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'Mountain Stage' at 30: The band

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They never get as much attention as the guests, but without the Mountain Stage band, there wouldn't be a "Mountain Stage."

The collection of musicians who make up the radio show's house band are more than just the guys who play the opening theme and lay down the filler music in between guest performances that tell radio stations where they can put their advertisements and announcements.

The band helps defray costs for guest performers. They can fill in for absent members of a guest's touring band, saving a little on some costs. The Mountain Stage band can also supplement and enhance the sound of solo artists -- and do all of this without upstaging the guest.

The Mountain Stage band performs a song on each show, which sometimes serves as extra material used to help fill in time in the event of a canceled guest, a flat performance or a technical problem.

"We're also kind of a sorbet," vocalist Julie Adams said. "We cleanse the palate between artists. If the first act is getting a standing ovation, maybe you want to send us in before the next guest."

"We're there to help the guests," guitarist and bandleader Ron Sowell added. "We want to make their visit to the show go as smoothly as possible."

A much smaller operation

"Mountain Stage" is now in its 30th year. Many of the current band members started with the show either during the pilot that was recorded in 1980 or the first official show, which aired on Dec. 11, 1983.

"I was on the pilot show with John Kessler and Steve Hill in [the band] Rhino Moon," drummer Ammed Solomon said. "So I was there in the beginning, but I didn't actually join the [Mountain Stage] band until 1987."

Solomon explained that when "Mountain Stage" was just getting started, it didn't have full seasons and did only a handful of shows.

Solomon said, "The band was really kind of scaled down in those days. They originally hired Deni Bonet and Julie Adams as the [Fabulous] Twister Sisters, and then they decided they needed a bass player and hired Jon Kessler. A couple of shows after that, they hired me and then Eric Kitchen to play keyboard."

Piano player Bob Thompson also was a guest on the pilot show and would return several times. He didn't actually join the band until Kitchen left in 1991.

"I thought I was just going to be filling in for a little while," Thompson laughed. "I just stuck around."

Sowell played on the pilot and came on board after Kessler.

"In those early shows, they did a lot of comedy skits," Sowell said. "I wrote three or four skits. Larry [Groce] used them, and I sort of just hung out."

Groce, the host of "Mountain Stage," hired Sowell to play harmonica for a show and then to accompany him on guitar while he sang.

"I did that pretty regularly for three or four months," Sowell said.

Finally, one morning as they were shooting photographs before a show, producer Andy Ridenour called him over and said, "Ron, get in the picture."

"That's how I knew I was in the band," Sowell said, grinning.

Electric guitarist Michael Lipton joined the band in the late 1980s, but said he started as part of the technical crew, working backstage, mixing the house sound.

"Then they had me sit in very occasionally," he said. "At the time, the show was more acoustic than it's grown to be, but as they added electric artists, there was more of a need for an electric guitarist, and that's where I came in."

Bassist Hill replaced Kessler, who moved to Seattle in the mid-1990s.

"Jon, Ammed and I played together in Rhino Moon," Hill said. "When he left, the job was sort of between me, Chuck Biel and a couple of others."

Hill said he won the job not because he was or is the greatest bass player in town but because he fits in with the band.

With a musical outfit like "Mountain Stage," consistency is important, but so is a willingness to get along. Guests sometimes bring their own band dramas. It's healthier for the show if the house band is stable.

The most recent addition to the show has been guitarist Ryan Kennedy, who at 32 is decades younger than everyone else on the stage.

Kennedy was a guest on the show a few times, then was brought in to cover for Hill after a medical issue.

"I sat in for six shows," Kennedy said. "After that, Larry said he liked what I brought to the show and thought it might be good to keep me around."

Incomparable experiences

Being part of the Mountain Stage band might be considered a dream job by a lot of working musicians. It's a steady, not exactly strenuous gig; "Mountain Stage" records about 26 shows each year.

On the day of the show, the band usually puts in about 10 hours of rehearsal and performance. There's a little travel, but nothing nearly as arduous as what most touring bands endure.

"Most of the time, I can drive from my house to the gig in 10 minutes," Sowell said. "What's not to love about that?"

How much the show pays individual members of the band couldn't be obtained. Executive producer Adam Harris was out of the office this past week, and the figures weren't readily available. But being on the show does have other perks, such as meeting some of their heroes.

Solomon got to hang out with The Band's Levon Helm, who told him, "We drummers have to stick together. The thing is, we're the foot soldiers of the music business. We're in the trenches, doing all the work and getting none of the credit."

Sowell learned to fingerpick guitar while in college and said one of the songs he worked on the most was "Last Thing on My Mind" by Tom Paxton.

"And here I find myself onstage later, playing this song with Judy Collins and then Tom Paxton," he said. "I tell you, it was like an out-of-body experience."

Thompson remembered the show with South African musician Hugh Masakela just days after Nelson Mandela was elected president of the formerly apartheid South Africa.

"He had a lot of his South African band with him," Thompson said. "They celebrated on that show, and it was just a great thing to be part of that."

Lipton said, "One of the things I feel fortunate about is, almost all of the people I've met on the show are really, really nice people."

