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Kathy Mattea Takes Over The Host Mic At WV’s Mountain Stage

Mountain Stage images
Reto Sterchi

Kathy Mattea has lived in Nashville since before 1980, but she’s never stopped loving or speaking up for her home state of West Virginia. Now the Grammy-winning country and folk artist is taking on a new role as cultural ambassador for the state, having been announced Thursday as the new host of the nationally distributed show Mountain Stage, which has been produced in Charleston since 1983, one year before the release of Mattea’s debut album.

“Stepping into this role makes sense about every way you slice it,” Mattea told WMOT. “Not the least of which is the arc of this show parallels the arc of my career. I was on the show before it was known. I was on the show at the NPR convention when they went to try to get stations to go national and have come back always. So it's family to me.”

Mattea has been a substitute host for show co-founder Larry Groce a number of times in recent years, and she’s appeared on the show as a musical guest more than any other artist besides fellow West Virginia native Tim O’Brien.

"Kathy's been coming on the show for more than 30 years now," said Groce in a statement. "And in all that time and with all her success, she really hasn't changed who she is at her core. She embodies the best of West Virginia the same way Mountain Stage does, and that's how we knew she'd be the perfect person for this job." Groce will remain the show’s artistic director.

Mattea grew up in the small town of Cross Lanes, not far from Charleston and attended West Virginia University in Morgantown where she developed as a folk, bluegrass and country singer before moving to Nashville to launch her country music career. She enjoyed four Billboard No. 1 singles and another dozen top ten hits in the 1980s. She won four CMA Awards between 1988 and 1997. In more recent years, Mattea has leaned back to the folk roots she took from home via albums such as Coal about life in and around the mines. Her home state, she says, has struggled for cultural recognition her entire life but that the nationally broadcast radio show has been “a source of pride for people back home.”

Mountain Stage images
Josh Saul

Mountain Stage is taped in front of a live audience, generally at its home venue, the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, though it has traveled widely across the country and overseas for special broadcasts. It opens with Groce singing the theme “A Simple Song” with the show’s accomplished house band and vocalist Julie Adams. (Mattea says her only hard request was to shift the song’s key to A flat.) Generally four to five artists perform short sets, and the show is edited into the two-hour broadcast that’s distributed to nearly 300 stations through NPR. They produce about 25 new shows per year.

While Mountain Stage has been chiefly a vessel for folk, country and roots music, it’s also hosted mainstream rock and roll, world music, pop and more. Guests have included R.E.M., Phish, Crash Test Dummies, Cake, They Might Be Giants, Hugh Masekela, Patti Smith and jazz singer Cassandra Wilson.

The show’s mission after 37 years, Mattea says, “is to celebrate and bring forth to audiences live performance as it's happening, not edited, not a polished show, but to bring to people who might not have access to it, (the feeling of) sitting in a room listening to someone play their music for you.” And she says it’s a vehicle for celebrating “West Virginia culture and West Virginia hospitality,” expressed in the easy-going atmosphere reminiscent of early live radio shows and the down-home backstage food for the artists. “I've been traveling the country and the world for many years now as a native West Virginian. And I know all the stereotypes. And so it's a chance to sort of, you know, counteract those and give people a little more of a feel for what the heart of the matter is back home.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org