Grammy-award winning producer and songwriter Shannon Sanders’ extensive and impressive list of collaborations and clients includes many of the biggest names in contemporary pop music.
Along with longtime production and writing partner Drew Ramsey, Sanders has done successful and acclaimed projects for Heather Headley, India.arie, Jonny Lang, Robert Randolph, Jesse McCartney and Marc Broussard just for starters, and he’s got a lengthy list of upcoming dates already scheduled.
But in addition to his work with multiple national performers, Sanders is also a staunch advocate of Nashville’s music scene, particularly the city’s urban, R&B and soul community, which he feels has been vastly underrated and overlooked. He’s now championing the talented artists within that world every Thursday on his new radio show Underground Railroad, which airs from 9–11 p.m. on WVOL-AM1470.
The program combines artist interviews and various singles by area acts. Thursday night’s edition will mark the third week of its existence, and Sanders said the reaction and response has already been enthusiastic.
“People are calling and saying, ‘Is that really music being made by people in Nashville?’” Sanders said. “Others are really happy because these songs don’t sound like anything else on the radio. It’s a testimony to just how many really extraordinary performers live and work here in this field. That was my incentive to get this show off the ground, because as someone that’s around these people all the time it was amazing to me that we have so many incredible singers, writers and performers around.”
Any other city in the world that has the caliber of talent in the realm of soul, R&B and urban music that is here in Nashville would be celebrated just for that accomplishment, Sanders said. But, Nashville is unusual because it’s the one city where one genre is so identified with the cultural identity around the world.
“That’s a great thing that Nashville’s international reputation for country is so entrenched, but it also makes it hard for other genres to get as much recognition and exposure as they might get in other circumstances,” Sanders said. “So the main reason that I decided to begin this show is to give people a chance to hear some of these gifted people, people who are out there hustling and trying to get their music heard. This is truly independent music.
Some people might even say that I’m putting demos on the air, because my concern isn’t with it being overly polished or necessarily being hit-material. I’m interested in getting things on the air that have something to say, and are strong and have some personality.”
Some performers whose music Sanders touts include Britten, Jason Eskridge, Damien Horne, Myshell, Jackie Wilson, Josiah and Sharif Iman.
“Most of the performers whose music I play on the show do have some sort of online presence, but they haven’t been able to get a broadcast forum for whatever reason,” Sanders said. “There are places where local rock acts can go and get some airplay and exposure, and that’s what we want to do on this show.”
Sanders also cites black radio’s historic traditions of innovation and experimentation as the prime reason he wanted to start Underground Railroad, and he’s thrilled that it’s presented on WVOL as well.
“WVOL really is part of that great legacy of adventurous, community-based programming that was always the hallmark of black stations,” Sanders said. “There was a time when the AM band was the only place where you could hear the great DJs and also a lot of vital music that was shut out otherwise. That’s what we’re reviving now at WVOL, and it’s an honor to be doing the show there every week. I really consider that I’m doing renegade radio, and at the same place that helped launch Oprah Winfrey’s career. They truly are Nashville’s heritage station, and now through this program people will get a chance to hear a lot of great music that otherwise they might miss.”
Still, while he’s certainly focused on making the Underground Railroad a mainstay among Nashville’s specialty radio shows, Sanders isn’t exactly taking a vacation from his always hefty schedule. Recently, he produced songs that will be included in forthcoming releases from India.arie and John Legend, fresh dates from Lang and Broussard, plus more sessions with some area performers that he deems quite promising.
“The boxer Floyd Mayweather has a new label and one of his acts is a group called Kolour Blind, which is based here in Nashville,” Sanders said. “There’s a husband-and-wife team called The Light, who are making some outstanding contemporary gospel that I’m very excited about as well.”
However he’s also spending sizable amounts of time each week reviewing and selecting songs for Underground Railroad.
“One thing that I keep emphasizing is that the show isn’t about trying to spot trends or single out hot performers,” Sanders said. “It’s about exposing the audience to worthwhile music in these genres. I don’t care about color or gender or any of those other things. My interest is in the music and helping the urban, R&B and soul communities here get the respect and exposure that they deserve. If you listen to the show I promise that you’ll hear a lot of things that will surprise, stun and please you, and you’ll discover that Nashville’s black music output today is just as strong as it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
The Music Biz appears Mondays in The City Paper. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org