'Mountain Stage' at 30: Anniversary show goes on, just like it has before
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was early afternoon Dec. 1, and all was relatively quiet in the basement of the Culture Center where the crew for "Mountain Stage" steadily prepared for the 30th anniversary show.
For guys like production assistant Joey Ansel and house sound engineer Jimmy Raines, the day was like any other show day. Both had their list of chores to accomplish before the radio program went on the air at 7 p.m. The fact that the show was to be broadcast live for the first time in about 20 years didn't mean much in terms of what they actually had to do.
So, just after noon, before most of the show's guests had arrived, Ansel and Raines were taking a smoke break outside, and talking about Thanksgiving and "Mountain Stage" drummer Ammed Solomon.
"He's here, and he's upright," Ansel said, shrugging and puffing on his cigar.
Days before, the drummer had been rushed to the emergency room, wracked with agonizing sciatic pain. It hurt to sit. It hurt to stand. It hurt to lie down.
It looked doubtful he'd make the show.
Inside, Solomon was indeed upright, onstage with the band and behind the drums, running through songs with former "Mountain Stage" fiddle player and singer Deni Bonet. He had a harness around his waist and what looked like an ice pack pressed against his lower back.
Away from his kit, Solomon moved with fragile caution, like a man walking across a field of broken glass, but he was willing to walk that field or any other to be here.
"Of course I was going to be here," he said, almost surprised anyone would ask. "I was going to be here one way or another."
Just the same, "Mountain Stage" was taking no chances. Voodoo Katz percussionist Mark Davis waited in the wings, ready to take over if Solomon couldn't continue.
While no one in the crew seemed particularly concerned about the show, there was still a sense of excitement. Thirty years is a remarkable accomplishment for something like "Mountain Stage," and there is always a sense of wonder among the collection of people who work on the show. They're legitimately amazed "Mountain Stage" exists here in West Virginia and that they've somehow been able to keep it on year after year.
They all consider themselves wildly fortunate to even be a part of it.
The people who came back
The Dec. 1 show was packed with old friends: Mollie O'Brien, who'd been on the show 18 times; Todd Snider, who has appeared 12 times, and Lucy Wainwright Roche, a guest making her fourth appearance, but whose family (Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Suzy Roche and the Roches) had been on the show dozens of times collectively.
The show even brought back Bonet and bassist and former "Mountain Stage" bandleader John Kessler to join them onstage. The only new guest was indie rocker Diego Garcia, from Brooklyn, slated to open the show.
Former staff returned as well, including co-founder Andy Ridenour, who retired two years ago, and stage manager Don Wafer, who left the show in the late 1990s.
While the show was going about its usual paces, with guests arriving to meet their appointed sound checks, the band sat around the table in the green room, ate soup, watched football, read the paper and reminisced like they were at a high school reunion.
"I can't believe it's been 30 years," pianist Bob Thompson said. "Now, I wasn't here for all 30, of course, but I can't believe it's been that long."
"I've been here for two," guitarist Ryan Kennedy said flatly. "I have a hard time believing I've been here even that long."
Steve Hill, who has been part of the show for almost its entire run, added, "I remember the 25th. Do you remember that?"
Thompson did. In particular, he remembered the cake that Hill's daughter, who was working with TV's "Ace of Cakes," made for the show.
"That was just wonderful, beautiful."
The time had flown by and caught them all a little unaware.
The guests were around. After sound check, Snider grabbed a salad and then moved a loveseat to better watch the game. Five minutes later, he ambled off to who knows where and seemed to vanish for a while. If anything happened during that time, it will probably turn up in one of his songs.
Roche, who'd driven from a show in New Jersey with her parents, told several people several different times, "I'm really glad to be here for this special show."
O'Brien brought homemade chocolate chip cookies in big freezer bag -- a nod to the times her mother brought cookies to the show. People raved about them; O'Brien said they were made from a recipe her mother used.
The show has a problem
The only guest who hadn't made an appearance was Garcia, who by late afternoon had become a growing concern.
"They want me to call them at 5 o'clock," associate producer Jeff Shirley said, incredulously.
The Brooklyn-based singer and his band were scheduled for a 5 p.m. sound check and should have been there long before, but were still driving toward Charleston.
It was too late to call in a replacement, but they probably could have strapped a guitar to Parkersburg native Todd Burge, a singer-songwriter and nine-time "Mountain Stage" guest, and sent him out there. Burge was backstage too.
The potential that Garcia could become a no-show for the 30th anniversary live radio program was a source of anxiety and irritation for the "Mountain Stage" producers but nothing that would absolutely derail the program.
The "Mountain Stage" band members didn't really concern themselves with Garcia. They visited with returned friends, who all seemed to be doing well.
Bonet talked about changing apartments in New York and her Internet music business, OverdubStrings.com. Kessler had stopped in to see guitarist Spencer Elliott, a performer he recorded years ago in Charleston with local rock band Mother Nang.
"He's really gotten good with that fingerstyle guitar stuff," Kessler said.
Andy Ridenour passed around photos. One showed Ridenour, Groce and engineer Francis Fisher -- the creators of the show -- sitting at a table, looking very young. Groce had more hair, and Ridenour and Fisher's hair was dark instead of white.
The show goes on
At just before 6:30 p.m., it was time to start letting people into the theater. Outside on the sidewalk, producer Shirley walked quickly from the lobby toward the parking lot.
"Diego Garcia just called," he said, baffled. "They just got in, and I've got to go pick them up at the hotel."
Not without some delay and a few hitches, the show went on. At the end, Groce spent a few moments reading a prepared statement thanking everyone who had kept the show going these many years.
There were many people to thank, too many to list by name.
Among the things he read, Groce said, "In my 41 years of observation, I'd say West Virginians might value the relationships of friends and family above all else.
"I hope 'Mountain Stage' has reflected this place: the love of friends and family, the live-and-let-live respect for others, the humility of purpose and the appreciation of face-to-face interaction between people."
"Mountain Stage" was grateful to have been allowed to be that reflection.
Mollie O'Brien was glad to hear that her mother's cookie recipe went over so well at "Mountain Stage" and was pleased to share it.
The recipe, she added, came from the "Wheeling Twig Cookbook of 1949," a cookbook women who volunteered for the hospital or other similar beneficiaries would publish every so often.
O'Brien thought all the women who contributed to that cookbook were probably long dead, but, to be on the safe side, she asked it be mentioned.
Makes 100 cookies.
1 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
2 unbeaten eggs, mixing well.
DISSOLVE 1 teaspoon baking soda (not baking powder) with 1 teaspoon hot water and add to above.
ADD and mix well:
1 1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup peanuts (I never do that)
1 12-ounce package of semisweet chocolate bits
2 cups oatmeal
1 teaspoon vanilla
DROP by small teaspoons (and I mean small -- there's no need for these to be like those giant cookies you see in a coffee shop) onto greased cookie sheets.
BAKE at 375° for 10-12 minutes.
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5195.