He laughed, adding, "That's not to say everyone who has ever been on the show has been nice."

The very bad, no-good day

One of the most remembered cases of someone not being nice was the late bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.

"This was back when we [broadcast] the show live," Solomon said. "Saturday night, the night before the show, we all get a phone call from Ron."

Sowell is in charge of getting music to the band if guests request to have the group perform with them. Brown, as it turned out, had just fired his entire band, and was now requesting the use of the Mountain Stage band to back him.

Sowell told him, "Hey, Gatemouth is coming, and we're supposed to play with him. I have no idea what we're going to do."

The best Sowell could suggest was for everyone to get some Gatemouth Brown records and listen to them.

At that time, "Mountain Stage" was broadcast live at 3 p.m., which meant sound check and rehearsal with guests started early in the morning.

Solomon said there were five guests on that show. Several of them used the band that day, but rehearsing with Brown was brutal. They couldn't get through a single song.

"Gatemouth would stop, look around and start shouting, 'That ain't right. That ain't right.'"

It went on and on. Brown was blunt, coarse and difficult.

"He was almost abusive," Solomon said. "And I remember thinking, 'I don't give a damn who you are, that's no way to treat people, especially people who are trying to make you sound good.'"

Solomon acknowledged Brown was a great guitarist and, difficult or not, "Mountain Stage" had him back several times.

Not always smooth sailing

Along with some difficult guests, the band said there have been plenty of close calls and every now and again, a legitimate catastrophe. Luckily, the audience seldom remembers them.

Sowell had a guitar capo in the wrong place just seconds before the start of Sarah McLachlan's set. If he hadn't realized it seconds before he played the first note, Sowell would have ruined the Canadian star's song.

While in Alaska, Thompson went missing during the latter half of the show's first hour.

"I was downstairs practicing on a piano, and someone came looking for me," he said. "We were recording the show, but we were broadcasting live in Alaska."

The problem was, the guest who was supposed to close out the first hour did only two songs, instead of the usual four or five. Suddenly, the band needed to go onstage to do the show's theme that separates the first hour from the second.

Thompson said he ran all the way up the stairs, but he was too late.

"For the first time, we didn't do that theme."

Once, Hill just couldn't get the bass line for a Lucy Kaplansky song.

"It was a song she was really pushing. It was on her new record. She did the song, and I just got lost," Hill said and groaned.

The song was ruined.

As a special consideration to Kaplansky, a frequent guest on the show, Groce agreed to bring Kaplansky back out with the band while the audience was still there and try the song again.

"We never do that," Hill said.

The plan was to record Kaplansky playing the song with the band in front of the audience. Later, engineer Francis Fisher would insert the new version in place of the one Hill ruined.

"And I blew it again," Hill moaned.

Kaplansky forgave him, though Hill said the next time she came to town, he wore a paper bag over his head when they rehearsed with her.

Lipton said they're all professionals. They rehearse as best they can, but mistakes happen from time to time. The toughest part is not letting the mistakes eat you alive.

He said, "Maybe as a guitarist, even more so than a drummer or bass player, it's blatantly obvious week after week that there are some incredible players who come onto the show. Not to say that it's not intimidating [now], but it was really intimidating at first."

Many of the guitarists who come on the show are flat out better at the guitar than he is. Some of them are better than he ever could be, and Lipton said it took awhile for him to be OK with that.

"Early on, I really screwed up," he said. "I don't even remember who it was, but I went home thinking I had no business doing this, that somebody else should be. And you know what? The next week rolled around and you realize that life goes on."

Why retire?

Everyone on the show is getting older, but retirement among the Mountain Stage band is almost unthinkable.

Adams said, "Oh sure, I think we've all wondered how much longer can we do this, but it would be such a hard thing to walk away from. It's such an unusual opportunity."

"As long as I can keep up," Hill said. "As long as I can keep the rhythm and keep the beat."

Sowell can't see the point of retiring. "What am I going to do? Retire so I can spend more time playing music?"

Thompson, who turned 70 in December, doesn't see the point of giving it up either. Music is more of a vocation than an occupation. It's what he's done his whole life and what he wants to do as long as he lives.

Lipton echoed the sentiment.

"That's one of the things we tell kids when we go around with the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. It's one of the great things about being a musician, whether you do it as your job or just do it for pleasure. You can do it until the day you die."

Kennedy laughed and said, "I just came on two years ago. Retirement? Really?"

But what about Larry?

Still, they do wonder about the show's future. They acknowledged the management transition from co-creator Ridenour to Adam Harris, who took over as executive producer about two years ago, was smooth.

"It's been no real change for us, I think," Solomon said.

However, potentially losing Groce is a different matter. Groce has set a loose timeline for how he might start trimming back his duties in about a year and maybe eventually leave the show entirely.

Lipton said, "Well, I'm not a person who likes change, but the show has already changed a lot over the past 30 years."

The guitarist thought they would weather the change, adapt, as they always have.

Sowell shook his head and laughed.

"Larry has been talking about retiring for 20 years."

"Mountain Stage" can be heard on West Virginia Public Radio at 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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