Mountain Stage: A Look at the 34th Year of Radio’s Best Live Music Show
As radio show Mountain Stage begins its 35th season this coming weekend, it’s an opportune time to look back at this past season, some highlights, and one significant event. (Here’s a link to a previous column devoted to the show’s history.)
The Show’s Demise?
When the incoming new governor of West Virginia did not include funding for Mountain Stage early in 2017, it meant the demise of the nation’s most popular live music radio show. Fortunately, fans, supporters — both in state and out — and the state’s legislators signaled not only their unbridled support of the show but also demonstrated its positive economic impact to the state. Mountain Stage, as with other long-running shows, is considered a “legacy show,” which usually means that while it may be prestigious, its ratings have slipped. Not so Mountain Stage, whose ratings have blossomed as it is carried by over 200 NPR stations, as well as being featured on the NPR Music homepage and available as a podcast. Much to the governor’s credit, once the facts were brought to his attention, funding in full was restored.
Book Ends: Margo Price and Nellie McKay
Last year’s shows were bookended with two of my favorite artists, Margo Price and Nellie McKay. While it was not Price’s first visit to the state, it was her first appearance on the show, and the standing-room-only crowd’s enthusiasm demonstrated that this should not be her last. ND readers are aware of my fascination with McKay and her unique musical blendings; it’s as though Blossom Dearie and Bob Dorough were one. She’s also done cutting edge one-woman shows on Rachel Carson, Barbara Graham (the third woman executed at San Quentin), and Billy Tipton (the female big band pianist who passed as a man). Her new album, Sister Orchid, due in spring, is saloon music where she plays all the instruments. That night on Mountain Stage, she mixed originals done in that style with songs by Roger Miller and Loretta Lynn.
There have only been five guest hosts in the 900+ Mountain Stage shows, all West Virginia natives. This year was two-time Tony award winner Michael Cerveris. Well-known in the New York theater scene, he also has an Americana band, Loose Cattle, whose latest album was reviewed in ND last year. His witty and insightful low-key banter reminded me of the times I had seen him in a couple of Sondheim musicals, including his award-winning role in Assassins.
The Finale Song
A highlight of every show is the finale song, where everyone comes back out on stage and performs an extended version of an appropriate song for that evening. Tom Petty’s passing was a sad time for us all. That week’s show included the Drive-By Truckers and the finale was “Free Fallin’.” It moved many of us to tears, and I was fortunate to catch Hood doffing his fedora and looking upward in a silent salute.
Post Show Jam
After each show, Mountain Stage guitarist Michael Lipton and his band the Carpenter Ants host a jam at The Empty Glass, just a couple of blocks from where the show is held. Invariably, several guests from each show show up and take star turns fronting the band, or just joining in. This year was no different as Margo Price, Robyn Hitchcock, Luther Dickinson, and many more marked their rite of passage into Mountain Stage lore.
Many thanks to two of my fellow photographers, Kate Butcher and Chris Morris (aka Brewhead), for providing their photos. Now, onto those photographs.