Mountain Stage host Kathy Mattea talks about the joys of ‘taking the front porch to the airwaves’

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West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Mountain Stage returns to Ohio University’s campus Sunday, April 24, featuring performances from Rissi Palmer, Cheryl Wheeler, Maia Sharp, Joslyn & The Sweet Compression, and Kenny White. The show marks the first time Kathy Mattea has hosted an installment of the beloved program on Ohio University’s campus, after years of former host Larry Groce bringing Mountain Stage to Athens. 

Mattea made the time for an email interview in advance of the show, which you can read below. 


Emily Votaw: So, you have been hosting Mountain Stage since early September of last year. I’m curious: what have you enjoyed the most about the role, and maybe what has surprised you the most about hosting the show?

Kathy Mattea: I am surprised at how much I enjoy it. It’s immensely satisfying to facilitate the execution of something with so many moving parts. Also, I’ve been part of Mountain Stage almost since they started, in the ’80s. Helping to keep a West Virginia institution going is really fulfilling. Mountain Stage checks many of the boxes for what I value in the world: West Virginia culture (and counteracting the prevailing stereotypes), discovering new, great music, live performance, spontaneity, and community!

Emily Votaw: You’re so busy – you are an enormously successful musician yourself – how are you managing to fit in hosting Mountain Stage??

Kathy Mattea: Well, it’s been an adjustment for sure! I tell people I have three part-time jobs. Mountain Stage, my own gigs with my band, and my tour with my friend Suzy Bogguss. The variety keeps me on my toes. Lucky for me, Larry is always around, still at the helm behind the scenes, as the Artistic Director (and, as I call him, the “Grand Poobah”). So when I have shows on a weekend when they have someone booked, Larry usually steps in and seamlessly takes the wheel. It’s lovely to feel like I have the option to do that.

I haven’t worked this hard in years. And hard work doesn’t feel like hard work when you love what you do. And, I’m really thrilled, frankly, that someone values what I do, at this stage of my life. To feel this challenged and alive in my 60’s is just a gift.

Emily Votaw: From your perspective as not only a musician, but a West Virginian yourself – what is the sort of niche within the context of the musical culture of West Virginia that Mountain Stage fills?

Kathy Mattea: For years, in the early days especially, there was moonshine available backstage, in mason jars, for anyone who wanted to try it. Larry has a rocking chair at his station, and his uniform for decades now has been a dress shirt and overalls. It nods to the culture, but also, there is a spirit to the place. When you’re at a Mountain Stage show, almost always the artists hang out and watch each other’s sets. Sometimes there’s spontaneous collaboration. Also, when artists are booked on the show who are old friends, it’s particularly sweet. Dar Williams and Ani DiFranco hadn’t seen each other in years, and paid tribute to each other in their respective sets. A couple weeks ago Jill Sobule grabbed Ben Solee to come play cello on a song. It’s just the spirit of live music, which is such a part of the culture in Appalachia and West Virginia. It’s taking the front porch to the airwaves!

Emily Votaw: Mountain Stage features a great variety of music, and has for many years. What is the importance of showcasing this kind of diversity in the context of a show crafted by West Virginia Public Broadcasting?

Kathy Mattea: Well, where else are you gonna find a pure music show with this kind of wide-ranging taste? Last week we had a band from Haiti, most of them didn’t speak English. Their entire set was in French or Creole. And everybody was dancing backstage! There have been songwriters, full bands, soul, funk, straight rock ‘n’ roll, singer-songwriters who can bring tears of laughter or sorrow, poignant moments, excellent storytelling, and that beautiful thing that happens in the moment when a performer is directly connected to their audience. AND (soapbox time here), it’s so thrilling when you can see that the audience knew absolutely nothing about a particular act, and erupts in wonder and joy when the performance is over. That’s the best.

I think music is important, and live music is really important. Music saves lives, I know it to be true, and gives us ways to express ourselves and resonate with each other during times of celebration or grief, or anguish or frustration. I have at least one completely fan-girl moment at every show.

Emily Votaw: The upcoming Mountain Stage to be hosted here on Ohio University’s campus features performances from Rissi Palmer, Cheryl Wheeler, Maia Sharp, Joslyn & The Sweet Compression, and Kenny White – I know you must be excited for all of the performers, but is there anything special about any of them in particular that you would like to share with our audiences?

Kathy Mattea: I’ve known Maia Sharp for many years. She really is one of those quiet, amazing performers. She’s a multi-instrumentalist, producer, songwriter and singer, and her voice is unmistakably unique. I’m excited to see her on Sunday.

Also, Cheryl Wheeler. Cheryl is an amazing singer-songwriter, and her live shows are legendary. She spins these amazing stories, funny, poignant, spontaneous. And writes songs that will make you cry like a baby, and laugh till your sides split. I recorded a song of hers years ago, called “Further and Further Away”, because it made me cry when I first heard it. She’s had songs recorded by lots and lots of people, most famously probably Dan Seals, “Addicted,” and Suzy Bogguss “Aces”.

If anyone out there is on the fence about coming, just come. Come to see Cheryl, she’s amazing. And then let the other performers wow you.

Emily Votaw: Is there anything coming up for you – or for Mountain Stage – in 2022 that you are particularly excited about and would like to share with our audience?

Kathy Mattea: I’m doing this tour with Suzy Bogguss, where we just trade songs and play and sing on each other’s stuff, and tell stories. It’s been so much fun. We’ve been friends for years, and talked about it, and finally we’re making it happen. So fun. And I have a wonderful band, we’re a trio, and we’ve re-thought a bunch of our songs in the last couple years, so we’re out playing shows in a way that feels very fresh for us! And Mountain Stage. It feels like it’s morphing into something that hopefully will outlive all of us, and go on for many more decades (it’ll be 40 years next year). I feel very blessed these days. I’m having a blast!

Mountain Stage with Kathy Mattea comes to Ohio University’s Templeton-Blackburn Memorial Auditorium (47 East Union Street) Sunday, April 24. The show starts at 7 p.m. ET, and you can find information on how to buy tickets at this link.