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Radio Producer Keeps 'Mountain Music' Alive - 2001-09-26

Tune in to any radio station in West Virginia and, chances are, you'll hear anything but mountain music or traditional Appalachian sounds. Even though mountain music has a large following in West Virginia, as well as neighboring Kentucky and Tennessee, the genre thrives mainly in live venues. But one radio producer is trying to change that.

At home in northern West Virginia, where he lives with his wife and 14-year-old son, freelance radio producer Ed McDonald is busy working on his next show. Ed McDonald's studio is small, so small that two people can barely fit in it. A naked light bulb casts a yellow glow over worn '60s style furniture, cracked walls and Mr. McDonald's large collection of compact discs. This is not a state of the art studio.

Yet 51-year-old Ed McDonald is a serious radio producer. For the past seven years, he has produced a weekly one-hour syndicated show from his basement.

He plays music that touches on everything, from the fuzzed out bluegrass contemporary acoustic guitar of Vassar Clements, which can be heard on the soundtrack of the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, to the lonesome fiddle based strains of Pierce Pettis and Sara Evans, two local musicians.

Mr. McDonald says all his shows share a common sound that's firmly rooted in American music and tradition. "There's bluegrass in it," he said. "There's folk music in it. There's blues in it. There's a little bit of rootsy country in it. The main thing is to try to present music that has something to say, whether it's something to say about politics, environment or love relationships."

Mr. McDonald, who grew up in this part of West Virginia, says he's dismayed by the music he hears on mainstream radio because, to him, it has no heart and soul. Mr. McDonald said, "Every station sounds alike. Every radio market sounds alike. If you've heard one pop station or one news talk station or one country station, you've heard them all."

But his show features old time music - the precursor to bluegrass and country music. It came into the mountains in the 1700's when Scotch-Irish people migrated West.

Ed McDonald could live anywhere and produce his shows, but there is a legacy of mountain music in West Virginia that he is loath to leave. Mr. McDonald considers himself the keeper of the modern Mountain tradition which quietly continues today in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. "I sorta feel that maybe what I can do is bring some bit of difference and some bit of variety to the landscape that otherwise isn't there a whole lot," he said.

Ed McDonald is doing what he can to get mountain music into the living rooms of mainstream America. His show, Sidetrax, is a small step in that direction.