October 15, 2009 – Walking into the Loveless Barn last night two hours before Music City Roots went on the air was an overwhelming experience. There were between 40 and 50 people buzzing around taking care of details from food to lights to amplifiers. Where the day before there had been only a bare platform, there was a magnificent stage complete with a great-looking podium on stage left (complete with vintage WSM microphone) and my amazing interview room stage right. When the lights went dim and doors opened at 6:00 and the audience began streaming in to the airy, sweeping Loveless Barn, the air had that crackle that can only come before a live event.
If you’re looking for an objective report about the premiere of Music City Roots, go elsewhere. I’m in awe of what Todd Mayo and John Walker have pulled off with the help of a bunch of amazing and creative people. Without so much as a dress rehearsal, this huge team of believers built and broadcast a real-deal, old-fashioned radio show on the most important radio station in American history. Eddie Stubbs, who embodies WSM’s tradition of great announcers, kicked things off on the stroke of 7:00, and I managed to confuse half the audience with my line about feeling “like a certain Nobel Peace Prize Winner” for being live on WSM in the company of radio veterans Eddie and Bill Cody. (For the record, I’m a fan of the President, and my follow up line was: “I don’t know what I did to deserve this, but I’ll roll with it.”)
But the whole point of Music City Roots is the music, and it didn’t take long before Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose cast a spell with their locked-in harmonies and aggressive musicianship that didn’t lift all night. A lovely duo from New York – Annie Crane and Robin Aigner – filled the “emerging artist” segment, but they sounded pretty emerged to everybody with sophisticated songs and a striking cover of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Of course there was a good deal of anticipation about Emmylou Harris, and she brought both the radiance and sophistication that has made her one of the icons of Americana music and roots-based country music. Kennedy and Rose, her long-time harmony singers, joined her for nearly her full hour-plus set. When they did “Bright Morning Stars” as an a capella trio, the room was silent and transfixed. I think my highlight was their reprise of Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush,” which Emmylou had arranged so strikingly on her Trio II album. Dolly and Linda couldn’t have sung it better than our Trio did last night.
So we’re off and running. The entire Fall schedule is set with incredible artists, and WSM has a new show it can be proud of, in my humble opinion. In case there is any doubt, we’re not doing this as a throwback. This is about building something vital for Nashville and broadcasting at a time of chaos and crisis in the music business by re-inventing some of the great ideas from music’s past that got needlessly discarded in recent years. The whole team from the Loveless, Music City Media and WSM has an energy and passion about this that I’ve not seen in my 13 years in Music City. Our new theme song by Rob Ickes says it all. Something last night was “Born In A Barn.”