Hailing from the Appalachian region of Stokes County, North Carolina and Patrick County, Virginia, Mason Via grew up steeped in old-time and bluegrass music. 2021 has proven to be a transitional year for Via, who participated on the nineteenth season of American Idol and joined the popular old-time group, Old Crow Medicine Show. Having grown up in the same general area, it has been quite the experience getting to see him reach such heights. I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to have this exchange with my friend about this chapter in his life and share it with all of you.
AH: Mason, this has been quite the year for you and it’s not even half way over. From winning the golden ticket on the hit series American Idol to joining one of the most recognizable bands in the lexicon of American string music – this year has truly marked a remarkable turning point in your career. Tell me, what is the first thing that comes to mind when reflecting over all that has happened in the past several months? Has it been overwhelming? Are you on cloud 9?
Mason: Cloud 9? More like Cloud 9 billion! I have been overwhelmed with love from my friends and fans and it really has made my heart feel so full. When reflecting back, it has all been a twisting turning spiral of so many unexpected opportunities falling into my lap. It really has been a whirlwind, but I am thankful that I had the preparation to be ready for this next step in my music career. To give a preface, I moved to Nashville, TN in December 2019 and moved back home due to financial struggles during the start of the pandemic. After joining Old Crow Medicine Show, I headed west again and I’m living my country dream in Nashville now. Although leaving town and moving back to Nashville all over again has been a little unearthing; but luckily, I have already lived there, and I have friends and fellowship that I have slid right back into. It is great to be back in Music City!
AH: Let’s take it back to the beginning of this transitional phase. What was the process of getting on American Idol like? Especially in the current climate of COVID-19, I’m sure the process was quite different than it would be in a normative time.
Mason: I got a DM on Instagram from someone I had at the time thought was a “bot.” I didn’t take the message too seriously and almost deleted it. This account asked if I wanted to audition for American Idol and that they could put me straight through to the executive producers. Turns out it was real, and a week later I’m in a Zoom audition in front of the producers who had said I made it through to judge auditions! Turns out about 100,000 people went through a zoom audition process and only about 500 people are selected for judge auditions. I was one of the few who made it through… and even though it wasn’t all shown on TV, I received a golden ticket and went on to make it to the end of Hollywood Week and into the Top 40. I was cut at the Top 24 (the same time that the young country singer Alex Miller was cut). The experience was difficult for many of us as contestants. There were strict COVID regulations and we were only allowed to drink and eat in certain areas and at certain times. The show even aired one contestant fainting on stage due to a mix of stress, dehydration, etc. There were individual challenges we all faced while competing on the show, but as a whole I personally gained a lot from my time on American Idol. Being on the show was kind of a fantasy of mine since I was a little kid, and when you grow up in a small town, people think that’s the only way to make it as a performer. I was jumping for joy each round I made it through and now it’s something I can check off my bucket list. I got some great singing advice from Lionel, Katy, and Luke. I also got to perform at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and play with Bruno Mars/Katy Perry’s backing band. I think doing this really solidified in my head that this is what I was meant to do with my life and gave me a greater confidence in my music.
AH: What was it like encountering and being mentored by judges, Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Ritchie? What was the best advice that they gave you as a singer and musician?
Mason: Lionel was definitely my favorite of the three and was always so nice to me, but the whole gang gave me lots of great advice that I will never forget.
- Song choice is everything.
- Be comfortable on any stage and in front of any audience.
- Your stage performance is not just about singing, you have to make the audience connect in other ways too.
- Always bring the heat!
- Practice, eat/hydrate, sleep, repeat.
When I left the show, the judges said that they thought I could be the biggest name in bluegrass.
AH: There was somewhat of a country and bluegrass music takeover this year on American Idol with the season featuring several notable acts including EmiSunshine, Alex Vincent, Presley Barker, Savannah Church, amongst several others. How did it feel being among these peers and bringing country and bluegrass to the Idol stage? Was there a sense of comradery amongst your fellow genre artists that were also featured on the show?
Mason: I about starting laughing out loud when I got to Hollywood, because it became suddenly very apparent to me that the “bluegrass/hillbilly angle” was not going to be as unique as I had envisioned originally. That’s why I went for a more country angle than bluegrass for the most part.
Yes, the comradery was very present, everyone was sad when someone went home, and everyone was happy when someone went through. I am still friends with my fellow contestants and have stayed connected through social media. I am rooting for my buddy Chayce to win the whole thing!
AH: What was your favorite memory from the Idol experience?
Mason: Teaching Ryan Seacrest and the judges how to play the kazoo. This was a hilarious and joyful scene that sadly didn’t get aired. Imagine us all in a Mardi Gras style parade where we are all honking out “when the saints go marching in” on our kazoos. Lionel Richie and Katy Perry were hamboning back and forth too.
