Back to her roots: A profile of Roots Radio program director Jessie Scott

Sep 12, 2016

 

Jessie Scott raises her arm in celebration with Keith Bilbrey at the launch of WMOT 89.5 Roots Radio at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

WMOT staff, Rhiannon Gilbert

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- The music industry has a way of taking its loyal followers on a wild ride. No one knows this better than Jessie Scott, program and music director for Roots Radio in Nashville. Scott is known by many for her popular YouTube channel, “Music Fog,” which showcases Americana artists. However, before Americana recently brought her back to Nashville, Scott’s love of music radio took her on a journey to 13 cities and countless stations, where she has worn almost all the hats the profession has to offer – in many instances being the first woman to don them.

“My passion for radio started around some of my earliest memories, at about 3 years old,” Scott said.  “There was no female presence in radio whatsoever. But I really wanted to be on the radio and I wanted to play music and curate. It was always about the music for me.”

That lifelong passion gave Scott the gumption to kick-start her 45-year-long career by walking into ABC studios in New York in 1971, without an appointment, and landing a job. They sent her to Pittsburgh, where she hosted an afternoon drive time show.

“I didn’t even know how to run board,” Scott remembered. “I was frantic for the first three months I was on the air. But there were a couple of prevailing things. One, I didn’t want to fail. And two, I sort of felt responsible to do a good job so that my replacement would be a female.”

Scott soon proved she was worth her salt and set the bar high. As Pittsburgh’s first female DJ in the “Rock Era,” Scott spent her five years in Pennsylvania learning to be entrepreneurial in the radio business. She started a rock station, WYDD, “to compete with her ABC station.”  She also worked with a Top-40 station, where she had a crew who challenged her to grow her skills as a disc jockey.

“Being in Pittsburgh for five years was just this wonderful learning lab,” Scott said. “Pittsburgh has a great tradition for radio. Who knew?”

And who knew what variety the radio world held in store for Scott? She took her skills to New York in 1975 and worked disco for two weekends before dedicating six years to WHN, a successful AM country station that played what was called “progressive country.” It was this genre that began to open Scott’s ears and imagination to the possibilities of Americana on the radio.

“It was too rock for country, and too country for rock,” Scott said. “It occurred to me that that could be its own format, where you didn’t have to play the pop hits of the day. Where you could just play that cool stuff. And it took me 25 years to take it to XM to put it on the radio there.”

A quarter of a century later saw that wish come true, but in the meantime she dabbled in all things radio. She was chosen to run the music for New York’s Hard Rock Café in 1976, the first year it was open. She went on to WNBC where she worked with prominent radio personalities Howard Stern and Don Imus, and did character voices as part of Stern’s entourage.

She DJ’d, did promotions, hosted special events and helped with startup stations across the country until the mid-1980s, when her son was born. Afterward, she came back to work with her eye on management and “being the one to call the shots.” She became the first woman in Orlando to host a morning drive show on LOVE 94.5. Finally, in 2000, XM hired her as its first female program director, and her channel, X Country, was soon the most popular Americana station on the air.

“I really felt like I had missed the craft of radio, and I wanted to be a part of that,” Scott explained. “I’ve virtually done every format, from disco to soft AC, to Top 40, to Classic Rock…pretty much every format you can name. You are a journeyman when you are on the radio.”

Despite the places her journey takes her, all roads for Scott seem to lead her back to roots music, something she has felt deeply connected to for as long as she can remember. Artists like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Tennessee Ernie Ford shaped her love of music early on.

“There were songs that resonated with me that were not the pop fare that was on the radio,” Scott said. “And I didn’t like all the love songs. I gravitated toward things that had real subject matter at 5 years old. Why? I couldn’t tell you. But that planted the seed for me.”

That seed grew over the course of Scott’s life into her passion for Americana music. When a merger resulted in her show at XM being cancelled, she was offered a different position, but decided to leave and start “Music Fog” instead, so she could continue to represent the artists she loved. As her talent grew, she could not be ignored by the industry, even when she met resistance for being a woman in radio.

“I’m one of those people who just doesn’t give up,” Scott said. “It’s my passion, it’s what I want to do, it’s how I want to live my life, and I just have done it.”

Scott’s determination and positive outlook has gotten her through almost 50 years of radio work, and now that she’s fully immersed in Nashville’s Americana scene, her voice continues to boldly support the music she loves..

“The collective of what we get to do is bringing people joy,” Scott said. “We get to play music that brings joy to peoples’ lives. That includes the audience, and the artists that we get to represent. It gets to us, too.”