Head for the mountains.
Better still, Mountain Stage.
So it went inside last night’s sold out Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tenn. Presented by the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, the nationally syndicated public radio show Mountain Stage returned to town with a hit-kicking stable in tow.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry member Vince Gill headlined. Add critically acclaimed music chameleon Jim Lauderdale to the mix. Saddle up the sounds of the David Mayfield Parade, Red Molly and John Lilly.
Then back up and admire the steady stampede.
“It’s more musical, a show like Mountain Stage,” Gill said. “It’s refreshing. It reminds me of back when I first start doing music.”
Doors opened at 6:30. Seats filled faster than NASCAR’s rockets that rumble around Bristol Motor Speedway.
Backstage Gill strolled and chitchatted as if home among family and friends. Dressed in plaid shorts, t-shirt and tennis shoes he appeared as if he was at home. In a sense, he was.
“This is the Birthplace of Country Music,” Gill said with an easy smile. “I’ve been on the bus listening to Jimmie Rodgers.”
Lauderdale, too, grinned to all who said hello, shook hands and signed autographs for a lucky few. He paused from picking to speak about next month’s Rhythm and Roots.
“I’ve done it five or six times now,” Lauderdale said. “There’s not another (festival) like it. This city has such a great vibe to it.”
Mountain Stage host Larry Groce quick-stepped from here to there and back to here again in eager anticipation. Signatures from such music icons as Chet Atkins and comedian Rich Little didn’t budge a bit from the back wall where they were signed long ago.
A guitar sat propped on a wall. A bass lay across a table. Cases, some empty and some full, spread all about backstage.
Call it a music waiting room. Songs were about to be birthed.
At the stroke of 7 o’clock, Groce stepped on stage and addressed the crowd. He sought to fire them up. He sang the Mountain Stage theme song as a dry run.
“Let’s have some big applause!” Groce said. “One! Two! Three! Yeah!”
Then the bright red ON THE AIR sign flashed on and the show began.
“This is the spot where the big bang of country music took place back in 1927,” Groce said.
Folks applauded then paused and the exuberant David Mayfield Parade was announced. Five songs such as the soul stirring “Breath of Love” and a standing ovation later, the generously bearded Mayfield had earned a wide batch of new fans.
Minutes passed. Lauderdale, in hot pink pants and matching paisley shirt, stood in the wings with guitar in hand poised to entertain.
“This city has such a great vibe to it,” Lauderdale said moments before striding on stage. “I love it here.”
Lauderdale opened sans band. He delved into his new album, “Reason & Rhyme,” for “Cruel Wind and Rain.” His voiced carried like a crooked smile. It’s not painted on. It’s real. Character lives upon the lips of Lauderdale one lyric and song at a time.
Toss a quartet of accompanying songs, including the captivating “Jack Dempsey’s Crown” and the silver-haired storytelling singer mesmerized.
Picture Gill. Eyes closed, leaned in tight with the microphone, deep inside some other place. Then his mouth opens and the heavens part.
Take “Go Rest High On That Mountain.”
“I’m not sure if I’m going to sing that tonight or not,” Gill said before stepping on stage. “I pretty much make the show up as I go.”
Gill could summon goosebumps upon a slab of concrete. When his tenor stretches out, reaches high and grasps heavenward stand back and admire one of music’s most grand treasures.
Never wonder as to why Gill belongs among country music’s hallowed pantheon of legends. Folks gathered for Mountain Stage last night sure heard why he belongs among the greats.
Gill’s bus idled out back of the Paramount as twilight turned to night. His ride awaited him as it does most every night at show’s end, prepared to haul the country singer to another city and another show.
But at least last night at the Paramount, Gill sounded as if he didn’t want to move an inch. He was home. On stage at the Paramount on Mountain Stage, Gill moved another crowd for yet another time.
Time stood still.
“I love this place,” Gill said of Bristol while standing backstage. “I love coming here and just soaking it all in.”
So it typically goes high atop Mountain Stage.