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For more than a decade, Mike Rhyner and Greg Williams, host of the Hardline sports talk show on KTCK radio, have memorialized the sinking of the largest ship to ply the great lakes. This unlikely homage has become an annual event at the station with numerous experts and novices calling in to take part in the tribute.
"It was really random and really crazy," says Rhyner. "It was our first year on the air, and I was talking about having this gift for remembering words to lengthy songs."
Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was one of the songs Rhyner proudly claimed to have memorized. After the casual mention, the phone calls and e-mails flooded the station. Rhyner and Williams have since interviewed several authorities on the subject including the captain of the ship that recovered the Fitzgerald's bell and stanchion.
"At first, I didn't know anything about the original story behind the song," says Rhyner. "But the next day, after reading all the e-mails, I think I knew everything."
Not a real big fan of Gordon Lightfoot to begin with, Rhyner discovered that the on- and off-air discussions of the song and the inspiration behind it revealed something intrinsically transcendent about the topic. Even co-host Corby Davidson, who was not a member of the crew when the discussion first began, has been pulled along for the ride.
"Some things are just quirky and random," says Rhyner. "They just hit some sort of idiosyncratic nerve."
Along with a historical interest in the Edmund Fitzgerald, Rhyner has, over the years, begun to better appreciate Lightfoot's place in music history.
"Lightfoot started out as not a terribly well-known Canadian folkie, but I've grown to really enjoy his songs, especially 'Sundown' and 'Carefree Highway.'"
With his deteriorating health (the singer was in a two-month coma in 2002 following an abdominal hemorrhage), Lightfoot has cut back on his recording and touring schedule, but Rhyner is anxious to catch the upcoming performance.
"I've grown to have a sizable regard for what he does," says Rhyner. "And we have been promised by Lightfoot's people to get him on the air with us."
When and if that happens, it will mark yet another departure from the typical talk of a sports station, a fact that pleases Rhyner. "People call in all the time complaining about us not talking sports," Rhyner says, displaying that aged surliness that listeners have grown to love. "I say, 'Go screw yourself, we do what we want.'"