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Mountain Stage
by Chris Flisher © 1995 /
(first published June 1995 CD Review)

Mountain Stage
Beneath the surface of American pop music there lies a sub-culture that thrives on musical authenticity. It is a group that is drawn more to the roots of American music than to the commercial mainstream. These are artists (and fans) that follow their muse, weaving through styles of music that seldom bubble up through the charts. Cajun, bluegrass, folk, Tex-Mex, blues, gospel, Celtic are a few of the styles of music that survive through the efforts of self-directed artists.

Enter Mountain Stage, a live, two-hour, weekly radio program from Charleston, West Virginia. Broadcast nationwide over the National Public Radio (NPR) network and funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts, Mountain Stage features the work of musicians that follow their own paths, exercising music alternatives as they go.

The Best of Mountain Stage Vols. 1-5 represent some of the best live performances culled from their tapes of the last several years. Don't be mislead by the title or location of this unique series. Although the show has successfully built on the format of a live radio program, this is not the Grand Ole Opry in disguise. Mountain Stage reaches further, taking more chances, presenting the music and artists from a much broader spectrum of American music.

"The show is so radically eclectic that you have to have a whole series of discs to get an idea of who has been on the show and what it is all about," says host and co-founder Larry Groce. Diversity is perhaps the show's most appealing aspect. As a result, Mountain Stage successfully provides a "string-along" effect for many lesser known artists, whereby listeners tune in to hear a national act and are subsequently introduced to new talent or genre of music.

"We want to develop the series to reach a wider audience. We have been around long enough (10 years), so we are now able to get a few artists who are better known. When people hear an artist they recognize they tend to listen further and then they hear new music. The majority of the mail we get is from people thanking us for exposing them to a new artist," continues Groce.

Roots-driven and often "unplugged," (ironically, many of these artists perform unplugged every night of the week) the Mountain Stage series features the funky rhythm of Timbuk 3, the eclectic antics of Robyn Hitchcock, and the brooding darkness of June Tabor, side by side with the bluesy gospel of Pops Staples, Alex Chilton's jagged guitar, and Jesse Winchester's mellow folksiness.

Forgoing fame and fortune (in many cases) the artists featured here are seemingly bound by a dedicated pursuit of their music. In support of that goal, Mountain Stage serves as a creative forum, bringing together the listener, the music, and the artist.

From a lengthy piano intro to "Such A Night" by Dr. John on the opening cut of Volume 1 to the quirky lyrics of They Might Be Giants on "Particle Man," (Volume 5), the series is an intriguing exercise in musical variety. The roadhouse blues of Delbert McClinton, the crisp gospel acappella harmonies of the Fairfield Four, Steve Forbert's driving raspy vocals, and NRBQ's off-beat rock somehow all fit together, naturally, with little regard for formality.

Representing a generous sampling of genres, the songs seamlessly tumble into each other with brief clips of applause that serve as appropriate segues. The overall effect is of one long concert where the artists step up to the stage in a continual stream, while songs that share little in common with each other, blend like the greatest hits of roots music. The scene may sound daunting, but the result is nothing less than inspiring.

In the actual show, the artists perform from a single stage, shifting back and forth between two permanent bass and drum set-ups for each sequential performance. Whatever happens on that stage is carried out over the airwaves, as it happens—live. "We mix the show direct to two-track. We don't do any remixing. Because of that, the show has a particularly live feel, a spontaneity that involves everyone on the set from the engineers to the artist. We work without a net. It brings out the best in an artist," explained Groce.

The outstanding cuts are too numerous to mention, but an acoustic version of "Losing My Religion," by R.E.M. (Vol. 2), "Never Had It So Good," by Mary-Chapin Carpenter (Vol. 3), and accordionist Jo-El Sonnier's version of Richard Thompson's "Tear Stained Letter" (Vol. 3) stand out above the rest along with Rick Danko and Garth Hudson's cover of "Twilight" onVolume 1.

Orchestrated with an ear for repeated listening, the songs roll along in a pleasing pace with none of the shortcomings of typical live albums. The Mountain Stage house band often perform, backing the lesser or regionally-known acts, while the nationally-recognized acts tend to bring their own bands. Thankfully little stage banter found its way to the recording and where it has, it doesn't matter. More often than not the occasional spoken introduction by an artist provides a glimpse at the song writing process rather than supplying filler. Dan Hicks introduces "Hell I'd Go," an upbeat shuffle about alien kidnapping, with just the right amount of humor. And John Prine's aw-shucks introduction to "It's A Big Old Goofy World" sheds insight into his own creative habits.

While the music is professionally recorded and the choice of artists exemplary, the liner notes and packaging leave much to be desired. The purpose of this series is to lend credibility and provide exposure for lesser-known artists. What better way to provide that than by supplying a fact-filled booklet with bios and discographies on the artists. Instead songwriting credits and a listing of players are all that is provided. Aside from that small drawback, The Best of Mountain Stage Live Vols. 1-5 beautifully showcase everything that is right about American roots music with a multi-colored ebb and flow that leaves one longing for more.

Chris Flisher

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