When I moved to Nashville in late 1996, the buzz was about Americana music, even if nobody was calling it that yet. The New York Times Magazine had recently profiled BR5-49’s honky-tonk transformation of Lower Broadway and the country-blues indie label Dead Reckoning Records. The Ryman had reopened and its well-attended summertime bluegrass nights were magic.
Nearly everything that’s happened since has vindicated belief in a bull market for roots music: The Americana Music Association was born and AmericanaFest has grown into a fall extravaganza. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was made and marketed here, became an iconic album and a generational signifier. Satellite radio launched full-time folk, alt-country, and bluegrass channels that actually pay artists well. Companies like Thirty Tigers built new business models. And I like to think the weekly show, Music City Roots, my partners and I produce has done its part to elevate Americana.
Everything has clicked except for one huge factor: traditional, terrestrial radio. If country music, the commercial pop format, and Americana are at odds (and they kind of are), then it seems to me Americana has the better ground game, while country wins in the air. Major label country music gets played on about 2,000 radio stations around the nation, subsidized by millions in major label promotional dollars. Americana, by contrast, has no money to spare on mass market promotion and gets played and promoted on radio unevenly around the country, often part-time, over fewer than 100 stations.
If you’d expect a full-time Americana station to be anywhere in the nation, it would be Nashville. But we’ve not been so fortunate. Certainly WRLT and WSM play some roots music some of the time, and there are excellent, very diverse new radio players in town in ACME (online) and WXNA (Low Power FM at 101.5). Some people, I daresay many people, have long craved a local station that spun new and classic Americana all day and night. Wouldn’t it be cool to hear, just for instance, Margo Price, Derek Hoke, and the North Mississippi All-Stars next to The Staple Singers, Jean Sheppard, Willie Nelson, and Tony Rice?
Well, it’s finally happening.
Last December, Ken Paulson, dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, quietly floated the idea of partnering with Music City Roots to turn WMOT-FM 89.5 into a full-time Americana radio station. Paulson is the former editor of USA Today and currently president of The First Amendment Center. A journalism guru for many people (including me) — not to mention a roots music fan and booster — the credibility of his vision was never in doubt.
The 100,000-watt FM signal, owned by the university since 1969, had been struggling for an identity for some time, splitting its days and nights between classical music and jazz. It wasn’t a clear reflection of MTSU’s impressive music programs or the Center for Popular Music that’s housed and hosted there. Our teams talked at length, and a big win-win scenario came into view. By the time you read this, we’ll be on the air as WMOT/Roots Radio 89.5.
What’s taking shape is a music format rooted in Nashville’s strengths and local artistry, but standing for a national ideal — a radio voice that reflects the best of American music and music cities everywhere. We’re calling it “Americana: Deep and Wide.” Our music director, through several miracles of kismet, is Jessie Scott, who’s arguably the nation’s most admired and accomplished Americana programmer. This pink-haired force of nature and fountain of musical joy will be on the air every weekday drive-time from 4-7 p.m. Rounding out the daily air staff will be Roots cocreator and executive producer John Walker, along with former Hippie Radio broadcaster Bill Edwards, in the morning, country DJ legend Keith Bilbrey, and Lightning 100 /WRVU veteran Whit “Witness” Hubner in middays.
I’m going to focus on music news and a weekly interview show called The String, taking you inside the minds of great artists as well as producers, filmmakers, authors, and media pioneers. Greg Reish, director of the Center for Popular Music, will mine its archives for a weekly theme-driven show called Lost Sounds. Mike Farris will spin roots gospel. Many other local figures will turn up on WMOT airwaves.
We’ve planned and schemed, but we can’t predict what these next few weeks and months will be like. We’ll surely make some clunky mistakes, and we’ll struggle to get the many deserving, worthy artists on the air. We’ll work out new routines and refine our efforts, learning on the job. Bear with us. Work with us. Most of all tune in and listen. Radio is still the most electrifying medium on Earth when it’s done well, and that’s certainly our aim.