Bluegrass on Television: An Interview with Tim White and Joe Ellis, of Song of the Mountains

By Nancy Cardwell

When the late Mike Seeger performed onstage at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Virginia a few years ago he made the observation: “There is more musical talent within a hundred miles of where I’m sitting than exists anywhere else on earth.”  Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains along Highway 81 in the fertile musical region where the corners of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee meet, Seeger had a point. Looking at a map, Marian sits in the middle of a historic circle roughly bordered by well-known bluegrass and traditional country music towns like Bristol, Johnson City, Kingsport, Knoxville, Galax, Roanoke, Fincastle, Hiltons, Hyden and Pikeville, among others.  

Song of the Mountains, now in its seventh year of production and available on 190 PBS television outlets around the United States, was founded on the dream of presenting, sharing and preserving the rich musical heritage of the Southern Appalachians. Presented by UNC-TV of Raleigh/Durham and headquartered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the show is filmed live the first Saturday night of every month.

Fans can expect to hear plenty of bluegrass and old-time music, with some Americana and Celtic acts tossed in the mix, but one of the biggest reasons to visit or tune in is simply to see the stately, 500-seat, Lincoln Theatre, built by entrepreneur C.C. Lincoln in 1929—one of the three remaining examples of Mayan Revival-style movie theatres in America. Over the years the Lincoln stage has welcomed acts like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers, The Carter Family, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.  Bordered by ornate patterns on the ceiling and walls, the luxurious wine-colored, gold fringed velvet curtains open to reveal part of the original brick wall onstage. The walls present six 15 by 20 foot murals that depict the history of America—up to the point of the industrial revolution, when the theater was built. We see portrayals of Columbus landing in the New World, the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown,  Daniel Boone meeting the American Indians on the Virginia frontier, the cattle industry in Smyth County, General Robert E. Lee reviewing Confederate troops and the industrial revolution in Smyth County.  (insert link: http://www.thelincoln.org/index.php?act=viewDoc&docId=11)

Song of the Mountains shot their first show in conjunction with Blue Ridge Public Television out of Roanoke, Virginia in July 2005, but just a few years earlier the historic theater was “doomed to the wrecking ball,” says Executive Coordinator & Host, Tim White. “The theater had a 50 foot hole in the roof, and the only thing that was living in it was pigeons and critters.  The rain came in, and it was just a mess.” A regional effort in the early 2000s spearheaded by Joe Ellis, the owner of software company TEDS, raised funds to renovate the place. “The experts told him it was going to cost 5 million dollars to restore this theater, and Joe said, ‘Wait a minute. We’re going to look into that.’  He got the community involved, working with the [local industry board] and volunteers did most of the painting, and he did it for 1.8 million,” White says.

“They opened the theater in 2004, and then Joe and a fellow named Sam Russell started discussing the possibilities—what could they do that would be unique for the Lincoln Theatre? They came up with the idea of a television show highlighting the music from this region—the music that was either born here or lived here, way back when. They called me because I’ve been promoting bluegrass shows since 1989, and my name kept coming up. I knew Sam, because he and I were both involved in radio for a long time.”  A fine banjo player currently fronting his own comedy/bluegrass group, The VW Boys, White has been performing since his teen years in the ‘70s.

White is also the co-founder of the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. He resigned from that group six years ago and formed a new organization in 2006 called The  Appalachian Cultural Music Association (ACMA). “We continue to have our museum at the Bristol Mall and our pickin' porch – live music every Thursday night. That's http://appalachianculturalmusic.org/, for more info. And our museum is www.mountainmusicmuseum.org. The ACMA supports what we're doing here in Marion with volunteers, and they also support the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia.”

With the help of Jack Neal, the general manager at Blue Ridge Public Television out of Roanoke, the three men got together and planned the Song of the Mountains format.

“The first two years we rented production trucks,” White says.  “They were so expensive that we would only tape five times a year, and we'd come up with twelve shows. In the middle of season three we got a tobacco grant from the state of Virginia, which enabled us to buy our own equipment.  So we're a self-contained television studio inside this beautiful theater. Now we tape every month and we have 24 episodes a year, which works well for television because they can run them once, repeat them once, and that fills up a year.”

After the first years with Blue Ridge, Song of the Mountains went with the Public Broadcasting Station in Richmond, Va. as a presenting station. “For the last two years we’ve been with UNC-TV out of Raleigh/Durham, and they’ve been wonderful to work with, with a lot of support and advice and know-how” Tim says. “They  help us promote the show to all the other 190+ PBS outlets in the country, and we now have the potential to reach 110 million people a year.  When we first started out we were just on three outlets through the Roanoke station, and by the end of the first year we had 30. We were shooting for 10 and we ended up with 30, so we knew we were on the right track,” he smiles. 

