By Jenna Lazenby
If you haven’t noticed it yet, you need to check out the “Roots Down” music show Fridays at 8 p.m. on WVTF. The local NPR affiliate offers a fun, unvarnished look at postmodern Americana music in and around the region. The show, hosted by Luke Church and themed “Americana Without the Quilts,” has stacked up an impressive catalog of appearances by national and regional acts.
Church first joined WVTF in a part-time role in 2014 after working in promotions for a classic rock radio station in Charlottesville, where he lived for 18 years. In January of 2016, he went full-time with the NPR affiliate. It was that May when station program director, Josh Jackson, approached Church about the idea for Roots Down. Jackson, whose radio career started in New Orleans and then moved to New York, was instrumental in getting Christian McBride to do Jazz Night in America, and was also the founding producer of the NY concert series, “Live at the Village Vanguard” and “The Checkout,” a live performance of the music magazine he created.
“We wanted to do the Roots Down show because it’s a genre (Americana) that’s under represented, Church said in a recent interview. He (Jackson) came to me and asked what I thought about doing an Americana show? I said we need to do Americana without the quilts. Americana when it started to emerge back in the 90s had trouble identifying itself. Now it’s more of an established genre.”
Church puts each week’s Roots Down show together piece by piece, song by song. Each show is organic, often with a different theme, and always features at least one live guest musical act, sometimes two, which are either from the area or will be performing in the area. These days Americana appears to have become the “go-to” genre for so many artists who don’t want to be defined by a particular sound. That leaves a lot of options and variety for Church to choose from. It also begged the question of Church, “what does Americana mean to you?”
“I don’t know if there is a definition, but I know Americana when I hear it. It is more of singers and songwriters who actually sing about real life. The things that matter to them – their own lives and the lives of the people they know, and thereby strike a universal chord and speak universal truths. It’s lyrics and themes that people can identify with and can help them through hard times. It came almost as a backlash against the desensitization of country music getting away from its roots. People who were still writing and singing about real things had to go somewhere, so they went to Americana.”
In short time, Roots Down and Church have become a considerable factor in Roanoke’s growing music scene. It’s one that Church obviously cares about and takes note of the scene itself. Church would like to see more connection between the Roanoke and Charlottesville music scenes. That desire first came to fruition when he gathered Charlottesville singer songwriters David Tewksbury and Willie DE with Roanoke’s Phil Norman and Corey Hunley at the Roots Down studio for a performance.
“Those four guys just gelled. It was amazing. The four had never played together, and they came in to each do one of their own songs, and then come together for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at the end. Willie DE was playing his song, “Seven Sparrows” and I look up and there’s Phil Norman doing harmony with him. That’s the thing that thrills me, when I see that sort of collaboration. That’s primarily what I see my role as – a facilitator and an enabler to get artists on the air and get them exposure.
That collaboration resulted in two lives shows, one in Roanoke at The Spot on Kirk, followed by a show at The Ante Room in Charlottesville. As for Roots Down, Church says he’d like to see further growth in the diversity of artists.
“I don’t want to leave anyone out. It’s really easy to fill up the four hours of the show because there is so much good music out there. I want to make sure I’m giving the artists their due who are putting good music out there and make sure I’m engaging the local communities that we serve and the artists that live there.”
You can search Luke Church’s playlist on the WVTF website and also view a variety of videos from past in-studio performances. Also, make sure to keep up with “Roots Down” by following the page on Facebook.