Originality often requires digging deep and looking beneath the surface—or at least realizing you’ve come upon something special when Dame Fortune sees fit to place it in your path. Such serendipity seems to shadow Todd Mayo, who created the innovative live-performance program Bluegrass Underground. About to begin its third season on PBS, the diverse, acoustic-music-based show has been running in radio form on WSM-AM since August of 2008, only a few months after Mayo first saw the “Volcano Room” during a tour of McMinnville’s Cumberland Caverns. Marveling at the naturally formed area 333 feet below ground, Mayo recognized its potential as a unique concert venue.

Bluegrass Underground is taped before a live audience for broadcast on WSM-AM, with selected performances filmed for PBS.

Bluegrass Underground is taped before a live audience for broadcast on WSM-AM, with selected performances filmed for PBS. / Photo courtesy Tennessee Department of Tourism.

“The cave was just waiting for me,” says Mayo. “The bathrooms were there, the [electrical] power was in there, the concessions [areas] were there.” Best of all, it was also equipped with stunning natural acoustics, with none of the erratic echo one might expect. The space’s unique features made it a fairly easy sell—first to WSM, then to top-shelf performers, and now to the American public. Season two of Bluegrass Underground has already reached 80 percent or more of PBS stations nationwide. “Our real hope was that the show, you know, literally shined a light in the darkness on quality music,” quips Mayo.

The Loveless Barn sits just behind its famed namesake café and is home to Music City Roots. / Photo courtesy Tennessee Department of Tourism.

The Loveless Barn sits just behind its famed namesake café and is home to Music City Roots. / Photo courtesy Tennessee Department of Tourism.

Also produced by Mayo, in conjunction with collaborator and friend John Walker, is Music City Roots, an eclectic musical showcase staged weekly at the Loveless Barn. Its vision, while in keeping with aw-shucks, old-school-country tradition, is an ambitious and forward-looking one. “What Music City Roots was founded to do, on one level, was to rebrand Music City,” says Mayo. “Not that Nashville isn’t Lower Broadway, cowboy hats, honky-tonks and boots, ’cause it is—but it’s also blues, jazz, indie, rock, the whole bluegrass [and acoustic music] thing.” Mayo, a lifelong Tennessean, says that “the cave, the Barn, everything that we’re doing, kind of stems from my fundamental belief that our musical culture—the quality of it, the diversity of it—is our number-one export.”

Exporting is indeed taking place: significantly, Roots will be joining Bluegrass Underground on PBS this fall, but its multi-pronged distribution methods also include live radio, syndication (presently in more than 50 radio markets) and real-time Internet streaming, a cutting-edge, seemingly counterintuitive tactic. As John Walker, Mayo’s production partner, observes, “There are some in the industry that see the changes in technology as a problem. We see it as an opportunity to effect change.” Indeed, the show is helping to foster an important shift, not only in music business models, but also in the increasing perception of Nashville as a location that’s friendlier to non-mainstream acts.

“We seek to provide a ‘point of discovery’ for world-class artists that don’t necessarily fit the mold for old-school commercial values,” explains Walker, “and at the same time showcase the older generation of legends and torchbearers that have remained true to their art over the arc of their careers. Our common vision [for both shows],” he says, “is to provide a showcase for music of excellence and integrity that you wouldn’t ordinarily find in traditional mainstream media.”

From the outset, Walker and Mayo agreed that a large-scale platform for worthy, aspiring acts—akin to that of the Grand Ole Opry in its formative and earlier years—was something that Nashville needed. “We had presented a concept to Gaylord for a show called ‘Back to the Barn,’ which was a reference to the old Saturday night [WSM] Barn Dance that ultimately became the Opry—metaphorically going back to the pre-corporate days when things were a bit more spontaneous and loose. That got shut down by Gaylord in 2008 when the economic crisis had everyone scared,” Walker says. “That’s when Todd and I decided to form a production company and just buy the radio time. Todd’s vision for an old-time radio show and mine collided,” he explains, “and we had our Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moment—he got peanut butter on my chocolate . . . and Music City Roots was born.”

Music City Roots host Jim Lauderdale (center) Leads the show's full cast in an unrehearsed finale - the cleverly named, brand-honoring Loveless Jam. / Photo by Anthony Scarlati.

Music City Roots host Jim Lauderdale (center) Leads the show’s full cast in an unrehearsed finale – the cleverly named, brand-honoring Loveless Jam. / Photo by Anthony Scarlati.

