Zuel points camera at music scene

Lawrence resident shares blues enthusiasm with viewers

Merle Zuel has done everything he can to keep himself close to the blues music that he loves.


Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

Nathan Witte, left, and Merle Zuel have combined their talents to produce a public access television show about the music scene in Lawrence. The show airs on Channel 19.

He's taken jobs doing everything from bouncing rowdy club patrons to booking the musicians that fill the smoky halls he loves to frequent.

Zuel can't play a lick himself, so he's always looking for ways to get up-close and personal with people in the music scene.

His latest venture, however, allows him to share his deep affection for the blues with thousands of TV viewers. He's the producer-host of a new cable show called "Crossroads: A Living History of the Blues."

The public access program airs at 11 p.m. Tuesdays and 9 p.m. Thursdays on Channel 19.

"I try to emphasize and document the modern artist that keeps that type of music going, and how they were influenced by great, older musicians," Zuel said. "And hopefully that will inspire people to see the bands, and will inspire young people to explore other types of music."

An unscripted look

Zuel came up with the concept a few months ago and since then has aired three episodes. He also has shot the footage for several more and has the concepts for future programs outlined.

Each episode is shot in a different locale, and Zuel, as he learns to use the digital camera he uses to shoot footage, tries to give each show a unique look by experimenting with various shots and lenses.

He sees the blues scene as something ever-evolving, so he doesn't want the show to look too scripted or formulated.

And one other thing: Despite the fact that he is the creator-producer-cameraman-editor-narrator, Zuel wants the emphasis on the music and not on himself.

"I don't want it to seem like it is 'The Merle Show,'" he said with a laugh. "Though my friends have called me Mr. DeMille and suggested I get a megaphone and a hat so I can direct."

What: �Crossroads: A Living History of the Blues.�When: 11 p.m. Tuesdays and 9 p.m. Thursdays.Where: Channel 19.

Zuel does have help on the productions. Nat Witte provides computer consultation, particularly when it comes to editing the footage using software. Zuel would like to get a second camera operator and some addition technical support as the show continues to expand.

"Technically, we're on a learning curve. The more sense it makes the easier it gets. It took me 10 days to edit the first show, and six hours to do the third," he said.

A real music lover

Zuel books the bands for Stu's Midtown Tavern, a gig he has had for the last year and a half. But his love of the blues goes all the way back to his childhood.

"I always loved the blues. I just didn't know it. When I was young I listened to old eight-track tapes of Black Oak Arkansas and ZZ Top, which are twisted forms of the blues. I didn't know I liked blues. I thought it was rock 'n' roll," he said.

Zuel credits moving to Lawrence as the turning point in his own musical journey. When he arrived, bands like Stick, Paw and Tenderloin were big, and they stirred his desire to be more involved with the music he loved.

"That sort of reawakened me to check out the music scene," he said.

Zuel made sure he had some job in the clubs so he could get to know more about the creative process, the musicians, their influences and even the type of equipment they used. He wanted to make contacts with the music world, and since he could not play, he found that working in the bars helped keep him close to the music.

"Music has always been a part of it. ... I've worked strip bars, heavy metal bars, biker bars. It's hard to find your spot if you're not a musician, and that was my way to be in the scene," he said.


Now that "Crossroads" is on the air, Zuel can share his music preference with others. He uses interviews and narration, and he experiments with how he films each program. Still, his main goal is to let the music speak for itself.

For his first episode, he shot on his back porch, as musicians worked up an improvisational jam session. His second episode revolved around a benefit performance at the Grand Emporium in Kansas City, Mo.

"I try to come up with a look that suits the band's personality, and I'm trying to get each show to stand on its own and be interesting to the audience," Zuel said.

Upcoming shows will feature Scott Ellison, Blues 88, W.C. Clark, Trip Wire and The Flood.

The bands have been cooperative so it has been a positive experience so far for the fledgling TV producer.

"The artists are receptive, and who doesn't want free exposure, especially when they are starting out?" he said.

Zuel enjoys the blues because it allows for many styles and interpretations, and that means that the musicians really have to develop their skills.

"Good blues requires good musicianship, and that means they have to know more than three chords. Even if a song only uses three chords they still have to know them all," he said with another laugh.


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