One of the foremost pioneers of the Americana music movement takes the wheel at WMOT Roots Radio
This afternoon, when you tune your radio to 89.5 FM and listen to the newly revamped WMOT Roots Radio — Middle Tennessee State University’s collegiate station — you’ll hear a woman with a low, warm, confident rumble of a voice that says, “I’m boss here.” And she is.
Jessie Scott has outlasted perhaps 90 percent of her peers on the hands-on side of radio in order to take the helm and deliver — at the request of Music City Roots and the campus’ College of Media and Entertainment — a 100,000-watt radio station programmed to the Americana format.
No mere social networker, Scott, who had brief, but memorable, Nashville stints in the late 1990s, is one of the original promoters and pioneers of the Americana format. It was at the end of Scott’s first pass at working in Nashville that she stepped onto what she calls “the magic carpet” that’s taken her to New York, Washington, D.C., Texas, and back to Music City. But the seeds of roots radio found fertile soil in her mind as far back as the 1970s. Scott points to a pivotal day in 1975 when she was paid a visit by Ed Salamon, the legendary program director at New York City’s WHN from 1975-81, a period during which it ranked No. 2 in that market.
“I was playing progressive country and my boss, Ed Salamon, came over to my apartment one day,” she recalls, “and we pulled out the Goose Creek Symphony, Blue Ridge Rangers, Gram Parsons and Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds, and we carted them up and played them, and I knew in 1975 that it was a format unto itself. It took 25 years more for me to get the COM (command) at XM to go take it there. In a lot of ways, this (programming WMOT) is just me chasing my north star.”
What makes Scott’s career even more exceptional is her success in such a male-dominated industry. Female programmers are virtually unheard of. When asked what strategies and advantages she’s used, her initial response would send any number of women to rattling their broomsticks at the glass ceiling. “I’m really blessed, I’m really lucky,” she says.
When pressed, Scott continues, “There were things I learned along the way that helped, the technology pieces, for instance. I got to XM to be a program director and after Trevor, my son, was born in 1986, I really came back to the business knowing that I had to be part of the brain trust, that that was my only salvation. I was no longer going to be a disembodied voice in the night.”
“Those seeds were planted for me with two lovely relationships with people I treasure and one of them was in the ’80s with Keith Richards; the other was the ’90s with Wolfman Jack.” Stop. This. Train. Keith Richards? Wolfman Jack? Mentors?
When asked how and in what ways Keith Fucking Richards was a career influence, the redheaded ball of electric energy explains, “So, (Rolling Stones’ sax man) Bobby Keys was my boyfriend. Bobby was really magical for me, he opened up the doors to a world where I got to be friends with Keith and Woody, to spend time with them and talk music with them, and be accepted by them. For me, the Rolling Stones were the ones who turned me onto blues when I was 14 years old, and to be accepted by them was especially meaningful.
“We used to make tapes from my 20,000 pieces of vinyl in my house in NYC, and I would bring them to Keith, and we would sit, the three of us, and listen to music together; then Keith would listen to me on the radio and be like, ‘This is bullshit. You need to do this, you don’t need to be working on WNBC with Stern and Imus.’ ”
Later, working in Florida, Scott had a taste of restaurant music marketing and worked for Wolfman Jack before moving onto Orlando’s WMMO-FM 98.9. The Wolfman — Scott imitates the famous DJ’s caustic rasp, “You need to run it, you need to own it,” — further convinced Scott of the importance of following her own vision.
Scott’s next fateful jump brought her to Nashville. At both WRLT Lightning 100 and WSM, her dynamic personality and ever-forward motion made a lasting impact on many of the city’s Americana musicians and music industry leaders alike. In the middle of her work as Lightning’s program director, Scott helped launch another ball into the air, an additional radio station called The Phoenix. It was Nashville’s first attempt at something like an Americana station. Competing philosophies with other station personnel and conflicts with upper management, however, resulted in Scott’s departure.
“At the 11th hour, it became clear to me that my vision for the channel wasn’t going to be the one that was winning the day,” she explains. “I wanted it to be an Americana station, I wanted it to be a reflection of Nashville history, a grand, decades-long exercise in, sort of, outliers.”
Instead of straight-up Americana, The Phoenix wound up being a combination of Americana, well-established local and national singer-songwriters, and, depending on whose vision was prevailing at the time, acoustic versions of 1970s greats and country rockers.
After a short stop at WSM, Scott was offered her dream: program director of XM’s X Country music channel, and so the magic carpet went off to the nation’s capital. Unfortunately for her, when XM and Sirius merged, the resulting company was forced to choose between DC’s X Country and Nashville’s Outlaw Country. Outlaw Country won.
