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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As the sparkle of Music City’s skyline steadily unfurls across the darkened Tennessee horizon, Jason Samuel sits in the passenger seat of a southbound Volkswagen and studies his phone.

He scrolls through messages and social media in search of the evening’s plan.

“I think I have some pretty cool things lined up for us this weekend,” Samuel says as the cellphone screen illuminates his face. He continues to scroll without looking up for a few more moments. Then, with a quick jolt, Samuel turns his gaze and complete attention to the driver.

“You need to know something,” he says in all seriousness. “Nothing in this town happens until it happens.”

This is something Samuel has learned repeatedly as the general manager of WGCS-FM, Goshen College’s student-run radio station otherwise known as 91.1 The Globe. It’s something he’s lived, something he’s overcome and something for which he has prepared.

As the car rolls across the Cumberland River on Interstate 65, “Loveless Rolling Stone” from Aubrie Sellers’ debut record spins in the CD player. Then Samuel’s phone starts buzzing.

“Hey, Al,” Samuel answers. “Yeah, we’re staying in the West End by Vanderbilt. Uh huh. Sure. Will that be alright? We’ll be able to get in? Alright, man. Yep. Awesome. See you soon. Bye.”

Samuel turns back to the driver and flashes a boyish smile.

“OK,” he says in his trademark baritone radio voice. “We’re on the list.”

Culture shift

How did Samuel get here, gliding through the American South taking calls from iconic music promoters? How is it possible that Goshen has a swagger, even a reputation, in the heart of Nashville where music legends tend to blend into the crowd? And how is it that what’s happening in Nashville, Tennessee is spilling over into cultural progression for Goshen, Indiana?

It starts with a tiny radio station tucked upstairs above Goshen College’s student union and it extends north to downtown where, four years ago at 120 E. Washington St., an old auto mechanic shop was transformed into Ignition Music Garage, a record store and intimate concert venue.

“Whenever I come to town I try my best to make the most of it,” Samuel said of his trip to Nashville this past January. “I’m always trying to build relationships for the radio station, for the college, for Ignition and for Goshen.”

It was 1989 when Samuel first arrived in the Maple City and enrolled as freshman at Goshen College. A native of the Philadelphia area, he had a love for radio and music. At GC, Samuel immersed himself in radio and graduated in 1993 while working for WFRN-FM/WCMR-AM in Elkhart.

“I always felt,” Samuel said of radio, “that this is where I belonged.”

Samuel, who will turn 46 in March, went on to work for radio stations in Elkhart, Syracuse and Crown Point, where his focus was primarily sports broadcasting. He was good at it, twice earning the Indiana Sportscaster of the Year award from the National Association of Sportscasters and once earning Indiana’s Best Sports Play-By-Play Announcer from Network Indiana.

After earning his master’s degree from Purdue University, Samuel returned to Goshen College in 2003 to run WGCS, the college’s student-led radio station, and teach as an associate professor in the communications department.

That’s when the shift began.

Since its inception in 1958, WGCS had a classical music format. Occasionally, late-night student programing featured bursts of pop or rock music, and in the late 1990s regular blocks of folk and bluegrass music were introduced.

Samuel had a bolder vision that was not without controversy or struggle. He managed to convince the GC trustees and administration to change the station’s format. Not to rock. Not to country. Not to anything with a real foothold in the radio establishment.

The “Americana” movement was the future of WGCS, and from that 91.1 The Globe was born.

“There are some people who say I destroyed the culture of the radio station,” Samuel said. “I don’t think so. I came up with the tagline, ‘culturally progressive.’ What does that even mean? In my mind it doesn’t have to be classical to be cultural. All music has culture. This is just a progressive form. We’re still playing violins on The Globe. We never stopped. We just don’t call it a violin anymore. Now it’s a fiddle.”

Steve Martin, the owner of Ignition Music Garage, credited Samuel for having the strategic foresight to take the station in the direction of Americana.

“What’s brilliant about it is Americana is not a scene,” Martin said. “It’s a place where all the American roots music is coming together — rock, blues, country, bluegrass, rockabilly — and being played. Honestly, it’s the last ‘big tent’ genre left in music. That’s all Americana is: blends of styles.”

The format switch occurred at 6:06 a.m. on Monday, June 20, 2004. The first song played was “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan, from 1964.

