In 2011, my wife and I made our first Sunday drive to the Culture Center in Charleston. We explored the museum, sat by the entrance, and waited for the theater doors to open. At 6:30, we rushed to the first two seats in the front row, and my life was changed forever. I had been playing guitar since I was 13. At the time, I was in my senior year of college, and already had a steady career. I assumed the dream of being a musician was gone. Maybe it would be that funny hobby I had when I was young, that I would dedicate less and less time to, eventually selling all of my equipment and settling into a quiet life. That all changed the moment the Mountain Stage house band played the first notes of their theme song.
After our first Mountain Stage experience, we made several more trips down to see so many new acts we hadn’t known about before. Meanwhile, the itch to play in public grew inside. I started writing songs again, not knowing what I would do with the them. It took four more years for me to get the courage to play an open mic. In April 2015, I went to the Adelphia Music Hall, and everything started falling in to place. I was invited to play some local events, and started making friends with more talented and experienced musicians. I devoured every piece of advice they would give me. Fast forward a year to April of 2016, and I released my first album. I sent a copy to the Mountain Stage office, along with a letter explaining why I was doing all of this. Of course, I didn’t hear back.
I wrote better songs, recorded deeper soundscapes, and cut out all the filler.
But I kept it up. The shows got progressively bigger and better, and further from home. I became a part of the local music scene. I was interviewed for West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s month-long feature about West Virginia musicians. I started missing my family and feeling guilty about not being there. I wrote some songs about those feelings. After the fall, I started recording again, learning from past mistakes, and being more open to suggestions and assistance from those more experienced and talented friends I talked about earlier. I wrote better songs, recorded deeper soundscapes, and cut out all the filler. I even had a custom piece created by a local artist, Leigh Bond of Just A Jar Design Press, for the album cover. I wanted to do it right this time. I sent the first copy of Antioch Road to Larry Groce, again with a handwritten letter explaining what the songs meant to me and how much Mountain Stage pushed all of this to happen. I didn’t hear back.
Sunday, April 30, 2017. It’s 10:30 AM, and I can feel my phone buzzing in my pocket. I don’t answer because I’m on a ladder trimming a tree in our backyard. The damn phone keeps buzzing. I finally step off the ladder to see who’s dying. My lock screen is filled with Facebook notifications from multiple friends asking for my phone number. Adam Harris sends me a long text message asking if I can be in Morgantown by 2:45. An act had to cancel, and they need a replacement for tonight’s Mountain Stage. I run in the house, yelling at everyone to pack up and get dressed while I take a shower and clean up my suit. We jump in the car, my wife behind the wheel while I sit in the back with our son and change my old guitar strings. We arrive around 2:00, I talk with Larry and Adam for a few minutes, do some paperwork, and head to soundcheck. It’s all happening so fast.
I know I played some songs. I’ve seen the pictures and watched the videos, but it doesn’t seem real. I tried to soak in every moment, but those twenty minutes went by in about three seconds.
Mountain Stage travels fairly frequently, just my luck that the Creative Arts Center in Morgantown is even bigger than their home in Charleston. During soundcheck, I stand where I’m told and play a couple of songs while I stare out at all of the empty seats, trying to process what is really happening. After soundcheck, my family and I head to dinner with the crew, where we meet the other acts performing that evening. Everyone introduces themselves, and I have to pretend like I don’t know their names already. I am a mess inside. Ethan and Heather are treated with nothing but respect and given full tours and access to anything they want. Before I know it, the doors are open, the lights are down, and I’m hearing the Mountain Stage theme from backstage.
I know I played some songs. I’ve seen the pictures and watched the videos, but it doesn’t seem real. I tried to soak in every moment, but those twenty minutes went by in about three seconds. After my set, I grabbed Ethan from his seat and brought him backstage with me to watch the rest of the show. Then came the finale song, a Mountain Stage tradition where all of the acts come together on stage to perform. This time, Larry had selected a Levon Helm song, “False Hearted Lover Blues.” Instead of bringing my guitar, I brought Ethan. I sang the fourth verse of the Mountain Stage finale song with my son in my arms. I achieved my goal.
After the show, we went back to the hotel, and I went to the bar with most of the crew to try to unwind and process what just happened. The only musical goal I had set for myself, that I assumed would take a decade or more, if it ever happened at all, was completed in almost exactly two years. I don’t know what’s next, but I plan to enjoy every minute. As the night came to an end, I had some great conversations with people I deeply admire. As Larry was leaving, he walked over to my barstool, shook my hand and apologized for the short notice. He thanked me for coming out, reminded me that I am one of the family now, and said he would see me again soon.