Songs at the Center Sells the Heartland Sound

Richard Ades
Host Eric Gnezda talks with Matraca Berg and Tommy Womack during a Songs at the Center taping at the Woodward Opera House.

On a beautiful spring morning in Mount Vernon, women in 19th-century attire welcome guests to a 21st-century phenomenon: a local TV show that has become a hit across the country. Songs at the Center debuted in 2014 on Channel 4-2, but it was soon picked up by WOSU-TV and now is seen on public stations in 41 states. In all, it has 2.5 million viewers, says executive producer Jack FitzGerald.

“We’ve been riding this thing for the last five years,” FitzGerald says. “It’s kind of taken on a life of its own.”

Though its home venue is the McConnell Arts Center in Worthington, the series has traveled to Mount Vernon on this particular Saturday to begin taping its sixth season at the 168-year-old Woodward Opera House. (Hence the vintage costumes.) Dozens of fans have followed along and are settling down in the auditorium to wait for taping to begin.

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“We’ll need someone to sit onstage,” FitzGerald tells them, recruiting several to fill two rows of seats behind the performers.

Meanwhile, the show’s creator and host, Eric Gnezda, is meeting with one of the performers backstage to pose the kind of probing questions for which the program is known. Sitting in front of a video camera, Gnezda asks singer-songwriter Tommy Womack whether his lifelong battle with depression has helped inspire his work. “Depression is the gasoline in the engine” for him and many artists, Womack replies, but adds that he can’t create while under its influence. “I take my meds religiously,” he concludes.

Back in the auditorium, fellow songwriters Matraca Berg and Marshall Chapman take their places onstage for pre-show sound checks. After singing and playing for a few minutes, Chapman asks the technician whether it sounds all right. “Yes, sir,” the man replies, apparently fooled by the 70-year-old’s name, contralto voice and Western-style shirt.

“Yes, ma’am, just for the record,” Chapman corrects him, then adds, “I’m too old to change.”

Viewers chuckle at the dry comment, but FitzGerald apparently feels they need more loosening up. As showtime approaches, he brings out a “laughter yoga consultant” to lead them through a series of “smile pushups” and guffaw-producing exercises. Afterward, stage manager Andy Herron reminds them that this is a TV taping rather than a concert, so there will be frequent starts, stops and, if necessary, redos.

Finally, it’s time for Gnezda to get the show underway with his usual greeting: “We’re the program that brings you the songs and their stories.” He then introduces each of the guests, asking them about their lives and careers, and especially about the inspiration behind the songs they’ve chosen to perform. He rotates through the musicians several times, producing a number of memorable moments:

Berg admits she’s more comfortable writing for other artists than performing. Still, that doesn’t stop her from delivering a gorgeous rendition of the bittersweet “You and Tequila” while Chapman sings harmony. Marshall introduces her semi-autobiographical song “Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller,” and then confesses, “Half of it is true, and the other half I just made up so it would rhyme.” Womack sings an extended tune called “Alpha Male and the Canine Mystery Blood,” about a band that was originally called Menstrual Blood but changed its name “to please goth dog lovers.” Berg and Chapman cover their faces to avoid cracking up on camera.

As foretold, there are occasional glitches; for example, when Gnezda has a “senior moment,” stopping in mid-question because he’s forgotten an industry celebrity’s name. “Proper nouns are the first to go,” Chapman tells him. But there are also philosophical and psychological insights galore, along with tunes that are both intensely personal and achingly beautiful.

Musing about the show days later, Gnezda tries to explain why a modest series featuring regional talent has found nationwide success. “I think [Americans] are really hungry for authenticity,” he says. He adds that the Midwest’s lack of a defining musical genre is an advantage because it allows him to showcase a variety of sounds.

Would he ever consider moving the production elsewhere? Gnezda chooses his words carefully, acknowledging that he’s received offers to do so and saying the show must be “faithful to the opportunities that are in front of us.” But he also notes the local support it has received from fans, not to mention its longtime sponsor, the James Cancer Hospital.

“As long as the support is in Columbus,” he says, “it’ll stay here.”


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Songs at the Center airs at 11 p.m. on Saturdays on WOSU-TV.