In its 25-year history, the iconic World Cafe has celebrated the music of nearly every region of the planet, but it has always been based in just one place: WXPN Philadelphia. That’s where the NPR-distributed radio show is produced and where host-producer David Dye presents interviews and performances from what he calls “essential and emerging artists” — particularly focused on regional roots music — in a format free from genre constraints. It is heard on more than 200 stations nationwide.
But as the show prepared to celebrate its 25th anniversary on Oct. 11 (a celebration that will continue through 2017), its top executives decided an expansion was in order and chose Nashville as the first-ever additional “hub” for the show in partnership with NPR Music. That partnership involves a beefed-up relationship with Nashville affiliate WMOT (Roots Radio 89.5), which switched from jazz to an Americana format in a well-timed September move, as well as an increased role for NPR Music’s Nashville-based correspondent Ann Powers.
While Nashville is principally known for country music, World Cafe Nashville will celebrate Music City’s diversity, as well as that of the Southern region of the country. Dye calls it “musical discovery with a Southern accent.”
“It’s been increasingly clear to us over the recent years that there just seems to be more and more great music that goes beyond country coming out of Nashville,” says Roger LaMay, WXPN GM and board chair for NPR Music. “Along with Brooklyn, it’s probably the place where the most bands that come through our studios come from.”
While country music will continue to be an important part of the mix, LaMay says the city’s other forms of music, including Americana, “sometimes get lost in the shadow of the country thing.” He says the new hub will aim to rectify this with “wider exposure on a national platform” for other genres. “There’s a lot of artists that obviously don’t fit into that mainstream country box that are not getting the kind of exposure maybe they deserve,” he adds.
LaMay says he and his team came to Nashville during the summer and “did some sessions as kind of a test run. We got such a warm reception down [there] that we really felt great about being able to do this and make it kind of a second home for the program.”
On the agenda are recording sessions, interviews, live concerts and digital material including streams and other special events focused on — and emanating from — Nashville and other parts of the south. And even more may be in the works: LaMay says if his team can raise the additional funds, he would like to launch a Nashville video channel and a World Cafe Nashville podcast. “We’re going to do as much here as we can afford to do,” he says of the city where he plans to “start small and build.”
The new hub kicked off with a two-night celebration at the local City Winery Oct. 27-28. The first night featured a performance and Q&A with country star Eric Church, conducted by Powers. (The second night featured instrumental band Steelism and other guests.) LaMay says Church was chosen for the launch because he “represents the kind of artist that has had great success in the commercial country world, but has a whole lot more to say. That is certainly the kind of artist that we want to connect with.”
At the Oct. 27 event, NPR vp programming and audience development Anya Grundmann said of the Nashville expansion, “We want to find the places in our country that are lighting the fire under the music in our culture.” Powers, who has previously lived and worked in New York and Los Angeles, called Nashville “the best music city in America.” Added Dye, “We don’t want to seem like an interloper in Nashville. We’ve been playing this music all 25 years.”
Addressing World Cafe’s enduring success, LaMay says, “It embodies the sense of musical discovery that public radio audiences are really interested in. The show is meant to explore the creative process, really getting the artists’ perspective on their work. David’s been a very distinct voice for the program over the years and a comforting and trusting curator of what’s new and what you should be listening to.”