Song of the Mountains is offered through NETA (www.netaonline.org), for distribution to every PBS station in the United States.

The reaction from viewers has been overwhelmingly positive. Fans are interested in purchasing DVDs of the shows—something that isn’t on the merch table at present, but it’s on the radar, White says.  Displaced Appalachians from as far away as Alaska and California write to say the show reminds them of home, and that they don’t get this kind of programming anywhere else.

“The bands are really good, and we’ve improved with our show and production,” White says. “Everything’s developed quite well, and we started our seventh season in January. We’ve got over 100 episodes in the can. It’s quite amazing. I didn’t know how long this would last, or how successful it would be. I felt like it was going to be good, because I’ve been doing this a long time. This is the biggest thing in bluegrass music I’ve ever been involved with, and it’s working.”

Like most business success stories, Song of the Mountains is a team effort.  “We’ve got a great crew,” Tim says. “Most of our staff has been here since day one—the camera operator, our video shader, our sound guy.  Of course our production manager Andre’ Burroughs has been here since the beginning, and also Tom Woods, our light and sound guy. We’ve become a family, and that’s the way bluegrass is anyway.”

At every show Tim asks, “How many of you folks are from outside Smyth County,” and 90% of them raise their hands—good news for the local tourism industry. “We also get a big contingency from North Carolina, which is just an hour away,” White says.  “UNC-TV covers the entire state of North Carolina, which is a hot bed for bluegrass music.  I guess we’ve had people from every state in the Union here.”

Song of the Mountains starts with one-on-one interviews with band members, followed by performances. Although the three-camera production is done in a professional way, the presentation is simple. Regular viewers “know that it’s real,” Tim says. “It’s not superficial. It’s not bells and whistles. It’s not trying to sell anything per se—other than trying to sell people on the appreciation for this music and the musicians that created it. Maybe they’ve lived here and they’ve moved away, and it gives them that nice ‘home’ feeling. It’s a good ambassador for our music.  Some people who might not ever go to a bluegrass show because they’ve got it stereotyped in their mind, might run across us when they’re flipping through the channels, and they say, ‘Look at that. Listen to that. I think I do like bluegrass music.’”

The featured talent is a combination of well-known and lesser known acts, White says. “We’ll have a Tom T. Hall or a Rhonda Vincent or a Doc Watson or a Jesse McReynolds, and then surround that with three more bands. For example tonight we have The Grascals. Most people in bluegrass know The Grascals—or Tom T. Hall or Ralph Stanley…. They might not know the other three bands on the show, but I guarantee you if they’re on this show, they’re going to be good.  It’s a good mix for us. We have one big name that draws the people in here, and once they get here, they learn about the lesser names that many times are just as talented.”

A natural salesman, White covers all the marketing bases. “The theater seats right at 500,” he notes.  “We’ve got about 25 radio stations that help us with in kind ticket give-aways, and we send out an eblast.  We came down and visited with Dan Hays at IBMA a couple of times. He helped us with some ideas to help get the word out. We have a mailing list and emails, and now we’ve got Facebook and Twitter.  We also do all the traditional stuff; we print fliers. The Bryant Label Company, out of Blountville, Tennessee, donates all the printing for us.  That’s invaluable. When you’re promoting a show now, you have to do it all—radio, television, fliers, Facebook, Twitter….  It’s amazing how many people come together and help make this happen,” he says—almost like an Amish barn raising.

Executive Producer Joe Ellis has a fondness for the area. His mother is from Marion originally, and he spent most of his own childhood there himself.  Ellis says he has an internal compass, a voice that guides him in making decisions.

“I’ve always had a voice that has guided me,” he explains. “I started a software company in 1980, and as a part of being successful it told me that I needed to help preserve our region. We had lost manufacturing. Woodworking and textiles had been our staple, and I didn’t want us to become a bedroom community and see the mountains kind of raped and pillaged.  So I kind of got a vision to change the economy.”  As the president of the local industrial board around 1999-2000, Ellis envisioned a renovated Lincoln Theatre as a way to  bring new employees to town, while also showcasing “the very best talent, and making this the best town” Marion could possibly be, he says. “To their credit, the board bought into the idea and we raised $800,000 in a short time.”  The theater re-opened in 2004.

When Ellis describes his “vision” for Song of the Mountain, he literally means “a vision.”

