Lovers of music, especially bluegrass, acoustic and folk music, have a standing appointment with Mississippi Public Broadcasting every Saturday night at 8 p.m. That’s when the radio airwaves across five states and computers worldwide are tuned to Grassroots—and it’s been that way for a long time. Grassroots was part of the MPB original lineup when the statewide network began in 1984 and has been a fixture in the Saturday night time slot ever since. There have been only two hosts of the program in its 25 years. Mike Morgan was the original host and current host Bill Ellison has handled the duties for the past 17 years.
As host of the show, Bill has compared his work on Grassroots to that of a museum’s curator, unearthing and sharing treasures from America’s and Mississippi’s musical past.Whether it’s a spotlight on Leake County string band recordings from the 1930’s, background on a newly found Bob Dylan live recording or a mention of the next show date for a band of “outlaw” college bluegrass musicians from Oxford, listeners know where to find what they’re looking for. And those listeners respond. Letters from fans across the south who write in with their comments and requests are a testament to the impact of Grassroots on their lives. Some of the most touching letters come from prison inmates who describe the show as “two hours of solace in a world of chaos.” A Pascagoula resident, living in a tent near his devastated home, described hearing music on Grassroots for the first time the Saturday after Hurricane Katrina as “a beautiful moment I will never forget.”
Grassroots is not only on the air but also on the road. Mississippi’s cultural heritage was celebrated when the Mississippi Humanities Council asked Grassroots host Bill Ellison to emcee the kick-off event for the Smithsonian Roots Music traveling exhibit held at Meridian’s MSU Riley Center. And a rising young cello player, Nathaniel Smith of Brandon was featured recently as part of a live Grassroots recording in front of a packed house at Jackson’s Hal & Mal’s Restaurant.
Mississippi communities look to Grassroots to help them get the word out when it’s festival time in their town. From the Dancing Rabbit festival in Macon to the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center festival in Gulfport, music fans plan their Mississippi vacations around information provided by the show.
The Magnolia State Bluegrass Association recognized the show’s contribution to the state’s artistic legacy by awarding Grassroots the President’s Award. In 2010, Grassroots was recognized for Excellence in Broadcasting at the Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts.
Mississippi’s image is greatly enhanced beyond the borders of our state as faithful listeners tune in and respond every week with letters from Brinkley, Arkansas; Metairie, Louisiana; Mobile, Alabama and beyond. In recent years, the emails have come in regularly from Honolulu, Toronto, Berlin and from American GI’s in the Middle East. Out-of-state entities have given the show formal recognition, such as a proclamation coming from the Slidell, Louisiana, city council and yearly spotlights from the Memphis Area Bluegrass Association.
In its third decade, "Grassroots" is showing no signs of letting up in making a lasting and significant contribution to Mississippi’s rich artistic legacy.