Dispatches from the Show: Mountain Stage Episode #822

Last night I got to see my first live Mountain Stage show, and it was amazing. The actual episode will air in late September, and I urge anyone who stumbles across these words to seek it out.

For those unfamiliar, Mountain Stage is a radio show recorded with a live audience and broadcast on over 130 NPR stations across the country. Host Larry Groce, with an amazing team behind him, brings a variety of acts performing live sets to Charleston, West Virginia, in addition to other locations.

I bought my tickets primarily because – 1) hey, it’s Mountain Stage in my hometown of Princeton, WV, at the lovely Chuck Mathena Center and 2) Rosanne Cash. I could not have anticipated what a well-rounded, engaging show it would be in its entirety, and that I would find a new favorite among the shorter sets. (And it is has been written – I love finding new favorites live.)

I’m actually going to recap the show backward, and save my favorite part for last.

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When I was a child, we were poor, and though we had a television, cable did not run out to the secluded hollow we lived in, we couldn’t afford a satellite, and the mountains obscured antenna signals, so we could only watch VHS tapes. Suffice it to say, we had a lot of bootleg movies my grandmother taped for us and some kids’ TV shows an aunt had taped for us. But we also had a few tapes of country music videos that my mom’s friend recorded for her. We wore those out, putting them in night after night, sitting and watching them as a family. This was the late 80s and early 90s, when videos were still a fundamental way for an artist to formulate an image. On one of those tapes was “Runaway Train” by Rosanne Cash, and I was OBSESSED with that video. Let’s take a moment.

I was fascinated by the way the video looked – the black and white, the muted colors, the drama of all these different moods! I wanted to be Rosanne, so broody and beautiful. And in those shots of her with wild curly hair and glasses, I found someone who had traits like me. There were slow motion kisses and passionate fighting, which I’m sure in my youth I thought were super romantic and sexy, though that wasn’t even registering fully in my baby brain. (Rest assured — I no longer romanticize an off-the-rails love affair). Plus, the song is so good and catchy. Kat even pointed out to me that I have a real thing for train imagery and themes so everything about this song and video landed squarely in my wheelhouse.

Seeing Rosanne Cash sing live years later was not something I could have ever imagined while sitting on the floor in our living room all those years ago. She did not sing “Runaway Train,” which I had hoped for a little, but I also assumed she wouldn’t. Plus, I think it’s fitting that my only visual cues for that song remain in the video I loved so much. She instead sang several songs from her newest album, The River & The Thread, a collection of quiet and haunting songs inspired by the South. They are songs William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor might listen to while writing. The harmonies supplied by John Leventhal, Rosanne’s husband and musical partner were second only to his beautiful guitar playing. Rosanne’s voice is strong and beautiful, and her stage presence is full of a style and grace that must only come from gigging for so many years. She is still so lovely, and she replied to my gushing on Twitter, so I’m as in love as ever. For a taste, see “The Sunken Lands” courtesy of KCRW.

Three other acts played short sets in the first hour, before Rosanne. I was probably most excited to see Hurray for the Riff Raff because I adored her/their album Small Town Heroes. Alynda Lee Segarra’s voice is one of my current favorites. They did a good job, but they seemed a little low energy. Because so many instruments fill the stage throughout the radio show recording, I think they had to set themselves up in a more awkward manner than usual, a little further away from each other, and at least to me, it felt like they were just a bit off. I am sure on the recording they will sound good, and I hope lots of people explore their catalog more once they hear them on Mountain Stage. For a taste, see “Blue Ridge Mountain” courtesy of WNYC. (Full disclosure: I keep hoping my Minnesota-born husband will adopt this as his anthem.)

Chuck Mead & His Grassy Knoll Boys supplied the most energy in their set. Their brand of rockabilly had my dad dancing in his seat, and he declared them his favorite part. I think too he developed a bit of a crush on the fiddle player. I unfortunately cannot find her name anywhere! She so enjoyed doing her job, and wore the biggest smile the entire night. For a taste, see “Evil Wind” courtesy of Live and Breathing.

slappin da bass

But the high point of the show, for me, was back at the beginning when Willie Watson started things off alone with his banjo. I felt an entire room of people collectively fall head over heels. I honestly think he received the most applause and love. A lot of folk acts today look and sound like imitators. They emulate Depression-era sounds and fashion, and some succeed in pulling it off, and some look like they are just playing a part. Willie Watson is among the very few that seem to have time traveled. I think authenticity is especially hard to fake when you are alone on a stage with only your voice and a single instrument. I will jump at the chance to see an entire set from him. For a taste, see “Rock Salt & Nails” courtesy of Live and Breathing.

I’m going to remember this night for such a long time. Mountain Stage beautifully curates acts both big and small into each show. The four acts last night didn’t sound very similar, but were sewn together by a few common strings – touchstones of mountain music and atmospheric songs capturing specific places (Kentucky, the Delta, New Orleans, and Kansas). Taken together it was a comforting communion.

Visit mountainstage.org for more information about this wonderful show. This particular show will air in late September, and will also be available on iTunes via the Mountain Stage podcast.

Find the artists at: hurrayfortheriffraff.com, rosannecash.com, williewatson.com, and chuckmead.com.

Read more from Amanda here and on Twitter: @aaahmanda.