Kathy Mattea is sitting outside the green room at the Culture Center Theater, working her way through a salad with grilled chicken as she talks about an experience that has changed her life.
“At first I was like, ‘There’s no way. There’s no way I’m going to go host a radio show. I’ve got more touring to do. I’ve got more music to do’,” she says of being offered the job of as the face of Mountain Stage, the long running National Public Radio Show that marks its 40th anniversary this year. “But then I realized it checks the boxes of everything I think is important in the world.
Mattea grew up only a few miles from where Mountain Stage is taped in Charleston, West Virginia. The show was launched in 1983, the same year she signed her first record deal and started a career that has led to four number one singles, 12 more top 10 hits, and two Grammy Awards. She and longtime collaborator Tim O’Brien, another West Virginia native, have appeared on the show more than any other performers in its 40-year history.
“It has West Virginia culture and it’s an institution,” she says. “It has music and live performance and moving around in community. It shows you how music creates community and connection. At the end of the day, I thought, “Oh, this is just about love. It’s just about loving on everybody and loving on this institution.”
In 2021, Mattea took over fulltime as host from Larry Groce, one of the show’s co-founders. In mid-March, Americana Highways spent the day behind the scenes with Mattea, Groce, and others who work on stage and off as they prepared to tape the 1,009th show, which airs this weekend on more than 280 stations nationwide. This week’s guests —Darlingside, Altan, Rachael Sage, Dear Darling, and Royal Wood — are a typically eclectic mix of musicians, a hallmark of the show since its beginning.
During brief breaks, I sat down with Mattea, Groce and (by phone) O’Brien to talk about the show’s past, present and future. The Q&A with Mattea has been condensed and edited for clarity.
AH: Are you enjoying it?
Kathy: It’s a lot of work, but it’s immensely satisfying. Alton is here. I last saw them 20-some years ago. I went on their bus after one of their shows. Darlingside is here and I think they were on the very first show I guest hosted. They’re back. I’ve been doing it long enough now that I’m used to the reconnecting with old friends and meeting new bands and becoming a new fan.
This group called Dear Darling, it’s their first time on. They’re young women just getting started, and they’re like, “We can’t believe we’re here.” I get to welcome them. All of that is just– it’s just the best. It’s just the best. I just get to love on everybody all day long.
AH: How does it feel to keep coming back to the place you grew up?
Kathy: It’s great. I have a cousin who comes every week and it’s like rounding home base every so often. That’s how it’s been for all these years. Then to get to help the show continue past the founders, oh, that’s also really, really satisfying. I get to take it over fully formed. They thought it up in their heads.
Also, I have an inherent appreciation for the way it puts forth West Virginia culture, a sense of place and a sense of hospitality and a sense about the way it is here in West Virginia that a lot of the outside world doesn’t see. They see more stereotypical stuff. Getting to promote West Virginia culture and this place that I love and that formed me, that’s a really big part of it too. It’s really fun. Really fun.
AH: The transition from Larry to you, by all accounts, has been pretty seamless, as much as it can be when a founder leaves a show after 39 years. The two of you have different styles, and you’re putting your own touches on the show as it evolves. How is your approach different?
Kathy: The way I look at it is how the show was for 39 years with Larry at the helm was organically and inevitably an extension of his personality, his musical taste, his approach. My job isn’t to be Larry. I have to do the same work he did in terms of hosting and be myself at the same time. I want to bring my own personality into it.
Early on, I would sit and talk to them just say, “This is what I think is the heart of the matter.” They were like, “You get it. You get it. You go, be you and do that, and it’ll all be fine.”
There was never any pressure for me to be Larry, and they were very patient with me. That’s when I get any kind of feedback that what I’m doing instinctively is working for them, or that I’ve surprised them in a pleasant way. That’s just — that’s such a great feeling for me.
AH: What’s been the hardest part of evolving into this role from performer to host?
Kathy: It’s been the man hours, really. I have to go and do the research and I have to listen to people’s body of work and collect information. I try to glean their history with the show and then look for stuff so I’m not spitting back what’s in the bio. I really try to dig in a little more and get to know what they’re about.
I’ve learned how many hours it takes now, and so I have my Mountain Stage homework week on the weeks of the show. I’m doing a teaching thing this week and then we have a Mountain Stage next weekend and I’m already ahead of the game. I did some of that work last week.
The research part of it is more tedious but it’s also really good for me. I would never dig into this much music. I’d just be too dang lazy. More and more I’m really enjoying that part, and I’ve got it down. I know how long it takes, and I know what my job is now. As I get clearer about it, I can be more efficient.
AH: What has surprised you about the job?
Kathy: How much I love it. I knew it would be fun, but it feels really challenging because it uses both my left brain and right brain. There’s being with the audience and the artist in the moment and with what’s going to happen next on the show. Then there’s the part where you’re winging it. It’s both at the same time.
I was afraid that I would feel like I was losing something because I’m now hosting everybody else and it’s not so much about me, me, me, but I really enjoy it not being about me, me, me. My job is facilitating something for everyone else on the show.
I feel like my job is to tell the audience enough about the artist to make them go, “Oh, I can’t wait to hear this,” and bringing, priming them to lean in more. At the same time, I’m priming the artist to feel welcome and letting them know they’re meeting an audience that can’t wait to hear them. Anything I can do to help grease that relationship is really, really fun.
AH: Has hosting changed how you perform when you’re out on the road?
Kathy: I don’t think so. I’ve always done a lot of storytelling and being with an audience rather than singing at them. That skill feels something I can bring to Mountain Stage. It’s been nice to have people show up and maybe some longtime fans of mine have found the show. I’ve had longtime fans of the show come out to see me. That’s been sweet.
One thing that it’s done for me that is different. We got a call from the Station Inn in Nashville, which is a legendary bluegrass listening room. Funky. I’ve been going there since I moved to Nashville. It truly is one of the legendary places. I saw Alton there and wound up on their bus in the back parking lot afterward, hanging out with them for a while, 20-some years ago.
The Station Inn called my management office and said, “Hey, we just want to say, if Kathy wants to come jam and come play down here, we’d love to have her anytime.” I sat down with my fiddle player and I was like, “Dude, you know everybody and every bluegrass song, let’s do this.” We’re going to do a jam session with random guests and everything from stuff of mine and stuff my fiddle player has recorded to like Bill Monroe stuff and singer-songwriter stuff.
If it hadn’t been for Mountain Stage, I would’ve never said yes to that. Because of this show, I’m used to winging it on the finales and making charts and singing parts with people. It’s just an extension of that.
Part of it is that it’s put me in touch with how much fun the finale can be when you gather everyone together and see what happens. It’s about fun, not performance. I have some friends who’ve done this for years in Nashville and I’m like, “What if we started something like that I just saw, could just see what it grows into.” That’s something I would’ve never even thought about before doing this show.
Thanks for chatting with us, Kathy Mattea. Find more information and Kathy’s schedule here: https://www.mattea.com
Catch the show this week, after April 28.
Explore the Mountain Stage website here: https://mountainstage.org