Australia calls, Music City Roots hits the road

Friday, January 11, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 2
By Tim Ghianni

Jim Lauderdale

Music City Roots: Live from the Loveless Cafe embarks on a music and marketing mission in late January, when the broadcast moves for a week from the Pasquo Community, in the shadow of the Natchez Trace, to Tamworth, Australia.

The radio variety show – sort of an Americana-and-beyond version of the venerable Grand Ole Opry – accepted an invitation to move announcers, artists, producers and the works to the 41st Annual Tamworth Country Music Festival.

The show will take place at 7 p.m. Jan. 24 in Town Hall in Tamworth, Australia’s Country Music Capital. It will be webcast live on the internet at 2 a.m. Nashville time.

“We’ve had a long-term dialogue going on with Australia,” says John Walker, who is co-executive producer (along with Todd Mayo) of the weekly show that airs on Lightning 100 as well as being carried online, in podcasts and in syndication. Australia’s Country Music Channel has begun airing a series of Music City Roots performances. Another 13 episodes will find their home in America on PBS this spring.

In Australia, “their definition of country music is much broader than it is here in the States,” says Walker, explaining that what is termed in the U.S. as “Americana” – the music of rootsy traditionalists and genre-jumping acoustic and amplified explorers – “all is under the country music umbrella” with mainstream radio artists (think Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift) in Australia.

Walker says Tamworth organizers “are really into what we are doing and they wanted to have that authenticity of that Nashville experience,” he says.

Tamworth Country Music Festival Coordinator Kate Baker emphasizes that desire for an authentic Loveless experience in the Land Down Under.

“We wanted to make sure that this show accurately reflected what is staged and broadcast every week at the Loveless Cafe,” she says. “We believe that when festival-goers walk into the Town Hall on Thursday, Jan., 24, they’ll feel as though they’ve been transported to Nashville for a couple of hours. This will be about as authentic as it gets.”

A key player in helping to build this bridge is Jim Lauderdale, the affable Nashville singer-songwriter who is equally at home with Hank Williams as he is with Jerry Garcia. Lauderdale, regular master of ceremonies for the weekly Wednesday night broadcasts at the Loveless Barn, has an Aussie fan base.

“Lauderdale has been playing the festival the last couple of years. And they were able to book Elizabeth Cook this year as well,” says Walker.

The Tamworth organizers figured that since Lauderdale and Cook – a full-throated traditional country singer a la Tammy or Loretta – already were going to be there, they’d explore the possibility of bringing that week’s entire MCR broadcast to the festival.

“We said ‘just get us there and we’ll do it,’” says Walker. “They are going to fly a skeleton crew out there, and our hopes are to do what we do and pick up a few guys there and make it happen. We are really moved by the fact they want that authenticity. They’re trying to replicate the set.”

The Tamworth show will be that week’s regular weekly Music City Roots, which begins its 11-week winter season Jan. 9.

In addition to Lauderdale – a quick-witted emcee as well as a sprawling, drawling performer who will do a full set – and Cook, the show will feature David Jacobs-Strain as well as Aussie artists Kirsty Akers and Felicity Urquhart.

Adding to the Music City Roots Down Under authenticity are Nashville-based singer-songwriter Peter Cooper filling in for announcer Keith Bilbrey (and throwing in a couple of his tunes) as well as Craig Havighurst in his regular role as the interviewer and official chronicler.

“On a business level, this will help us spread the seeds of the brand,” says Walker.

The Music City Roots idea percolated in the minds of Walker and Mayo for about a year before it debuted in 2009.

“It has been an international vision from the very outset,” Walker says. “We’re beyond thrilled to have Australia be the first to welcome us to another continent.”

He says the next step would be to take the show to England, where traditional country has rabid fans, as well as to Canada and then perhaps Japan, where ”we have a lot of listeners.”

It’s all about marketing a brand of music, really a collection of styles that aren’t readily available on mass-market country radio. And by expanding the reach of the show, it means better audiences for the artists (who keep 100 percent of the gate and merch sales from their shows at the barn), as well as for the advertisers, in turn making it a more successful business venture.

It’s “a secular mission thing,” that will pay off for the show, the artists and the sponsors, according to Walker. “It’s an investment in the future.”