AH: Having made it through several rounds on American Idol, which is an accomplishment all to itself, you were cut during the showstopper round of Hollywood week. As we have discussed before prior to this conversation, I truly believe that we face rejections in our lives in order to position ourselves in the spaces that we are supposed to inhabit, and I feel that is exactly what happened to you. The cat is out of the bag. Since being eliminated on American Idol you have joined one of the most enduring and prolific musical entities in roots music, Old Crow Medicine Show. How was that opportunity presented to you following your stint on Idol? What was the audition process like?
Mason: Some of God’s greatest gifts come in unanswered prayers…
Old Crow Medicine Show was looking for someone to audition. I unknowingly had a couple musical acquaintances refer me. Ketch Secor, fiddler and OCMS founding member, messaged me on Instagram and suggested that I give him a call. We talked and Ketch asked some questions. He had spent some time in the area I grew up in, and wanted a young NC/VA guy who had been to fiddlers’ conventions and festivals. He was looking for someone to sing and play guitar in the band.
I was then invited to Nashville to audition. I listened to them in middle school. I learned their repertoire back when I first started playing guitar and jamming…It felt larger than life to meet Ketch and the band. Our first meeting went well and everything just seemed to click. We just had an old-time jam session. We didn’t only run Old Crow material, we sang an old Stanley Brothers’ a cappella, and some old country stuff like Louisiana Saturday Night. They said “you’re doing good, come back tomorrow.” I kept getting asked back. We worked up two new songs of theirs together on one of the days. The last day of the weekend, Ketch and I wrote a song about drinking corn liquor and partying hillbilly style. It was so great to get to hang out with a hero of mine. I got a call a few weeks later that I needed to move to Nashville ASAP. They said. “Pack up your stuff, we need you.”
It made me stop thinking about American Idol immediately.
AH: What was your relationship with the music of OCMS before being given the opportunity to become a member yourself? Did the music of OCMS influence you as a solo artist?
Mason: Most folk artists (like myself) around my age were largely influenced by the band. I am no exception, I remember singing “Highway Halo,” “Take Em Away,” “Cocaine Habit,” and “Wagon Whee”l back when I was 12 years old. I had seen them at Floydfest years ago and I remember flatfooting in the mud with my festival friends.
AH: OCMS is a band made up of an eclectic mix of talented musicians. You, yourself, are an eclectic musician who plays multiple instruments and has dabbled in several genres of music. What are you bringing to the band Old Crow Medicine Show? What role can we expect to see you play within the band?
Mason: As for what I am bringing to the table, people can expect to hear me singing lead on some of the old material that past singers (Willie, Critter, or Kevin) would typically sing. We can all sing in the band and it’s really fun when we pass a song around and see who the song fits best with now. I am the youngest member of the band and I feel like I am bringing a new youthful energy that is really gonna help ignite this upcoming tour. I will be playing mostly Acoustic Guitar but play some mandolin and Guit-jo as well. When we play and sing together it really does sound like a record, we all have really clicked musically and I think our blend is something special. Without giving too many spoilers, the rock and roll background that I had in high school has definitely come in handy for some of this material we have been working on. Y’all keep your eyes on the Old Crow website and social media for our upcoming tour dates and come hear us in person!
AH: What has it been like getting to work with the likes of Ketch Secor and the other members of OCMS? I know Ketch spent some time in North Carolina, have y’all been able to bond over that shared connection?
Mason: Joining the band has felt like being adopted into my long-lost family. We all work really well together and I’m thankful for them welcoming me in with open arms. It’s only now starting to feel real. I still look over at my bandmates sometimes and am a little star struck even though we have been practicing together for months now. Ketch and I do connect on our shared connection of NC/VA and our shared love of the old-time music that the region has cultivated. The other new Old Crow member is Mike Harris and he is originally from a Winston-Salem Area too so we connect on that as well.
AH: You grew up performing at fiddler’s conventions across the region and have played several notable venues and festivals, but later this year, on May 11, you are going to be making your debut at one of the most important stages in country music: The Grand Ole Opry. Growing up in Stokes County, North Carolina, I know you have always been exposed to country and bluegrass music. How does it feel to be presented with the opportunity to play the Opry stage where so many legends have stood before? What will that moment mean to you?
Mason: Making my Opry debut will mean the world to me. I mean, that’s the gold standard of venues when it comes to being involved in bluegrass and country music. I have wanted to play the Opry since I was a baby, so, to get to play with Old Crow Medicine Show and Keb Mo is beyond my wildest dreams. It’s a bucket list item that I am so grateful to be able to experience. So excited to not only play the current Opry stage, but to also get to play New Year’s Eve with Old Crow at the the old site of the Opry, the Ryman Auditorium. So much history behind the Opry, and what a thought that I am gonna get to be a part of that history.
Featured Image by James Bernabe.