Nick Spitzer sits with a microphone, headphones and a computer


Nick Spitzer, professor of anthropology, celebrates 25 years as producer and host of the public radio program “American Routes.” Broadcasting from a studio on the Tulane uptown campus, Spitzer continues to be grateful to “meet and converse” with vernacular musical artists as he brings their stories to a million listeners weekly.

(Photo by Rusty Costanza)

The numbers tell the story about Nick Spitzer, a Tulane University professor and folklorist who is celebrating 25 years as producer and host of the public radio program “American Routes.”

Broadcast from the Tulane uptown campus, Spitzer’s show airs on over 380 stations and the “American Routes” website, through which he reaches nearly a million listeners each week. He has produced more than 650 programs featuring more than 1,200 interviews.

The highlights of his career are many, but a few stand out, like the interviews he conducted with Dolly Parton, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana and Ray Charles.

“I’ll never forget the two days I spent with Ray Charles at his Modern Record studios in L.A. for a show that also aired on ‘Nightline,’” Spitzer said. “He spoke memorably about learning blues playing piano in a rural juke joint, but also performing in church.

“I’ll never forget the two days I spent with Ray Charles at his Modern Record studios in L.A. for a show that also aired on ‘Nightline.’ He spoke memorably about learning blues playing piano in a rural juke joint, but also performing in church.”

Nick Spitzer, professor of anthropology

“As a nonsighted person, music played a particular role in his vision of life. Combining blues plus gospel led him to become known as the ‘Genius of Soul.’ Ray and I stayed in touch, and later spoke about his love of country music — almost a second career for him.”

Spitzer’s guests have also included New Orleans music icons such as Dr. John, Fats Domino, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint, as well as little known artists such as Ivy Billiot, a Houma spiritualist and wood carver; Duck Holmes, a blues guitarist who runs a café in Bentonia, Mississippi; Dennis Paul Williams, a French Creole traiteur, or healer; and Belen Escobedo, a Mexican American fiddler.

“As a folklorist who’s worked in the Gulf South and elsewhere since the mid-1970s, I treasure equally, and often more so, my conversations with those who are relatively unknown,” he said. “We can learn the less known personal cultural narrative of a famous person, and universal values of humanism of those known only to their communities or families.”

Later this year, Spitzer will be awarded with one of the nation’s highest honors — a 2023 National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. He will receive the Bess Lomax Hawes Award, named in honor of the late folk musician, folklorist and scholar who Spitzer considered a mentor.

In making the announcement, NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson said Spitzer and the other eight award recipients “exemplify what it means to live an artful life. Their rich and diverse art forms connect us to the past, strengthen our communities today and give hope to future generations in ways that only the arts can.”

“Nick Spitzer’s storytelling ability is unparalleled and stems from his capacity to build authentic relationships and connections with everyone he meets,” said Brian Edwards, dean of the Tulane School of Liberal Arts. “His genuine interest in both the guests of his program and his listeners over the past 25 years has made American Routes what it is today.”

Spitzer, a professor of anthropology in the Tulane School of Liberal Arts, specializes in American music and the cultures of the Gulf South, creolization and public culture theory and practice. Through stories, songs and interviews, he showcases a broad range of American music, including blues and jazz, gospel and soul, old-time country and rockabilly, Cajun and zydeco, Tejano and Latin, roots rock and pop, avant-garde and classical.

“I am very proud of the audience that we’ve built for artists, music, cultures and the ideas that I care most about, and doing it from New Orleans and Tulane,” he said. “Meeting and conversing with so many great vernacular artists about their life histories, cultures, crafts and music has been a privilege.”

Spitzer began his radio career in the 1970s, serving as program director of WXPN-FM, the college radio station at the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in anthropology. Following a move to Austin to begin doctoral studies in anthropology at the University of Texas, his field studies took him to rural Afro-Creole French Louisiana, where he immersed himself in the local culture, language, traditions and music. Spitzer later launched the Louisiana Folklife Program, and he helped create the Baton Rouge Blues Festival and the Folklife Pavilion at the Louisiana World Exposition.

At the Smithsonian Institution, he curated programs for the Festival of American Folklife. He was also artistic director for seven seasons of Folk Masters at Carnegie Hall and Wolf Trap, and the American Roots Independence Day concerts on the National Mall throughout the 1990s — all heard nationally on public radio.

“It occurred to me that I could reach even more people at less cost with an eclectic but unified weekly music mix on public radio of studio recordings and interviews with thematic ideas.”

Since beginning American Routes in 1998, he has received numerous honors, including a Guggenheim, an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, Louisiana Humanist of the Year, and Lifetime Awards from the University of Louisiana, the Louisiana Folklore Society and others.

“I’m inclined to hang on to producing and hosting American Routes as long as I can. I want to remind Americans what we share culturally and what distinguishes us in the best sense of diversity and inclusion.”