Roots Radio from the Ground Up: A Chat with Craig Havighurst
One of the only recent bright spots in Americana radio is the recent addition of WMOT, serving the greater Nashville area. Craig Havighurst has been there from the beginning and has a genuine passion for the unique art of radio interviews.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio? What other stations have you worked at and what were the stations like?
Craig Havighurst: I dabbled in college radio in the ’80s but I feel like my first immersion came when I wrote my book Air Castle of the South, about the story and legacy of WSM-AM in Nashville. I’d grown up on NPR and A Prairie Home Companion, and I identified with the people who made WSM a powerful force before and after World War II. So I was inherently fascinated with the medium and I was pulled over from print journalism. Not long after the book came out in 2007, I got schooled in radio reporting by the news director at WPLN-FM/Nashville Public Radio and I produced a bunch of music/culture features for them and for NPR.
I got a call one day from the guys who were planning to launch Music City Roots on WSM, and in the fall of 2009 we got it on the air. From then until now I’ve been the show’s interviewer and journalist and I’ve produced our syndicated show for about 40 affiliates. Locally, we’ve moved around to different stations, (WSM, Lightning 100, Hippie Radio) and now found a long-term home in partnership with WMOT-FM,
What is your role at the station?
I just this week took on a new formal role as managing producer for music news for WMOT, so I’ll be working with the staff to produce a range of shows and features that tell the story of roots music and Middle Tennessee. I host the feature interview show The String. I do spot news features and 90 Second Spin record reviews. I get help from student journalists in MTSU’s College of Media and Entertainment. That said, I also love taking the occasional DJ shift when one of our hosts needs a sub.
How do you describe your show?
The String is a long-form interview show covering culture, media, and American music. It’s still young but, hey, two of my guests so far – Bobby Rush and Mark O’Connor – just won Grammy awards! Besides music makers, I’m interested in authors, filmmakers, and producers. I say “American music” and not “Americana” because I want to be free to go anywhere with it. We are contemplating a weekly panel-style topical show as well.
How do you prepare for your shows?
It was a real gift to find a path to broadcast interviewing, because I discovered that I enjoy it as much as anything I’ve ever done, and I think I’ve developed some skills. I really admire Charlie Rose, Terry Gross, and Tom Ashbrook, and I aspire to be as prepared as they are. That means knowing your subject’s story and knowing what needs to be covered in a set amount of time. It also means leaving some flexibility to let a topic develop fully.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
In college I yearned to get outside the alternative rock bubble but wasn’t sure where to turn, but I began to nose around with questions about bluegrass. A guy I met gave me a dubbed cassette with a mid ’80s Rounder Records sampler on one side and the first Tony Rice/Norman Blake duo album on the other, and those recordings opened the doors. I was teaching myself guitar, and the Blake and Rice project was like a guidepost or a roadmap. Not long after that I made a point to go see Doc Watson, who was from my home state of North Carolina, live in person, and that was equally powerful.
Who are your favorite recording artists from any genre?
I grew up playing classical music with formal training and I grew into loving and playing jazz (drums and bass) in high school, so my orientation about music sees composed music, improvisational music, and roots/handmade music as different, somewhat overlapping zones on the same plane. I count violinist Hilary Hahn, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and composer-bandleader-bass player Charles Mingus among my most profound musical heroes. That kind of colors the roots/Americana artists I’ve most loved with regards to their virtuosity and inventiveness, so that implies Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile, whom I regard as the most exceptional and wide-ranging musical genius of his generation in any genre.
How do you define what Americana music is?
I’m very clear with everyone that it really helps to think of it accurately, which is a musical format that embraces a range of vital American genres rather than a genre in itself. I saw one concise description I loved calling it “a commercial category and artistic community.” That sums it up. And it is a very special community indeed that sets a high bar for quality but offers a wide open invitation to participate and seek one’s own artistic identity.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
While we are lucky at WMOT to have a university-backed commitment to Americana, I worry that the culture is going to curated playlists in the digital services. Nothing wrong with that, but I think traditional radio is going to have to be really great at creating a sense of localism and community to stay relevant to people. A not-good trend is that new car dashboard displays are hiding the radio dial behind screens that preference apps like Pandora and Spotify. As if radio needs any more disadvantages.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Man, hard to prioritize. I wish more people knew about and cherished Greyhounds out of Austin. I think Trey Hensley and Rob Ickes are one of the most astonishing acts out there. Abigail Washburn hung the moon. Billy Strings is the future of bluegrass. So there’s a few!
Do you have any other interesting hobbies you wish to share?
I keep trying to lure my friends into the wonderful exciting world of following Indycar and Formula One racing, but I’m having limited success.
How do you want to be remembered?
As an explainer and evangelist.