Country Music by Ken Burns reminds us that in 1943, the Grand Ole Opry was very nearly made homeless by circumstances beyond its control. It was already the most influential vehicle for hillbilly stardom in the nation, but a steady crush of fans, including soldiers flooding Nashville as they deployed for WWII, had left the operators of the Opry’s state-owned venue, The War Memorial Auditorium, stressed out and fed up. When WSM radio got the notice that their nights at the War Memorial were coming to an end, they made a desperate ask to Lula Naff at the Ryman Auditorium. And it worked out pretty well.
Music City Roots is not the Grand Ole Opry, but we who produced the show for its four years at the Loveless Cafe Barn and another four at the Factory in Franklin definitely have, from the beginning, looked to early Opry as a source of inspiration. That includes resilience in the face of change.
At the end of 2017, our agreement with the Factory came to an end and renewing wasn’t a viable option. The plan at that point was to move to a SoBro music hall and tasting room then under construction by Yee Haw Brewing Co. and Ole Smoky Moonshine. But in mid-2018, plans changed, reducing the size of the music venue below what we needed. No harm, no foul, but it did leave Music City Roots looking for a home once again.
You know those annoying movie scenes when all hope seems lost and somebody pipes up that there’s been a secret plan in the works all this time that nobody had mentioned before, and it’ll save the day? Well that’s kind of what happened here. MCR co-founders Todd Mayo and John Walker had long hoped the show would own and control its own venue and, over several years, they’d worked with city officials in Madison on preliminary plans. The community had country music history, a growing population, and easy access to East Nashville and downtown, not to mention the music-loving towns like Hendersonville further up I-65. And it turned out Madison was making moves toward designing a culturally rich future on its own. So when the downtown Nashville plan didn’t work out, those talks got rekindled, culminating in the big announcement in July.
The show will be re-branded Music City Roots: Live From Madison Station. It will move to Thursday nights and go live out of the new Roots Barn adjacent to historic Amqui Station in, we hope, late 2020. The stone and timber building, modeled to a degree on the famous Barns At Wolftrap venue in Northern Virginia, will be a one of the premiere mid-sized venues in the Southeast, with room for 750 seated or 1,000 standing. There will be a mezzanine balcony running the length of the hall on both sides and recycled timber sourced from North Carolina and Montana. Because MCR is a public television show as well as a radio show, the stage has been designed for professional lighting (by Bandit Lites), and we’ve turned again to our longstanding audio partners Sound Image, for the acoustics. No expense is being spared. Best of all for the musicians, the area with the bars, food service, ticketing, and visiting will be completely separated from the listening space, so that fans can focus on the stage without distraction.
Outside, the grounds of the Madison Station complex will include a firepit and sheltered areas for food, events, and picking parties. Also, right there, sits Amqui Station with its rich history. Built in 1910 as Madison’s passenger line depot on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, it was abandoned in the ’70s when the trains stopped carrying people. Johnny Cash loved the old structure and rather than see it torn down, Madison let him move it to his property in Hendersonville. After he passed away, some community leaders raised the money to move it back to its present location and compliment the building with a covered platform and a community meeting space. Today it’s a farmers market and mini-museum that tells Madison’s story. And that story includes country and bluegrass royalty. Over the decades, the community was home to Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, John Hartford, and many more.
All this together will make a potent sense of place, which is central to roots music and MCR’s values. We are about identifying sincerely and timelessly talented artists, offering a great-sounding stage for them to reach an in-person and broadcast audience, and letting them tell their story. By its nature, that story is multi-generational, multi-racial, multi-genre and international. “We live and serve to showcase artists of the high integrity who are so often underserved in the mainstream,” said MCR’s John Walker at the July venue announcement. “Yet what is American roots music if not an expression of the very melting pot that defines America? Without the collision of cultures from Europe and Africa, North America and Latin America, there would be no Americana, or bluegrass, jazz, country, blues, rock and roll, R&B, and soul. In a world where there’s much division, music unites.”
I like that, but then I feel like John Walker and Todd Mayo have grasped something important and valuable since I met them more than ten years ago. Todd had just established Bluegrass Underground (a show that also switched venues, moving from one cave to another, which makes building a barn seem easy), and they were hoping to launch a weekly program that had variety (four artists per show) and a discovery vibe. We talked about how to capture the feeling of the live radio shows that put Nashville on the national map in the 1930s and ’40s. That included the three-host format we set in place in the earliest weeks of the show in 2009. Since year two, our team has included emcee Keith Bilbrey, musical host Jim Lauderdale, and myself doing artist interviews between sets. The shows open with a solo by Jim and end with an all-hands jam that in the new train-side venue will be called “All Aboard.” Because there’s no musical metaphor or pun we won’t run into the ground.
In the eight years of presenting eleven shows per quarter, we experienced countless discoveries and moments of transcendence. St. Paul & The Broken Bones played their first gig outside of Alabama. Bobby Rush brought his twerking dancers. The Doobie Brothers dusted off songs they’d not played since recording them in the ’70s, just for us. We covered the whole bluegrass waterfront with Doyle Lawson, the McCourys, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush, and more. We showcased songwriting icons including Jimmy Webb, Gretchen Peters, Tom T. Hall, and the late Leon Russell. We welcomed innovative genre-scramblers like steel pan jazz man Jonathan Scales, the Jon Stickley Trio, Matuto and The River Whyless. I’ve been brought to tears countless times, including moments with legends like Bonnie Bramlett and newcomers like Katie Pruitt. It’s been simply an astonishing thing to be part of.
And here on the occasion of the show’s tenth anniversary, we’re overjoyed to confirm that it will be back. Private investors from out of state have stepped up to be the key supporters of the new venue. The city of Madison, especially City Councilmember Nancy VanReece, has been a full and enthusiastic partner in getting this off the ground. Hundreds of old friends and regular fans have encouraged us with hopes and faith that we’d be back on stage and back on the air. It’s hard to describe how badly we want to be, and we’ll plan some one-off shows and special gatherings in the year to come to celebrate that and to flesh out the story.
As for the Grand Ole Opry, they had to move out of the Ryman too. They built their own Opry House and shaped their own destiny. And there they are, 94 years old, still making history. Perhaps we have one more trick to steal from them.