After four years at the Loveless Barn, the popular variety show Music City Roots is moving to a new venue. The inaugural show will take place tonight in Liberty Hall at The Factory at Franklin, and will be broadcast live on Hippie Radio 94.5 FM. The sold out show will feature performances by Emmylou Harris, Verlon Thompson, Rodney Crowell and Humming House.
“I think it’s going to be a gala night for us,” said Music City Roots senior producer and journalist Craig Havighurst. “We’re all trying to get every single detail right so nobody has to say ‘oh, growing pains, new hall.’ So we’re hoping for just an absolutely flawless night where the focus is on the music.”
Liberty Hall will not only host the program every Wednesday night from 7-9pm, but will also house a permanent merchandise store and the station for “Roots Radio”, which streams previous performances and interviews. The change of venue comes from the show’s overwhelming success, which outgrew the original Loveless Barn at the Loveless Cafe.
“Loveless is just so charming,” Havighurst said. “We really did adore it. It’s a great space and a great size for what we’ve been doing, but we’ve had a lot of sell-outs in the last two years. Liberty is going to give us more room and more flexibility. It has its own historic ambiance in there. We’re installing a fresh sound system and light system. I think the acoustics will be really top notch. It will feel a little more like a theater without being a theater.”
Music City Roots was created by Todd Mayo and John Walker as a way to showcase the growing Roots and Americana movement in Nashville’s music scene. The show’s live radio format was inspired by the early Grand Ole Opry.
“We wanted to use the “rooted” tradition of a live musical variety show to celebrate the diversity and quality of music that abounds here in Music City and also from all around the country and world,” Mayo said.
The first show aired October 14, 2009, with Jim Lauderdale as musical host and Emmylou Harris as a guest performer. Over the past four years the show has featured established acts like Jimmy Webb and Buddy Miller as well as up-and-comers like St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Kelsey Waldon.
“I loved getting onto the band Della Mae early and I loved that we had Pokey LaFarge early on,” Havighurst said. “Jack White came out to that show and next thing we knew, Pokey was signed to Third Man Records. That was exciting.”
Doug Williams of Wild Ponies, who have performed on Music City Roots several times, described the show as “New Americana Opry.”
“It’s a special show,” said Williams. “It’s really one of the best gigs to play in Nashville. Everybody who plays is really good, but not everyone is a legend, or a star. The folks who are working hard, maybe just starting to get their career off the ground, like us, are right there beside Buddy Miller, Matraca Berg, Jim Lauderdale, John Cowan, Tommy Womack. It’s great for us to get to meet those folks, play with them, have conversations and get to know them. Plus, we get to meet other up-and-coming artists as well and spend a little time getting to know them.”
Each week features four or five musical acts performing 20 minute sets. Lauderdale hosts and performs, Keith Brilbey serves as announcer and Havighurst interviews acts. The show’s unique format allows for all the artists to perform separately throughout the night and then come together at the end for what was known as “The Loveless Jam,” organized by Lauderdale.
Havighurst said the jam contributes to what he considers the “festival” environment of the show, where artists who wouldn’t normally play together get to meet and mingle. Williams said one of the highlights of his time on the show was sharing a dressing room with Roger McGuinn and Sam Bush.
“We’ve been on Music City Roots a few times, and we’ve gotten to meet and play with some amazing artists and real legends,” Williams said. “It’s pretty fun when Sam Bush gives you a yell to take a solo during the jam. Or when you’re singing a Tom T. Hall song in front of Tom T. Hall!”
Some of the most memorable shows for Havighurst are the legendary performers who brought a story with their performance.
“I loved last fall when we had Bobby Rush, who just blew our minds,” Havighurst said. “He’s just one of the venerable cats of the Deep South Blues and Chicago Blues and it’s just the whole story of the Blues traveling from the Deep South to Chicago and back again. He was amazing.
And Leon Russell was memorable for all of us. He’s kind of a reclusive guy so he was so interesting and it was just a delightful interview. And that was a thrill because it was just sort of the history that crosses over country and rock and roll and southern rock and southern jam band. In a lot of ways the story of the music was amazing.”
Mayo calls the series a “musical revival from the edge of music city.” He said the live radio format creates a unique atmosphere not found in typical concerts. Everything is carefully choreographed to not waste a second of airtime – interviews with artists take place while the next act is setting up.
“There is something magical about the “on air ” lights that come on that add to the communal vibe that is inherent in live music to begin with,” Mayo said. “Live music is a shared experience between performer and patron, and patron and patron, and anyone that loves live music understands the visceral effects of energy. Those two words: on air; and what they represent do more to kindle a magical musical moment on any given night than even the Blackstone beer, I’d wager.”
Music City Roots is now syndicated across the country and in the UK and Australia. Thirteen episodes a year are filmed and edited for PBS.
“The one shorthand for our public TV presence has been Nashville needs an Austin City Limits; and it does,” Havighurst said. “We definitely want to be the taste-making, identifiable, trusted source for what’s up in Nashville – who’s coming through and what is the spirit of Music City in terms of super skilled musicians, excellent songwriting, bands that know how to be bands, timeless musical values, free of any of the obnoxiousness or machismo or branding or quick fad stuff that’s out there in popular music.”