It was an important day for Goshen and an appropriate choice of anthem.

“Jason has been a gift to Goshen College and a gift to WGCS,” said Duane Stoltzfus, who is head of the communications department at GC. “The Globe would not have been possible without Jason. It was his inspiration and in many ways his hard work. I think even he would say running the radio station has been his calling, and we have benefited from that.”

How it’s done

It’s nearly 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday night in Nashville and Samuel is about to go to work. Freshened up following the eight-hour drive from Goshen, he exits a taxi in front of 3rd And Lindsley, a classy restaurant and concert venue that attracts some of the hottest national recording artists to its stage.

On this night the venue is the site of a benefit show named in honor of Cowboy Jack Clement, the legendary producer for Sun Records who died in 2013. The benefit is to raise money for musicians who have excessive medical bills, and will feature performances from Sam Lewis, Elizabeth Cook and Mary Gauthier.

That’s some immense talent, but the real reason Samuel is at 3rd And Lindsley this evening is the neat and long-haired gentleman sipping red wine at the corner of the bar, casually bobbing his head to the music.

“Al Moss said we’re on the list,” Samuel tells the man working the door.

“Sure,” the man answers, and points with his eyes to where Moss is sitting.

Moss is one of the most respected Americana promoters in Nashville, and all the country for that matter. His roster of clients dates back decades and includes some of the biggest names in the music industry.

In 2015, he worked the records of five of the top 10 Americana artists and six of the top 11 on the year-end AMA chart. The artists included Brandi Carlile, Alabama Shakes, Steve Earle, Chris Stapleton and Robert Earl King at No. 11.

Moss’ face lights up when he sees Samuel and the two share a quick hug and start to catch up while Gauthier prepares to go on stage. The two have known each other for more than a decade and there is a distinct mutual respect for both their roles and their friendship.

“This is what it’s all about,” Samuel said. “It’s important for me to come to Nashville and see people like Al. We work closely together. Al is one of the great facilitators of supplying me with music to play. Most importantly, he goes to bat for Goshen, Indiana, for Goshen College and for Ignition Garage all the time.”

Moss is an advocate of his clients. When he’s working a record he’s constantly connecting with booking agents, record stores and radio station managers. It’s his job to get their name and project out there and strategically maximize their exposure and grow an audience.

So, when Samuel comes to town and meets Moss for a show, he brings with him from Goshen a distinct value to any conversation regarding the progression of an artist’s success

“If there were 100 more Jason Samuels in Americana music the format would be so much healthier,” Moss said in his relaxed and classic Southern drawl. “He’s passionate, he’s hard-working, he’s dedicated, he’s honest and he has integrity. Everything you’d want from a programmer, he’s got.”

After the show Moss and Samuel head toward the stage and start chatting with Gauthier, who still has sweat on her face from her set. She is a gentle force in Americana music, garnering acclaim from NPR, The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone.

Moss and Samuel talk up Goshen a little before shaking Gauthier’s hand and saying good night.

Start Me Up

With the Globe’s format change well-established and drawing listeners from all over the Michiana area, outside people were beginning to take notice of Goshen. The vibe was indeed changing. First Fridays was attracting thousands of people to downtown each month.

Places including The Electric Brew coffee house — an early incubator of downtown Goshen’s renaissance — Kelly Jae’s fine dining, the Constant Spring’s non-smoking pub and Venturi’s Neapolitan pizza were breathing life and night life into the central business district.

And The Globe, with its Americana commitment, was introducing listeners to new music they likely would have never heard — Los Colognes, Amy Speace, Anne McCue, Will Hoge, The Fray, Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves, to name only a handful.

There was momentum and there was an opportunity for yet another step in the progression.

Enter Steve Martin, a wickedly smart music aficionado who had been an executive in the RV industry, but was looking to catch a different kind of wave. Like many of Goshen’s downtown small business owners over the past couple decades, Martin worked closely with David Pottinger to renovate an old mechanic shop into a record store.

Yes, a record store … vinyl records.

“Why not?” Martin said, throwing his hands up near his face.

With that, Ignition Music Garage arrived in 2012, adding a significant piece to the emerging puzzle of downtown’s success. Besides just selling records, Martin added a stage where artists could perform. Samuel added a small studio in a corner near a front window so he and his students could broadcast live from Ignition.

