Future of ‘Music City Roots’ Uncertain as Original Staff Forced Out

For a decade, the radio and television program Music City Roots gave a platform to the country, roots, and Americana artists that were often overlooked in Music City, whether they were up-and-comers looking for a hand up, or oldtimers who’d been shoved aside by the commercial interests on Music Row, or artists who just didn’t fit nicely in the established scenes of American roots music.

Originally conceived as replacement programming for the late Saturday night Opry by then WSM employee John Walker, and envisioned around the original Opry concept of a barn dance, Music City Roots initially launched from the Loveless Cafe just south and west of the city on October 14, 2009, with Emmylou Harris as the headliner. Similar to Opry programming, Music City Roots was hosted by an emcee in Craig Havighurst, who would also interview the performers. Jim Lauderdale was also brought on board as an on-air personality, and Music City Roots immediately became a beloved program in the local Nashville media landscape with national and international appeal.

Along with the radio broadcast, the program was also picked up and distributed by American Public Television to numerous PBS stations. Sometimes the program would go on the road as well. Along with the radio and television broadcasts, Music City Roots also produced YouTube videos that would often become a great discovery mechanism for the artists featured. Their YouTube channel has over 200,000 subscribers.

In 2015, the program moved from The Loveless Cafe to The Factory at Franklin as the production eyed another more permanent location in the future. A plan to move to a distillery in Nashville’s emerging SoBro district in 2018 fell through, and the show went homeless for a while, broadcasting from The Nashville Palace and other places. Then in 2019, the idea of Music City Roots constructing its own venue called The Roots Barn finally came to fruition as a partnership was forged within the Nashville satellite community of Madison.

Madison’s Metro City Councilmember Nancy VanReece was brought on board to help secure the land for the development, and was later named Vice President of Public Affairs and Business Development for the organization. She joined the original Music City Roots team of co-founder and Executive Producer John Walker, host Craig Havighurst, and others to bring Music City Roots into a new era.

Artistic rendering of The Roots Barn

Originally, the hope was that the 700-capacity (1,000 standing) Roots Barn would be opened by late 2020, but delays hampered those plans, and it was moved back to the spring of 2022 when Music City Roots would finally be put back on the air, and the original vision of Music City Roots could be fully realized in a permanent home.

But that’s not how it’s happening anymore.

The Roots Barn is still moving forward. It is still scheduled to be opened in the spring of 2022. But whether the original vision for Music City Roots is involved at all—even though it was the original impetus for the venue being constructed and receiving public support in the first place—is very much up in the air.

On Monday (11-15), co-founder and Executive Producer John Walker announced his resignation from both the Roots Barn project in Madison, as well as the show he helped bring to life in 2009, citing “fundamental creative differences.” He also said, “It is my sincere hope that MCR and The Roots Barn will stand 100 years from now for the core values that the show was built upon. I will spend the remainder of my life and career working to help the amazing artists in our musical community.”

Along with John Walker’s statement was a corresponding statement from Fred Kennedy of The Roots Barn organization, saying, “This is a very amicable transition. We’re grateful for John’s passion, perseverance and leadership that brought us to this point.”

But “very amicable” does not seem to be the case.

Almost simultaneously to John Walker’s resignation, Vice President Nancy VanReece tenured her resignation as well, writing in part, “The owners out of Texas have decided to change directions on the programming and have dismantled the entire local staff. A dozen people that had become family to me, and experts in their fields, were asked to resign or removed all on one day. Including the President and Executive Producer John Walker. As I told the team, for me, it has never been about the gig; it was about the music, the placemaking, and our community.”

Nancy VanReece continued, “I am heartbroken that the show ‘Music City Roots,’ at least how we have known it for its last 44 shows aired on American Public Television, will not continue. There is a beautiful music and events venue currently under construction on Madison Station Blvd. For the benefit of all of us, I look forward to seeing a vision will communicated promptly by the owners.”

Then host Craig Havighurst and the rest of the Music City Roots crew and staff released a statement, saying in part, “We are mystified and heart-broken to report that the investors behind the new Roots Barn in Madison TN have withdrawn their support from Music City Roots as we have known it. MCR co-founder and executive producer John Walker resigned on Nov. 11, citing ‘creative differences.’ The rest of our team was terminated or resigned on Nov. 12. We don’t know whether the owners of the Barn intend to produce a show called ‘Music City Roots.’ While they can legally do so, it would not include any of the producers, hosts or history of the MCR we built and love.”

The upshot is this: While the history, prestige, and vision of Music City Roots was how The Roots Barn in Madison, TN was able to secure the land and funding for the project, none of the founders or original staff of the program will be involved with Music City Roots, or the Roots Barn venue moving forward, while communicating serious concerns for the vision being brought to both entities. The current owners/investors of the holding company Roots Productions LLC have deftly secured control of both The Roots Barn, and the Music City Roots program.

Saving Country Music spoke to individuals previously involved with Music City Roots to attempt to get more information about what the creative differences were that resulted in the forced resignations, and to clarify who in the new ownership/investment group (a.k.a. the “The owners out of Texas” that Nancy VanReece cited) were responsible for the resignations and removals of the original Music City Roots staff. Unfortunately, they were unwilling to give any further details at this time.

Currently, The Roots Barn is still scheduled to open as a venue in March of 2022, and according to the Music City Roots website, new broadcasts of the program are set to resume at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays after the opening. But whether they will embody the original vision brought to the program and the new venue remains to be seen. According to many of the previous staff and executives who lived their vision for roots music out through Music City Roots for many years, it’s doubtful they will be.

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