Many others would have been demoralized at that point, but Scott continued to roll, cofounding event production and media company Music Fog. Scott felt Austin calling, so she sold her house and moved to Texas. Hill Country Barbecue, a small chain restaurant based in NY and DC, came knocking. In many ways, it was a lot like radio, only without the signal. “I was lobbying for artists to come by and play for us,” she says, “and when it turned into a full-time job, I was in charge of their live music program and booking artists at three venues, everything from bar mitzvahs to Congressional parties.”
The Hill Country gig meant a move back to New York and, around that time, she also started working as music director for Sun Radio — a gig she loves and still carries by prerecording four hours of voiceover work daily. About now, one might be getting the idea Jessie Scott is a workaholic. Call her that, though, and she’ll just tell you, again, how lucky she is. Oh, and somewhere in all this, she’s also found time to start up an airplay chart company for Texas’ Americana community radio stations. Now, on her latest dream gig, technology means she still gets to keep all those other balls spinning while helping the Music City Roots crew build their dream radio station.
“Within a month of moving back to New York, I’m walking, and I could not rotate my hips and it was incredibly painful and it started limiting the amount of things I could do,” she says. “I was having to think about how many stairways I’m going to come up on the subway, have to go up, and how many sidewalks on ice, it was very traumatic. And so I got the first hip done; it took like 18 months in New York before that happened, and another 13 months, I got the second one done. When I was coming off healing, I felt better, I thought, ‘Damn! Let me go back to where I got on the magic carpet,’ which was Nashville.”
Scott’s excited by all the changes the city has undergone in her time away, as well as the challenge of broadcasting to such a wide area. “We benefit from the amazing growth of Nashville,” she says. “It used to be you’d go to the Loveless for Music City Roots, that seemed like that was really far. It was far away. And it isn’t anymore. I just think that this is becoming much more of a regional area, there’s growth in all these towns. I think the music speaks for itself — it’s a 100,000-watt radio station, it goes from the Alabama border to Bowling Green, Ky. Within that framework, there is rural, there is suburban, there is exurb and there is city. …
“I was driving in [on] Hillsboro, and I came around the corner of Broadway [and Division] only to find these condos being built — of course, Noshville has closed — and it struck me that the buildings that were once were part of a landscape are being eradicated at a rapid rate and in their place are skyscrapers, tall condos, and more city-sidewalk stuff. … it really is interesting to watch what were the last remnants of a village turning into a city.”
Not long after returning to Nashville, a meeting with an industry friend sent Scott in the direction of MTSU’s campus and Music City Roots’ organizers, who, in spite of running in the same circles for several years, she’d never met. After countless meetings with MCR execs Craig Havighurst and John Walker, her relationship with the team behind the plan for flipping WMOT “naturally evolved, and the first time John introduced me as a program director to a station that didn’t even yet exist was around May, and I just kind of smiled and went, ‘Yeah!’ ” It took almost nine months of planning and working behind the scenes, but the station made its debut to much applause this past September.
Count Americana Music Association Executive Director Jed Hilly among its boosters. “It’s amazing, I mean, I had Emmylou Harris grab me and say, ‘We have a station!’ ” he says. “I think their approach is solid, it’s very community based, and I think they’re guaranteed for success. Jessie’s one of the anchors — she’s like a beacon.”
As Americana’s definition evolves to include the likes of Bon Iver on its charts, Hilly expects Scott to be among the people who “keep us real in the future.” When asked how she defines the still evolving genre, Scott says, “For me, what Americana is about is the same thing that creates the United States of America, which is the great melting pot of phonics brought to this country by different immigrants, overlaid together on top of Native American and African American musical influences, and how that melting pot comes together is what creates this music, and its vitality comes from being a shared experience, the sum being greater than all of its parts.” Coming from someone described as an anchor, that leaves a lot of room for variety.
Expect some tweaks and changes as WMOT defines itself this autumn, but overall, Nashville isn’t just getting a roots radio station: Between Scott’s long legacy and Music City Root’s legend in the making, the pieces are in place to build the premier Americana station in the country.
“I think the way most radio is being used now is a wasteland,” she says. “ ‘Let’s just play safe music that everybody knows, tests, and we will beat it within an inch of its life, and we won’t do anything on the air that’s imaginative. …’ We have amazing shows on this radio station we launched with this incredible palate; with Mike Farris hosting a gospel show on Sunday mornings to R & B at night — you gotta hear it. We have good stuff. And we’re NPR. …
“I would love to see us take this format, make it successful in a demonstrable way,” she continues. “Americana has eluded success on the radio. There’s never really been a station that’s a success story in a rated market that you could point to and say, ‘This works!’ When you’re talking about Shovels and Rope, and Lumineers, and Parker Milsap, and Hurray for the Riffraff, there are so many people who are making great music that live in this sonic world, there’s just no reason why you just can’t do it, you can’t get young people back to the radio, I think you can. There’s already name recognition for many of the artists that we play. The joy of it is to associate their name with their music and put that in front of an audience that in the past may have had to seek it out on their own.”