Right from Ignition’s beginning, Goshen went from having an appreciation for music to a having a bona fide music scene. The spark caught fire.

“I’m proud of the fact that the people who have helped put this together understood what is happening,” Martin said. “Now we have people who come here and say, ‘This reminds me of Athens (Georgia) in ’74’ or ‘This reminds me of Austin (Texas) in ’78’ or ‘This reminds me of Nashville in ’72.’”

And from the beginning, there was Al Moss in Nashville and Jason Samuel at The Globe.

“I remember when Ignition started,” Moss said. “ Jason introduced me to Steve and we talked about what he was trying to do. People didn’t know who Steve was at first, so I was going to bat for him and telling people that they should take the gig, it’s a good gig and Steve’s a good guy. He actually thanked me later on for at least having some impact on putting Ignition Garage on the map for artists and booking agents and labels.”

The stature of the artists who come to Ignition is remarkable. Los Lonely Boys, for example, will play at Ignition on March 15, between dates in Charlotte, North Carolina and Madison, Wisconsin. Los Lonely Boys burst onto the music scene with their debut self-titled album in 2003 that was recorded in Willie Nelson’s Austin, Texas studios. Nelson even performed during some of the sessions.

The album’s lead single, “Heaven,” was a Top 20 hit on the pop charts and hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult/Contemporary chart. It would go on to win a Grammy. The band would be nominated for two more Grammys in 2006.

“They asked to play here,” Martin said of Los Lonely Boys. “They wanted to come and it made sense for them.”

One of the advantages for Ignition is that it’s on the way to somewhere — think Chicago, Grand Rapids, Cleveland. Martin is willing to book these bands on odd nights (Los Lonely Boys will play on a Tuesday, for example) because they can fill in tour dates and the venue is intimate.

And it’s not usual, even for bigger acts, to want to come back to Goshen once they’ve played Ignition.

“When someone comes to Goshen — this is the crazy thing — they always want to come back,” Samuel said. “They really do. Honestly, some people right after they’re done with a gig, they’re like, ‘Yo, we want to come back, let’s just pencil it in.’”

Fitting right in

It’s about 3:30 on a sunny and pleasant Friday afternoon, and Samuel is scribbling notes on the back of a CD case on his way to Grimey’s, the legendary record store on 8th Avenue in Nashville.

Aubrie Sellers was his mark that afternoon. She was celebrating the release of her debut album, “New City Blues,” with an in-store performance. She was also shooting a video downstairs at The Basement for Country Music Television. The night before, she and her top-flight studio band were in New York performing on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

“I talked to the promoter of the record (Moss), who then talked to her management,” Samuel said as he double-checked his recording equipment. “So they worked it all out that I’ll get 15 or 20 minutes with her and talk about her new record. I’ll take it back to the studio, edit it down with cuts from her new record and put these little vignettes together and do like a 30-minute show.”

Samuel had an early release of the record and its first track, “Light of Day,” was already scheduled into rotation at The Globe. But this was an opportunity to meet the artist, put together an interview and for Samuel to hear what she sounds like live.

“The reason we do this is so our audience can get to know Aubrie a little bit better,” he explained. “And when they’re invested in knowing a little bit about what it took to make the record, they may want to listen to it more or go out and get it for themselves. It may even be the beginning of a relationship where we eventually bring her to town.”

Samuel had no idea he’d be interviewing Sellers when he came down to Nashville. He just put out some feelers, and the opportunity materialized. That, he said, is why he always brings a recorder down with him.

Sellers and her manager, Taylor Lee, browse the record store and the CMT cameramen shoot b-roll (supplemental footage that will be intercut with the main shot) for their video. Moss has arrived by now, and he and Jason go chat with Sellers. A few minutes later, as the band is setting up in the store, Samuel and Sellers head to a deck outside for an interview.

It’s quick and professional. Samuel is knowledgeable about her work and background. It appears Sellers is appreciative of this as he asks about the record, her self-described genre of “garage country” (there is no acoustic guitar on her record) and her influences, and makes mention that she is the daughter of country music star Lee Ann Womack while managing to keep the focus on Sellers.

“You can’t get too technical with the interviews,” Samuel said, “but you have to get technical enough so (the artists) know that you know what you’re talking about.”