“I was in that balcony [in 2004] and the production guys said, ‘We’ll turn off the lights, and you’ll see the projection is real good for showing movies.’ When the lights came back on, I kind of had a vision. I saw bands and the TV cameras,” and they were playing bluegrass music—an interesting thing, because Ellis was not a fan of bluegrass or old-time music yet.

Ellis consulted with a friend with a background in music and radio, Sam Russell, and they created the idea for the show. “I bumped into Tim White four months later, and it just kind of came together,” he adds. “The vision came and it was bluegrass, and I knew this was the venue.  Sam and Tim and I became the ‘Three Musketeers’ in planning this out. The board was very supportive. The vision came before the restoration was started, so we got to put in all the conduits for cable and pre-wired it for TV. They didn’t understand how it was going to work, and not ever having done a television series  before myself, I didn’t know either. We found a guy named Jack Neal from a local PBS station who had done a series in New York on jazz, and he joined the group. We decided if we could do a pilot, it would be a good test drive. I funded half of it from my software company and raised the other half.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Or rather—a continuation of history.  “I don’t play an instrument, and according to my friends I can’t carry a tune,” Ellis laughs. “But the business model I came up with was my contribution as an entrepreneur.  [The problem is], bluegrass doesn’t have a venue to be seen. It’s on Sirius XM radio, but there’s not much opportunity to actually see the performers [on the air].  We can give bands a huge opportunity for exposure, and in return they can help us by playing here—and it’s a win: win situation.”  Bands report more hits on their websites and comments from fans after appearing on the show. “It’s a really good thing for bluegrass, as well as the show,” Ellis believes.  “It’s been a symbiotic kind of thing.

“When I was first thinking of this show,” he continues, “it was Austin City Limits meets the Antique Road Show. It was ‘really good music, but very basic—and here’s the story about it.’ That’s why we do the interviews with the artists, to give the people insight into where they come from, what drives them, exactly who they are watching. We get stories like, ‘This bass came from my grandmother….’  We’ve had some really top performers—people like Tom T. Hall, Kathy Mattea and Ralph Stanley. In a lot of ways the show is also creating an incredible archive with some of the artists who have passed on. Although there may be voice recordings, there are no video recordings of their performances—or not many, anyway.  For example, Everett Lilly, out of West Virginia is 80-some years old. He’s played here twice, and the next generation is going to see him live, because he played here.  We want to make sure the passing of the baton happens, and we want to be good custodians of the archives of those performances.  There’s a passion here.  Everybody [working here is] here because of their passion for the music.”

Ellis would like to see the show grow into an international viewing audience. On the theme of passing along the music to the next generation, he’s also working to complete renovation of a 100-year-old school house nearby that will eventually become the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Music and Art—named after a local guitarist and instrument builder from Grayson County, Virginia. “We want to preserve the lutherie and the ladder back chair making,” Ellis says, “and also to help bands with business and marketing courses—to help them learn how to perform in front of a camera. The school house is the next extension of Song of the Mountains that I hope will get off the ground.”

The old school house is 20,000 square feet, with two stories, a huge basement and an attic. “It was the county school back in 1908,” Ellis says. “We got a grant two years ago to do the exterior, and now we’re writing a grant for the inside.  In the attic we plan to have five dorm rooms for our artists in residence. We have a connection with Ireland, so we’ve talked to them about sending artisans—maybe river dancing and other things that have been lost over the years from our Irish heritage. We were very fortunate to have had John Bruton, the former Prime Minister of Ireland, visit here a few years ago. We did a show in his honor, and we’ve kept in touch with him.”

Friends of bluegrass who are interesting in helping continue the vision for Song of the Mountains can help in a couple ways, Ellis and White say.  “We’re looking for sponsors,” Joe says. “We’re approaching the Austin City Limits audience size, so we’re waiting for a sponsor to come along and realize what an opportunity this is.”

“We’re a non-profit organization through the Lincoln Theatre and Song of the Mountains umbrella,” White adds. “We’re always looking for underwriters, for the people who like bluegrass music and are in the position to support it. As far as the show and the talent and the venue, we’ve got it. Where we need support is with financial contributions. It’s tax deductible, and it supports what we’re doing to reach that 110 million people a year.”

Readers who don’t get the show yet on their local PBS channel are invited to go to www.pbs.org, click on “station finder,” and locate the website for the nearest public television office. Then contact the program director by letter or email, telling him or her why you think Song of the Mountains will enhance the station’s programming. Be sure to let them know that the show is available through the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA).  And tell your friends!  For more info, go to www.songofthemountains.orgBlueg