Top of the Pops

Pop is a mysterious and fascinating term. It’s short for popular but it includes vast amounts of music that never sold very well. That’s the musicological take: anything that’s not classical music, from dirty rural blues to vaudeville to Elvis to Katy Perry. Or it can strictly mean music that makes the sales and radio charts – the Top of the Pops, as the old BBC TV show was called. But the “pop” that’s meant the most to me is the genre– the thread of music that ties Buddy Holly to the Beatles, REM and Marshall Crenshaw to The Shins. It’s music with short songs, big melodies, snappy beats and a sonic quality that’s come to be known as jangle.

Is pop rootsy? Well, some of it is absolutely, and modern pop is definitely folk-inspired. I think I latched on to the Continental Drifters way back because of their Southern pop sparkle AND their country/folk core. The Byrds were a seminal Americana band and a classic pop outfit. And in Nashville, pop, from Bill Lloyd to Tristen, has almost inevitably had a country/folky/grassy touch, just by sheer proximity. This week at Roots, we’re closing out our Spring 2012 season with a collection of some of the biggest names and brightest reputations in Nashville pop music. Tune us in and you’ll hear songwriters who are concise and smart, engaging and uplifting.

The evening began to build around songwriter Jason White, an artist I discovered to great amazement when his debut Shades of Gray arrived on my desk at The Tennessean way back in 2001. It became the album I listened to most that year I think, because it was flush with tuneful and caustic social commentary and character-driven stories that made larger points without pontificating. One song, “Red Rag Top” about a young pregnancy and its aftermath became a controversial hit for Tim McGraw. With follow-up Tonight’s Top Story, White went even deeper into satirizing and analyzing the modern world of media, celebrity and consumerism. More recently, after a period of relative quiet, he released his current album The Longing, and by gosh it’s sweet and affectionate.

“I got tired of being known as this pissed off guy and I wanted to write some love songs,” White said when I called him up this week. “It definitely represents a softer side. I must have been channeling that light AM radio I listened to when I was a kid.”

White has been playing dates recently with some of his friends and colleagues who work in pop territory, so he agreed to lasso them in for our show. Let’s start with David Mead, a stylish and extraordinary artist who’s released major label projects and generally set the bar for pop in the Nick Lowe model from Music City. White says: “If I could have anyone’s voice and sense of melody I’d take David’s. There’s a sensitivity I find really appealing. There’s almost a brazen willingness to be gentle and sensitive that’s always impressed me.”

Next to fall into place was Swan Dive, the duo consisting of Molly Felder and Bill DeMain. In discussions of Nashville’s decade of non-country commercial success with Kings of Leon and so forth, Swan Dive often gets overlooked, but they are legitimate international stars with top-of-the-pops hits in Japan and elsewhere. If you’ve never snapped along to their big single “Circle,” do yourself a favor right now. Jason White’s take: “Molly Felder is just a world class singer and that’s all there is to it. Bill DeMain is the most prolific songwriter I’ve ever met. He’s fluent in every style and a master of song.”

Rounding out our pop perfecta is Leigh Nash, former lead singer of the smash band Sixpence None The Richer. The group transcended the Christian radio format with the hit “Kiss Me” and others. They disbanded in 2004 but are back together and very close to releasing a much-anticipated new album. Can’t wait to ask her about that. Take it away Jason: “She’s absolutely charming. And her stage persona seems to be her real life persona. I saw Sixpence at 12th and Porter years ago and I went in thinking this is probably not my cup of tea, but I was just so impressed by her and the band. Great songwriting. Great playing. Great arrangements.”

So that’s our pop collective, and we’re also being visited by a group called the Cumberland Collective who are closer to our usual folky thing. This aggregation of songwriters were all the buzz at Folk Alliance this year, where they entertained legions from a hotel suite. You’ll hear a little of everything as these folks take turns in front and backing each other up. It sounds like rambunctious all-in fun.

See you at the barn, online or on the radio.

Craig H.

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