High Fidelity
For more than 20 years, loyal listeners have headed to the hills of West Virginia to catch the radio show 'Mountain Stage.'

By Ellen Perlman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Watching a radio show recorded before a live studio audience feels like tuning into an earlier decade. In an MP3, song-downloading world, there's still a red-lighted "On the Air" box up on the stage, the tech of the earliest radio days.

Public radio's venerable two-hour "Mountain Stage" is recorded live about 26 times a year, most of the time in Charleston, but sometimes in other West Virginia cities or even out of state. It's produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and runs on Public Radio International stations in about 100 markets nationwide, from Anchorage to Boston.

To hear it in this area, you often have to stream it from its Web site, listen on XM Radio or buy one of the popular compilation CDs of past broadcasts. Or you can drive to West Virginia and not just hear it, but see it.

The show is recorded live, usually on Sundays, at various campus and art center auditoriums around the Mountain State and elsewhere. (Next up: Sept. 24 in Bluefield, W.Va.) But its home stage is in the West Virginia Cultural Center, on the grounds of the state Capitol in Charleston, about a 5 1/2 -hour drive from Washington. That's the trip I made in August for a glimpse at authentic radio and the beauty of the mountains in which it is made.

The scenery is great, but the music was the star of the weekend. Some big names have graced the Mountain Stage, both before and after they made it -- Norah Jones, R.E.M., the Indigo Girls, Emmylou Harris, k.d. lang. But more often, the acts are out of the mainstream. It's a good show for hearing the lesser-knowns who have a shot at becoming the better-knowns.

At the August show, it was Mystery Music Night, with five performers unknown to me. They played tunes ranging from pop to rock to world music, with a little bit of country thrown in.

Walking through glass doors and onto the marble floors of the high-ceilinged Cultural Center, I ended up in a red upholstered seat two rows from the stage. It's general admission, so be sure to arrive early, before the doors open at 5:30. Behind me in line were Paul and Darla Kuryla, both in their mid-forties. They live down the road in Hurricane, about 30 minutes away, and have been ardent fans for about 15 years.

"You hear artists you want to hear and artists you wished you'd heard before," Paul said. "And sometimes those you hope you never hear again." The name that attracted the couple to this particular show was Edwin McCain, a self-acknowledged Meat Loaf look-alike who blends folk, soul and rock.

They hadn't heard of some of the other performers that night: Vienna Teng, a young former software engineer trained in classical piano who sings pop with a sweet voice; Duncan Sheik, a pop singer with gold records and a Grammy nomination under his belt; Chris Smither, a finger-picking acoustic guitarist whose lyrics center on questions of life, death and politics; and Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited. Mapfumo is a 61-year-old Zimbabwean protest singer whose music has a lively Afro-pop beat and politically charged lyrics.

In another day, this might have been called a variety show. "Mountain Stage's" Web site describes it as "the most stylistically varied of any national radio or television performance program." I buy that completely, having heard just one two-hour lineup. (The unedited version ran 2 hours 45 minutes, all for a $15 ticket.)

At 6 o'clock, everyone was seated and the executive producer, Andy Ridenour, came out wearing a plaid button-down shirt and a "Mountain Stage" baseball cap. He explained that the host, Larry Groce, was going to rehearse the theme song and that we, the audience, were going to practice clapping real loud.

Ridenour continued with some standard warm-up banter. Anyone from out of state? People responded that they were from New York City, Louisville and Athens, Ga., and as far away as San Diego and China.

Then that "On the Air" sign lit up in red. With his reading glasses in one hand and some papers in the other, Groce (pronounced "gross") stepped up to the mike and, along with vocalist Julie Adams, sang the theme for the show. I couldn't believe it. I didn't think that happened anymore. Isn't it all done electronically somehow?

It all seemed so, well, Andrews Sisters. Groce stopped near the end of the song and let Ridenour jump in to announce the evening's performers.

"Mountain Stage" has been around since 1983 and went national three years later; Groce has been the host the entire time. The audience ranged from thirties on up. (Way up. Kuryla, 45, brought his seventyish parents.)

Teng, in jeans and a tank top, was the first up, playing piano and performing songs from her new album, "Dreaming Through the Noise," accompanied by violin and viola. The moment she finished her set, she was gone. A bunch of guys in black shirts scurried about on stage moving Teng's instruments off and replacing them with those from Sheik's band.

Meanwhile, Adams, the house singer, was back at the mike. I'm not sure whether it was to keep us busy and quiet or if it will be part of the show. I won't know until October, when it's aired.

Then Sheik was ready to roll, on a stage cluttered with instruments and equipment. Mapfumo followed.

Political Washingtonians would have appreciated Smither's songs. Or maybe just Democratic Washingtonians. He described one song called "Diplomacy" as a brief, unflattering overview of the State Department.

Finally McCain appeared making bad-boy jokes about an appearance on "Dr. Phil." "He was calling me Mr. McCain all the time. The only time they ever do that is when they're saying, 'Step out of the car.' " He got the audience singing along on one refrain. The words weren't hard: da da da da da.

The show finale was the charmer. All the performers came onstage. Groce handed them the words to "Eleanor Rigby." They began a "We Are the World"-type rendition of the Beatles classic -- only they were fumbling along because they had rehearsed it only once that afternoon. Groce pointed to various singers to indicate that they should solo on a verse. Smither, McCain and Sheik were downstage singing the chorus, "All the lonely people."

Then it was over and they were gone. Just like that. No encores. No Bic lighters or illuminated cellphones to bring them back. The lights came up.

Audience member Steve Combs, who had been sitting next to me, said, "It's the bargain of the century." His girlfriend, Peri Shaw, and I nodded in agreement.

People filed out and within a few minutes the auditorium was empty. Outside, Teng was signing copies of her CD, talking about how much she enjoyed the other performances. "It's fun to play four or five songs and then listen to everyone else. I'm in the wings dancing."

The next day, I got into my car for the eye-grabbing mountain drive back home, loaded with three newly purchased "Mountain Stage" CDs. It's not quite live radio, but I'll stay tuned.

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