April at Mary B. Martin School of the Arts will begin with a stage chockfull of instruments, microphones, monitors, an “ON THE AIR” sign, a world-renowned emcee and the diverse music of five bands, from internationally known to local, from traditional bluegrass to new grass, New Orleans jazz and pure Americana.
On Sunday, April 2, at 7 p.m., that ON AIR sign will light up as Mountain Stage with Larry Groce returns to East Tennessee State University’s D.P. Culp Center Martha Culp Auditorium with a lineup of fan-favorites – Band of Ruhks, featuring Ronnie Bowman, Don Rigsby and Kenny Smith; the award-winning Claire Lynch Band; the playful and jazzy Bumper Jacksons; folk storyteller and songwriter Otis Gibbs; and the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band.
Mountain Stage is a two-hour live performance radio program that airs on 211 public radio stations across America. Mountain Stage co-founder Larry Groce has been hosting the shows – that take place at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, W.Va., or locales around the country – since the first episode in 1983.
“We love having Mountain Stage at ETSU – for a number of reasons,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of event-sponsor Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. “Foremost, the mission of the Martin School has always been to offer a unique mixture of arts experiences to the people of the region, and Mountain Stage certainly brings a program full of great music of all kinds, combined with the excitement of a live radio show.
“Mountain Stage also offers our Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies students valuable opportunities to meet and perform with veteran entertainers and music newcomers, and finally, we like the additional connection of WETS-FM airing the ETSU show later this spring. It’s a single event with a wide spectrum of benefits for everyone.”
Headliners for the ETSU show will be Band of Ruhks. Bluegrass household names Bowman, Rigsby and Smith performed together in the 1990s in The Lonesome River Band, embarked on personal musical journeys then reunited as the Rambling Rooks and finally, Band of Ruhks in 2014 and ’15. Their new sound is a hybrid of Americana, bluegrass, country and even a bit of pop, creating what Bluegrass Unlimited terms, “a fine example of 21st-century bluegrass.”
“Make no mistake, this is not a Lonesome River Band reunion with someone else filling Sammy Shelor’s banjo role …” says Bluegrass Today. “This isn’t merely Ronnie Bowman and friends. Smith and Rigsby aren’t just along for the ride. They’re full partners, adding sublime vocals and instrumental punch.”
Claire Lynch’s biography is as storied as the Ruhks musicians’. Lynch, singer and songwriter, led the Front Porch String Band starting in the mid-1970s and worked as a session vocalist, before she formed her own Claire Lynch Band in 2005. She was named the IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1997, and Dolly Parton credits Lynch with “one of the sweetest, purest and best lead voices in the music business today.”
“She’s an intensely soulful singer, whose distinctive voice resonates with power and strength, yet retains an engaging innocence and crystalline purity,” says WPLN Nashville. “She’s also a songwriter of extraordinary ability.”
Lynch’s band includes two-time IBMA-winning bassist/claw-hammer banjo player/percussionist Mark Schatz, soulful mandolinist/guitarist Jarrod Walker and young string wizard Bryan McDowell.
Bringing an eclectic and playful spirit to the April 2 bill is Bumper Jacksons, an established sextet that folds together early styles of jazz, blues and country swing with rich threads of Americana. Florida native Jess Eliot Myhre teamed with fellow song-crafter Chris Ousley are the core of the group, which has won Artist of the Year and Best Folk Band honors at the Washington Area Music Awards. Myhre calls her group “a ragtag team … that loves early sounds and getting people riled up to boogie.”
“The Bumper Jacksons fully commit to the old-timey vibe during their live shows,” says the Washington, D.C., City Paper, “beating on boxes and blowing on clarinets and trombone kazoos to create the ambiance of a lively New Orleans music hall.”
Adding another shade of Americana will be Otis Gibbs, who hosts Country Built on Pandora and a podcast called Thanks for Giving a Damn. Gibbs calls himself “a songwriter, storyteller, painter, photographer and planter of 7,176 trees … simply … a folk singer.”
His album, Mount Renraw, released in fall 2016, is full of “richly detailed song inspired by topics that interest Gibbs,” including historical figures, animals and events, roadside oddities he loves to visit and professional wrestlers, says The Tennessean newspaper. “Gibbs’ songwriting is deeply personal and profound,” says Rolling Stone. “It’s plain to see Otis Gibbs is a man you should give a damn about.”
Rounding out the April 2 program is the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band, composed of program director Daniel Boner and award-winning student performers with many years of musical experience. The group has performed abroad, as well as at the Smithsonian National Folklife Festival, NATO Headquarters in Brussels and the Kennedy Center.
The 2017 ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band includes Max Etling on bass; Ben Watlington on mandolin; Aaron Foster on guitar; Brady Wallen on banjo; and Grand Master Fiddler Champion Aynsley Porchak on fiddle. Boner leads the band and joins on fiddle and guitar.
“We are very excited for Mountain Stage to once again visit the campus of ETSU,” Boner says. “Mountain Stage has such a wonderful history of bringing together traditionally based musicians from a variety of backgrounds, just as we do here in ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music Studies.
It’s certainly a privilege for our Bluegrass Pride Band, members of which are some of the university’s top student musicians, to be featured alongside bluegrass stars like the Band of Ruhks and Claire Lynch, as well as folk musicians Otis Gibbs and the Bumper Jacksons.”
Mountain Stage with Larry Groce is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting and distributed by NPR Music.
Tickets in advance for Mountain Stage with Larry Groce are $10 for students of all ages with ID, $25 for seniors 60-plus, and $30 for general admission. At the door, tickets will be $35 general, $30 senior 60-plus and $10 students. Group rates are available.
To purchase tickets online or for information about ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts and its events, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587).