*** Published: February 26, 2009, in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***
MARION, Va. -- Sometimes, the show doesn't go on quite as planned.
"We have the cameraman here – the operator," Song of the Mountains host Tim White said on stage at Marion's Lincoln Theatre. White grinned. "We still need more time."
The January audience simply waited. But White didn't stop. The dark-haired host offered another comedic bit – what he called "The World's Shortest Fairy Tale." The audience listened and laughed.
White, a well-known artist, musician and emcee from Blountville, Tenn., wins laughs with just about every routine.
Visit Song of the Mountains in Marion, and you might get the idea that White's persona is one of the biggest drawing cards to this monthly celebration of old-time and bluegrass music.
"Are they ready, Tom?" White said, moments later, looking stage right.
There's a cue. White grinned. "Umm," White said. "They're not ready, but they don't want to hear any more stories."
"A CENTRAL DESTINATION'
On this night, the music series' regular crowd has rolled in – with lots of folks from Smyth County, some from Abingdon and many more from below the Virginia border.
"Over half the people coming here are from North Carolina," said usher Debra Carter. "A lot of people follow the groups."
Duane Cregger, the executive director of the Lincoln Theatre, marveled at the Song of the Mountains success, saying, "I just sold tickets to a guy from Atlanta."
On the first Saturday of each month, hundreds of music fans pack Marion, a town shouldered by rocky mountains at the heart of the highlands. These monthly shows have helped business at places like Handsome Molly's, an eatery and art gallery that stays open late on Saturday nights, said Ken Heath, the director of the town's Main Street program.
Joe Ellis, a Marion businessman and founding father of Song of the Mountains, called these televised shows a way "to help our community become a central destination."
Ellis had the idea to do this, even before the Lincoln Theatre was completely renovated in 2004. Soon after, the first show was staged in 2005, and a deal was struck to air the musical performances on public television.
It was only natural for White to come on board as host, Ellis said. "He understands the music," Ellis added. "I'm the business visionary guy."
Ellis grinned. "When you look at it," Ellis said, "how many small towns have a TV series?"
Inside, the 1929 Lincoln Theatre's unfinished brick walls, flanked by wispy, pink drapes, give a decidedly urban feel to the setting of the stage.
Nothin Fancy, a bluegrass band, performs the final set of January's show. They sing "Please Pass By Me If You're Only Passing Through."
On this Saturday night, the 15-year-old group is actually playing its second performance at Song of the Mountains. Last time, when this group set foot on stage, a rare turn of the events happened: Their on-camera performance was lost.
So now, in coming back, they goof around heartily. A couple of members get up close and stare at the camera lens, almost like juveniles.
Then, in announcing that the group is from Buena Vista, Va., band member Mike Andes smiled and said, "That's redneck for "Looks purty.' "
On stage, the jokes seldom stop. "If we get too formal with you, I'll try to tone it down," piano player Jeff Little said in the middle of a January performance with guitarist and guitar-maker Wayne Henderson.
A retired mailman from Mouth of Wilson, Henderson shows up on stage wearing his customary blue jeans and ball cap.
John Brown – he's the "J.B." of J.B. and the Honeybeans – faces the camera wearing a fancy jacket as the opening act of February's performance. J.B. and the Honeybeans, an act from Greeneville, Tenn., takes its second name from Brown's wife, "Honey," and the couple's singing partner, Ashley Bean.
Acts like these come and go. Few, if any, are paid. The musicians show up mostly for exposure.
Currently, Song of the Mountains partners with the University of North Carolina Public Television for distribution. Now available on over 160 PBS-TV outlets across America, the potential for becoming famous after a performance could be limitless.
"It was, honestly, a lot of fun," Brown said backstage, moments after his performance. "I find huge power in the power of music – the power to go out and affect people's lives."
"ALWAYS BEEN GOOD'
When an act is finished, White comes back – and not just to speak. He acts on stage like a conductor, begging the audience for more applause, waving his arms and cupping his hands, pulling his fingers forward.
The audience responds with whistles, claps and cheers. And the cameras face that crowd, comprised largely of middle-aged patrons and seniors.
For Don Hayes of Marion, the Song of the Mountains shows are a monthly tradition. "It's always been good," said Hayes, 65, a retired truck driver who came to the theater in January with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.
Still, Hayes and others must have patience if they want to be seen clapping on screen.
The shows recorded here may not air for another year.
"THE BEST SEATS'
Off stage and off camera, White walks through the crowd. He makes jokes backstage and checks with Ellis to make sure everything is going OK. Occasionally, he'll go upstairs to the control room.
All the while, he's taking pictures. Not only is White serving as the Song of the Mountains emcee, he doubles as its photographer.
And now, after having seen the Lincoln from all angles over the years, White can only grin as he walks around. Leaning over, White whispers a secret. "The best seats," he said, smiling, "are up in the balcony."
IF YOU GO
What: Song of the Mountains
When: March 7, 7 p.m.
Where: Lincoln Theatre, Marion, Va.
How much: $16
Details: Performers include Grasstowne, Jeanette Williams Band, Rich In Tradition, New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters and Crowe Brothers
Tickets: (276) 783-6093