It's Monday night in the wilds of western Davidson County. On top of a wooded hill sits a long, olive-drab army surplus tent. Outside the tent, light streams from small openings, and the smell of a wood fire comes drifting downwind. Inside, electronic equipment and lights powered by a wooden pallet of car batteries fill the space — side by side with stacks of CDs, LPs and a complete frontier kitchen with a pork roast sizzling in a wood stove. An audience of 10 sits in lawn chairs and wooden stools as a man steps to a microphone.
It may sound like you've stumbled upon the taping of the latest episode of Doomsday Preppers, but it's actually just business as usual for one of the most unique radio shows in Nashville: Mando Blues, recorded every Monday and broadcast Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Radio Free Nashville 107.1-FM. Hosted and produced by longtime local music scenester, promoter and talent buyer Whit Hubner, the show views the blues as an ongoing living style, rather than as a dusty museum piece.
"I had moved to Radio Free Nashville after the demise of community DJs at WRVU, and was doing a rock show," Hubner says. "The general manager at Radio Free Nashville asked me if I'd be interested in doing a blues show. I was blasé at first because I appreciated blues, but I was more of a rock guy." But after talking with his friend Ted Drozdowski of the local blues combo Scissormen, Hubner decided to give it a try — as long as he could approach it from a different perspective by making the show a combination of classic recordings, live performances and interviews. But he needed more room than he could find in the tiny studio at Radio Free Nashville.
Enter another friend of Hubner's: Rob McClain and his Omega Lab Studio. After losing his first backyard studio to a fire, McClain rebuilt in a Gulf War-era army surplus tent. Powered by an array of car batteries that are recharged by current from the adjacent house, the complex is a mad-scientist hybrid of a state-of-the-art recording studio and backwoods survivalist encampment — with one unique advantage over more rigidly built studios. "If you can keep down extraneous noises," McClain says, "whether it's a jet, motorcycle or thunder, the opportunity for pristine recordings exists because of the lack of sound reflection. This is better than any other studio I've ever worked in."
But beyond its unusual setting, Mando Blues focuses on blues as a style that has influenced all manner of American music, and not just a rigid genre unto itself. "I call it a blues appreciation show," Hubner says. "The records we play are classic blues, but [for guests] the idea is not so much that you're a classic Chicago blues artist, but more that blues means something to you and your music, even if you're a bluegrass artist or a rock band."
That inclusive approach has led to a diverse list of guests, ranging from progressive bluegrass pioneer Doug Dillard to the gospel and blues combination of Mike Farris and The McCrary Sisters, and from the Americana alternative rock of Tommy Womack to blues and R&B master Nick Nixon.
"I've always approached it more as a student than as a professor," Hubner says. "Often the artists know more about blues than I do, but we're all in there trying to learn." With Mando Blues entering its fourth year, Hubner is looking at the possibility of releasing a "best of" compilation drawn from archived shows.
Back in the woods, the evening's guest, Kentucky-based blues guitarist Bosco France, has finished his set. The show has been a rambling good time, as France's band played a rollicking set of classics and originals while talking about his music and the life of a working-class musician. At the back of the tent, the pork tenderloin, stewed cabbage and 14-bean soup are ready for serving. The band, crew and audience all line up for a home-cooked meal to follow the homegrown blues.
"I get to see some of the greatest musicians at their best, playing in an unusual environment every week," Hubner says. "And at the end of two hours of live blues, we have some pork tenderloin and beans. That's a pretty good thing."