Afterward, Sellers blasts through a rocking 40-minute set in the packed record store. In attendance is Womack, Sellers’ father, Jason Sellers, and her stepfather, renowned record producer Frank Liddell. Samuel fit right in, chatting with Liddell and later again with Aubrie Sellers.

As the band was packing up, Samuel and Moss were talking about Goshen with the star of the show.

“In the case of Aubrie, we don’t know if she’s going to come to Goshen,” Samuel said later. “If she does come to Goshen to play a gig, she’ll have a record that’s been getting airplay on The Globe, she’ll have a place at Ignition where her record is being sold, and she’ll have a performance space to personally connect with new fans. That is how this all works.”

Bringing it all together

Goshen’s value in the Nashville and Americana scene rests on that very three-legged stool.

First there’s The Globe, which is run by Samuel and about 15 college students. Because it is a listener-funded college radio station, The Globe has the flexibility to take a chance and play up-and-coming artists, or push new records from established artists.

“This whole idea with what we’re doing in Goshen right now, this partnership with Ignition and the college, was born out of an idea here (in Nashville),” Samuel said. “What’s missing for artists? One of the things that a small 200- to 300-size room can do is put the focus on the music and not the alcohol.”

That brings us to Ignition. With a capacity of around 200 people, it’s what has become known in the business as a listening room.

The small stage is in the corner. For a show, the record stands are rolled to the back room or against the walls and chairs are set up. The acoustics are rich, bold and crisp. Listeners in the front row can actually rest their feet on the edge of the stage. And as the artists play, the audience looks straight ahead and listens.

“People come here for the music,” Martin said. “They don’t come here to drink or eat; there are other clubs for that. They come to listen.”

Martin likens Ignition to such venues as City Winery in Chicago or S.P.A.C.E in Evanston, Illinois.

When it’s not hosting shows, the Ignition team is selling records and making a point to stock many of the records that are featured on The Globe.

Moss also touted Samuel’s recipe for the emergence of Goshen’s music scene, pointing to the same three ingredients.

“Three of the key elements are you’ve got a good radio station that can be effective in getting people out to shows; you’ve got a good record store; and you’ve got a good venue,” Moss said. “The way The Globe and Ignition work together up there in Goshen is quite special. I can’t think of very many other situations that I’m aware of that it works as well as it does in Goshen.”

A fine example of this collaboration took place a couple years ago when iconic jam band Moe. had a day off and was looking for a place somewhere between Wisconsin and New York where it could stop and do a gig.

“They could have stopped anywhere,” Samuel said. “They stopped in Goshen, loaded their gear into Ignition and performed a free one-hour concert that we broadcast on The Globe, and the show was packed. What does that say? Who does that? How does that happen?”

Now we’re back to building relationships and living up to a good reputation. Not long before that show, Samuel got a call from his friend, David Newmark, who was working with Moe.’s record label, Sugar Hill Records.

Newmark asked if Samuel could make a Moe. show at Ignition happen with short notice. Samuel said “sure,” followed up with a couple phone calls and it was done.

“What works for me is I was raised in a culture of ‘You take care of me, I’ll take care of you,’” Samuel explained. “I was brought up that way. You take care of people. When people ask you for something, you say ‘yes,’ and figure it out later.”

So, on June 18, 2014, Moe. played songs from its latest record to a standing-room-only crowd at Ignition Music Garage. That’s cool in itself, but the show was also broadcast live because of The Globe’s studio at Ignition. Samuel and his now student station manager Victor Garcia even interviewed the band between songs. For the people in attendance, it felt like they were in on a secret as they watched it happen.

Some of them even wondered aloud, “This is Goshen?”

One stoked concert-goer turned and responded, “Yes, this is Goshen!”

Maintaining relationships

Fast-forward 17 months to the Chauhan Ale & Masala House on 12th Avenue in Nashville, where Samuel and Newmark are sharing Indian food and talking music on a Saturday night. Newmark is another heavy hitter in the music business.

His professional lineage stretches all the way back to Jefferson Airplane in the 1960s and to Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie in the early 1970s. Samuel and Newmark talk a little shop, but this meeting is more about catching up than business.

Still, Samuel insists, it’s vital to maintain relationships and be true to those who have helped take care of you over the years. Newmark, he says, has done just that.

