Music City Roots: Thoughts after two seasons
(This is reposted and adapted from my String Theory Media blog)
Last week, Music City Roots: Live From The Loveless Cafe closed its second season with what feels like incredible momentum. With each passing week, it seems like our audience is bigger and more enthusiastic, and we’re hearing raves back from the artists and musicians who’ve played the show. People are tuning in from around the country and the world. It’s not where we want it to be ultimately but it’s on its way.
Clearly, I’m not an objective observer here. I’m part of the show as an interviewer, writer, blogger and creative advisor. But I will say that as beautifully as the show was described to me at the outset by co-producers Todd Mayo and John Walker, there were no guarantees that it would succeed or that it would be able to get through a half year with its original ethos in tact. I’m not just happy that it has done so; I’m ecstatic. I think in all sincerity that it’s going to be one of the pillars of the new Nashville. Music City has been badly in need of artist development avenues that have nothing to do with the foundering mainstream music business. And while Roots can’t be and shouldn’t be the only channel for that effort, it stands ready and proven to be a major source of energy, inspiration and communication for the sounds and spirit that drew many of us here in the first place.
Ever since I researched and wrote about the history of WSM and Nashville’s music business, I’ve been achingly aware of the gigantic void left behind after the sale of TNN, the closure of Opryland Productions and the bulldozing of Opryland USA. While the Gaylord Entertainment complex of the 1980s and 90s produced plenty of fluffy and cheesy stuff, it also gave a national platform for real deal country and roots music. The production operation pushed Nashville music to the world, and the Opryland music park (a more accurate description than amusement park) drew the world in, up to 2 million visitors a year, creating word of mouth and romance – a social network decades before we heard of such a thing. I’m proud that Music City Roots is going out under the WSM/Gaylord banner. They’re uniquely positioned to reclaim the mantle they held for fifty years as Nashville’s chief curator and presenter of the good stuff.
Across the music business, everything old is new again. And none too soon. Vinyl recordings are growing as new generations discover the fidelity and tangible wonder of proper analog music. Labels like Jack White’s Third Man Records are releasing singles and treating each release like a unique work of art. Folks like the Ten out of Tenn collective are rolling around the country putting on package shows that give audiences a great sampler of emerging talent. And we at Music City Roots are trying to cultivate the oldest formula in broadcast entertainment: Talent plus Platform plus Sponsor equals a SHOW. We aim to PRESENT the artists as worthy of individual attention and respect. We want all flavors of rooted music to be part of the adventure, from the grinding country punk of Dex Romweber to the buoyant rock gospel of Mike Farris to the hard-edged bluegrass of Larry Sparks to the ethereal folk of this week’s guest Maura O’Connell. We’ve had a lot great music on the show so far and nearly nobody I wouldn’t recommend to a friend.
Last week Todd and John came to a seminar I attended and explained the vision of the show to an audience of bluegrass business people and musicians. I’d heard the spiel before, but it sounded completely fresh because it came from such a genuine place. In a town where one constantly hears thoroughgoing businesspeople say “it’s all about the music” when they clearly don’t mean it, Mayo and Walker don’t even have to say it. They have the guts to assume that if you present the best possible artistry, tied historically and culturally to Music City’s past and present, then the business will follow. It’s not about maximizing return on investment; it’s about maximizing authenticity and entertainment.
If you haven’t come out to the Loveless Cafe Barn or tuned the show in (on WSM-AM or WSMonline.com at 7 pm on Wednesdays), please do. We absolutely need to build an audience, locally and internationally. To the media I’d say, this is a story with every element you could ask for – historic relevance, new business smarts, low-tech, high-tech, access to artists, venerable Nashville brands. To fans, I’d offer huge thanks and urge you to use the miraculous tools we have now to spread the word.
Craig is a writer, filmmaker and consultant in Nashville.