It’s fitting that Walker uses the imagery of something edible to describe the show’s “eureka” moment: one of Nashville’s best-known caterers/restaurateurs would soon enter the picture. Tom Morales, owner of TomKats, Inc. and the Loveless Cafe and Barn, fondly recalls family outings to the beloved Nashville eatery along with nine other siblings, traveling in two cars from their Madison home to the rural southwestern fringes of the city. “It was quite the trek, before interstates,” he says. “When I was a young kid, I had a big impression of what the Loveless was and what it meant.” When the Loveless was put up for sale in March of 2003, Morales found the news sobering. “The little article I read said, ‘Loveless to Give Way to Strip Mall Anchored by McDonald’s’ . . . so two friends and I, we said, ‘Let’s save it.’ And I was in the food business, so I knew how.”

The Loveless Barn, intended as a multi-use facility, opened in mid-2009—significantly, not long after Gaylord’s proposed deal with Walker and Mayo had fallen through. Morales contacted them and suggested his newly-built barn—which, combined with the locally beloved cafe, resonated powerfully with the show’s tradition-based underpinnings. Shortly thereafter, the duo’s Reese’s Cup partnership morphed into a three-layer Twix Bar, with strong compatibilities in business, marketing and aesthetics. Walker, who refers to the Loveless link-up as “a matter of divine timing,” cites Morales as “a visionary and a great friend to Music City Roots. He truly understands branding, and the importance of music and art in the grand scheme of things.”

Walker and Mayo should know a brand man when they see one, as both come from advertising and marketing backgrounds themselves. Check out their catchy, pocket-sized description of MCR: “A community of bands, fans and brands.” Mayo considers this unusually open-ended and inclusive concept to be a key factor behind the show’s broad appeal. “As an ad guy, not only do I understand demographics, I’ve spent my life doing that,” Mayo begins. “But with Music City Roots, and Bluegrass Underground, we have consciously gone the other way. It’s demographic-less . . . so you’ll see urban and rural, white-collar and blue-collar, hipsters in skinny jeans, and people that shop at Dollar General for their jeans.”

This explains why Roots was able to make the improbable leap from country/Americana-formatted WSM to progressive-oriented Lightning 100 and, recently, the boomer-oldies format Hippie Radio 94.5, the show’s current radio partner. (Bluegrass Underground remains on WSM.) It’s also the reason why the shows’ sponsors run the gamut, ranging from venerable local brand Vietti Chili to Nashville-based international company Griffin Technology. It all works, explains Mayo, because “[the sponsors] are all united by the same thing that the musicians are: quality and authenticity.”

Cherryholmes performs in Cumberland Caverns near McMinnville, Tennessee, for Bluegrass Underground. / Photo courtesy Tennessee Department of Tourism.

Cherryholmes performs in Cumberland Caverns near McMinnville, Tennessee, for Bluegrass Underground. / Photo courtesy Tennessee Department of Tourism.

Erich Marx, Nissan’s director of marketing, was one of many who liked what he heard. On what must have been one of Mayo’s and Walker’s better days, Marx came knocking, eager to form an alliance. According to Marx, Nissan’s then-chairman had come to him and Nissan marketing VP Jon Brancheau in early 2011, concerned that Nissan hadn’t been reaching out to Nashville. “He said, ‘Let’s carve out some money and let’s support something here in town. I want to see that we’re doing more for the community,’” Marx recalls. “I decided that we would support music and the arts. I found out who runs Music City Roots, which is a music property that I really liked, and we put together a deal for Nissan to be a primary sponsor for Music City Roots as well as Bluegrass Underground,” says Marx (who notes that Nissan’s “Nashville Proud” initiative also includes sponsorships with the Schermerhorn, TPAC, the Ryman and the Nashville Film Festival, among other entities). Fittingly, artists performing down in the cave are transported in the all-electric Nissan Leaf. As an emission-free vehicle, it’s ideal for traveling inside a national natural landmark where preservation is paramount, and (pardon the expression) it’s a gas for the musicians, who dig taking an environmentally conscious ride underground.

Marx is aware, and grateful, that Nissan’s community outreach is now accruing unanticipated rewards from its partnership with the two nationally known shows, and he shrugs it off as the happy result of Nissan’s desire to give back to a city with so much to recommend it. “The reason we chose [to support] the arts and music,” Marx says, “is because that has a lot to do with what Nashville really is, Nashville being Music City, and we wanted to promote part of what makes Nashville great.” The synergy currently at work here is right in line with Mayo’s core belief that “music fundamentally brings people together”—an assertion that takes on a tangible form every week on Bluegrass Underground and Music City Roots. “So,” he adds, “in Music City, with the quality of music that abounds in such great measure, and the diversity of it, it’s magic. When the sum of something is greater than its parts,” he enthuses, “that’s what magic is. Nashville is a magical place.”