“I could never come to Nashville, Tennessee and not see this man,” Samuel said. “He’s that important to me. And it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s worked with the most amazing, iconic hall-of-fame rockers ever. It has nothing to do with that. It’s because of who he is and what he’s done for me.”

Samuel’s trip to Nashville also includes dinner with Moss and public relations specialist Melissa Farina, and lunch at Martin’s on Belmont with promoter Leslie Rouffe with Songlines Music; Music Fog’s Jessie Scott, who is a founding member of the Americana Music Association; and Michele Block-Rhoades, who handles the charting for the AMA.

They all interact like long-lost classmates at a high school reunion, re-telling stories, talking a little industry shop and dropping a few names of Americana artists they like. After about two hours, they all give Samuel a hug and make him promise to call next time he’s in town.

More music

Then there were more shows. On Friday night it was off to The Mercy Lounge and the High Watt, where Samuel saw performances by Sinclair, Chrome Pony and Nikki Lane. He talked with lead singer and guitarist Julia Sinclair and Lane following their performances. Lane’s music has been in regular rotation on The Globe.

Then on Saturday it was back to The Basement, where Samuel checked in with his buddy Santo Pullella, a talent buyer at 3rd And Lindsley, and to catch an energized performance by The Whistles & The Belles.

While he was there, Samuel bumped into the mayor of Nashville, Megan Barry.

“She was wearing a hockey jersey and it said ‘MAYOR’ on the back,” he said immediately after his chance encounter. “I asked her if she was the Mayor of The Basement. She said, ‘No, of Nashville.’ She knows where to go for good music.”

The nightcap of the trip was a visit to Soulshine Pizza Factory, where Aaron Lee Tasjan, Brian Wright, Jon Allen, Bonnie Whitmore and John Latham jammed together. Earlier in the day, Tasjan signed a record deal.

“This is why I came back to Goshen College (WGCS),” Samuel said. “This is cool. Think about all the great music we’ve seen in just two and half days and the cool people we’ve hung out with. This is worth something and I’m always thinking about bands I want to bring back to Goshen.”

Making it happen

Without question, Goshen has a good thing going with the collaboration between The Globe and Ignition. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still fragile. Martin sees considerable and quick-moving challenges ahead, and there is plenty that worries him moving forward.

For one, Baby Boomers are, and have been, the top consumers of live music. That was fine in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and even into the 2000s, but that generation is shrinking rapidly. Many are more pinched for cash in retirement, some more so than they thought.

The key, Martin says, is regional collaboration. That means working together with other venues in South Bend, Elkhart and Goshen to book the right artists into the right rooms at the right times.

“I think we can keep this momentum, but I’m nervous about it,” Martin said. “It’s hard to know how best to invest to make it keep growing. I’m working hard on it, but I just don’t know. Even if it doesn’t work out in the long run, I’ve never created something this cool before in my life.”

Capitalizing on cool is the trick, as is thinking bigger, Martin said. Why couldn’t, he wonders, Goshen emerge as an enclave for up-and-coming artists who choose to move here for an affordable music scene?

Yeah, why not?

Few could have envisioned this kind of cultural evolution in Goshen 20 years ago. Who would have thought that downtown Goshen would be a regional entertainment draw, and even a meaningful springboard for musicians diving head-first into stardom?

Who could have predicted that a simple format change on a tiny college radio station in the 180th-largest market in the country would have such a profound impact on Goshen as a whole and the music industry itself to a lesser extent?

“Goshen has become this hip little place,” Samuel said. “It’s kind of cool. I love what I do, I love that (I live) a mile from work. I love that I can help make positive change in my community through The Globe, through Ignition, though First Fridays. Why would I want to be anywhere else?

“If Goshen hadn’t become as cool as it’s become as a whole — that means the rejuvenated downtown, our government working together, people from different backgrounds coming together and the partnership the college has with so many things downtown — this wouldn’t be happening.”

Nothing in this town happens until it happens, Samuel said as he was heading into Nashville. He could have just as easily been talking about Goshen.

Just look around. It’s all happening. Goshen is on the list.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Wanbaugh is a 1990 graduate of Goshen High School and has been managing editor of The Goshen News since 2008. He is a veteran journalist who has also worked for newspapers in North Carolina and South Bend, Ind.

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