and Brenda Lee, Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers. I came of age with all of those artists and their songs, courtesy of a mighty radio station in a place I'd never physically visited.

I've talked before about dialing in 1520 on the old console radio in my bedroom and crawling out the west window onto the slanted porch roof to lie on my back, study the stars and experience the magic of early rock and roll. I could not have been the only kid who did that. I could not have been the only kid, either, who cruised the main drag in a '58 Chevy with KOMA playing, or who sat in the driveway in the family station wagon running down the battery as the DJs from KOMA ran down the week's top hits. Whether a kid was love-struck, love-sick or love-starved, it didn't matter. The music matched the mood.

These days when I drive, I have the dial set to an all-'50s satellite station, or I play old discs with songs that lift my spirits as certainly as KOMA did more than 50 years ago. Some critics say the music was unrealistic, too simple to be true. I don't care. It made me feel better when I was down, and it brought indescribable joy when I was feeling good. All I know is, the music made me happy. It still does.

KOMA is being inducted into the South Dakota Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this weekend. It's a good choice. It's a station that represents a time when all of us cats and chicks thought we'd change the world, right after the next record.

I've still never been to Oklahoma. To paraphrase Hoyt Axton, though, "They tell me I was born there, and I really do remember.''

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