For an aspiring musician, hearing professionals in a live setting and on the radio, is inspiring. For me, it was life changing.
I was once in a band called 63 Eyes. Maybe I still am, I don’t know, as we never officially broke up, but in the mid to late 80s into the 90s and a bit beyond, we were playing rock and roll. Some called it Punk Rock, some called it Alternative Rock.
The Underground Railroad in Morgantown was our musical home and we mostly toured up and down the East Coast in venues like CBGB’s, 9:30 Club, The Electric Banana, as well as public halls rented out by DIY punk rocker promoters. One night, skin Heads in Detroit were throwing lit cigarettes at us, and the next night, a hand full of fans in Chicago were forming a mosh pit and showing us some love.
I was banging on my bass and screaming my mostly cryptic lyrics over a bed of bone crunching drums and chainsaw like guitar. In those days, like now, I would write my songs on acoustic guitar, but back then I would take them to the chicken coop we would rehearse in, and together, we would shape them into rock songs. To me, it was a magical transformation. Those songs going from a whisper on my couch to a scream on those various stages.
I then discovered Bob Dylan and like thousands of other songwriters, I dreamed of being that solo guy, onstage, harmonica rack around my neck, playing to an audience so quiet that you could hear a feather hit the floor, but as far as I could tell, this scene didn’t even exist unless you were a star. I would sometimes play solo and open for a regional rock band or even my own band, but I would just be fighting the bar noise. I felt that my acoustic songs were lost in a smoke-filled haze, and that seemed to be where they would stay.
Enter Mountain Stage with Larry Groce
I can’t remember the first time I listened to the Mountain Stage Radio Show with Larry Groce, but I do remember the first time I heard Chris Smither* on the program. I couldn’t believe how much sound he was getting out of one guitar and one voice, and two feet. I had to see him live!
I sat so close that I could prop my feet on the stage. Mountain Stage will do that to you…Make you want to get close.
At first, I drove the 40 some miles from Parkersburg, WV to Athens Ohio to hear Chris at Another Fools Café. I sat so close that I could prop my feet on the stage. Mountain Stage will do that to you. Make you go out and catch live music. Make you want to get close.
Then, I started driving to Charleston to catch as many Mountain Stage tapings as possible. I would often travel to see a particular act I was really into, like Marshall Crenshaw and inevitably, end up getting turned on to an act I hadn’t heard yet, like Todd Snider.
I discovered an entire new world of music through these artists. Especially the singer-songwriters like Jesse Winchester, Taj Mahal, Richard Thompson, Lucinda Williams and so many others. I discovered a circuit that I was not in touch with while playing original rock and roll. I realized by looking at their touring schedules that there were listening venues scattered all over the country, and I planned on playing as many as I could.
I remember looking at Chris Smither’s tour schedule in the early 90s. I signed up to his mailing list and would receive periodic postcards. I would call each venue that was within driving distance of me and ask them if I could open for Chris. Eventually, after weeks of calling, I landed a gig opening up a show for Chris in Richmond Virginia! It was an exciting adventure for me. I had never traveled that far to play a solo show.
After the sound checks, Chris invited me to have dinner before our show. He was immediately a friend. He’s just one of those guys. He shared great stories with me. Stuff like, how he had just recorded recently with my harmonica playing hero, Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson).
That night, I watched how Chris Smither worked the crowd, how he put a show together, how he sold his merchandise even. I copied some of his methods and went on to open for other greats and learning from them as well.
This is how it all started for me, playing those listening venues. It changed my life. It changed my music. It changed the way I thought about writing songs and performing and it expanded my artistic experience.
Mountain Stage led me to the realization that I too could do this thing. I could play solo and possibly turn it into my life’s work. And that is exactly what my life has become.
When I was a small kid, I would go to church and there was a screaming preacher. Red faced, tears, veins popping out of his neck and forehead. Fire and brimstone and more fire. He scared the hell out of me. Now that I’m older, I do not attend a church, but I listen to music and I find spirituality in that music. Music connects me with what I seek. That being said, in a way, Mountain stage has become my church, but without the screaming preacher. A more pleasant means of being “in spirit” with what is important to me in life, along with my family of course.
In life, most of what we enjoy with our family and friends, comes from a creative place.
Just as Mountain Stage has raised my confidence over the years, it also raises the esteem of the state of West Virginia. The show has fans all over the world, and for many of these music fans, when they think of West Virginia, the first thing that pops into their mind is Mountain Stage.
It has become a connection that I have with music fans wherever I travel.
Many artists live and work for their art, but I believe that we all live for art, whether we were an artist or not. In life, most of what we enjoy with our family and friends, comes from a creative place. I believe we all live for the times when we can take in a show, enjoy a recording, radio show, podcast, book or festival.
Mountain Stage brings with it an economic burst to every town they record their program in, filling restaurants and hotels. They are also selling the art and music of the talent they have on their stage. I’ve traveled to shows in Morgantown, Athens, and Shepherdstown, and more, and I always run into friends from afar who have traveled to those towns to catch the show. It is most apparent with the shows I’ve seen here in Parkersburg and most recently at the Peoples Bank Theatre in Marietta Ohio which is just 12 miles away.
I’m hard pressed to think of anything produced in West Virginia that does this in the same way.
It has ignited the imaginations of hundreds, probably thousands of Singer/Songwriters around the world. They dream of coming to West Virginia. They dream of being on that stage.
I’m honored and proud to say that I’ve been on that stage several times**, and I still dream of going back. I can’t count how many concerts of my own that I have been able to book throughout the years as a result of someone hearing me on Mountain Stage. I’m forever grateful for that.
A lot of musicians are asked, who their major influences are. Many say, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, R.E.M or maybe Joni Mitchell. I’ve always said that you’re more influenced by the people around you. Your band members, your neighbors. Your family.
Here in West Virginia, Mountain Stage has become part of our family, hasn’t it? Just like many of my family members, and probably some of yours, they have worked hard for decades, despite being from a city and state, that isn’t primarily thought of as a major music center like Austin, NYC or LA. Despite the financial hardships and the geographical challenges that are ongoing in our state, Mountain Stage has persevered.
It’s a well-oiled machine, running super lean and efficient. In our state of West Virginia, if you want to stay at it and survive, this is the way you must operate.
What does Mountain Stage mean to you?
I’d like to thank Larry Groce, Mountain Stage’s Band, staff and crew and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Todd Burge June 16, 2017
* First time I heard Smither 12/16/90 (Newport Folk Festival II) Sweet Honey in the Rock, Greg Brown, Chris Smither, Joan Baez, Wild Magnolias, Rebirth Jazz Band, Subdudes, Indigo Girls
**Todd Burge’s First Appearance on Mountain Stage 10/06/91 Pere Ubu, Songs From a Random House, Lisa Germano, Todd Burge