MOUNTAIN JAM: The Empty Glass played host to the Carpenter Ants, all players in Chuck Prophet’s band, with Mountain Stage co-founder and creative director Larry Groce. (Courtesy Venue)

The venerable Mountain Stage celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and recently crossed the 1,000-show threshold.

Much like the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and Texas’ “Austin City Limits” television show, the Mountain Stage program has built a loyal following of dedicated listeners and industry supporters who regularly journey to West Virginia, mostly to the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, for Sunday night tapings of the program, which is carried by 290 public radio stations across the U.S.  The show has hosted artists extending from Vince Gill to Joan Baez, to Eric Church, R.E.M and everything in between.  

One of Mountain Stage’s biggest fans has never attended a single show, but still has a front-row seat from behind the bar at the Empty Glass in Charleston. 

For 10 years, local native Nikki Ellis has served bottled beer and no-nonsense cocktails to a dedicated stream of super fans, industry supporters, band members and national and international acts who convene at the hole-in-the-wall for spontaneous jam sessions with the house band after taping the NPR radio show at the nearby Culture Center Theater. 

“It’s terrible to say, but why would I pay when I can see it here for free?” said Ellis, who works as an insurance agent during the week and tends bar on Sunday nights. “For me, I already have a backstage pass when they all come over after the show.”

Tucked away on a side street, the oldest live music venue in the city is an inconspicuous music mecca with low ceilings, historic photos, stickers and posters, including Zydeco king BooZoo Chavis, on the knotty pine walls. There is room for about 100 patrons if you leave the door open. On March 5, the cover charge was $10.

“It’s a small unassuming room that feels like so many of the places bands started out, or like their practice spaces: well run, clearly a local hang for the show regulars and staff. It feels like coming into the house band’s private lair in a way,” said Doug Williams of EmRRecorders, an audio recording firm, a visitor in early March.

Charleston is an unlikely hot bed for the blues, but the Carpenter Ants have tapped into southern R&B, Appalachian soul and Chicago’s electric guitar-driven blues without sacrificing raw intensity or succumbing to clichés. Masterful musicians, the quartet has toured internationally, performed multiple times on Mountain Stage and have backed an impressive roster of artists including Guy Clark, Jason Isbell, Radney Foster, The Sweetback Sisters, NRBQ and Taj Mahal.

With 40 years and 3,000 performances as a band, the Ants maneuver between intricate solos and jam-band improvisation with ease, and provide a trusted net for visiting musicians who regularly sit in. Recently, those guests featured guitarist James DePrato, bass player Kevin T. White and drummer Vicente Rodriguez, all players in Chuck Prophet’s band, along with Mountain Stage co-founder and creative director Larry Groce. 

“Being a musician originally, it exemplified the sort of ‘playing in the sandbox’ aspect of any good thrown together jam session, with its unpredictable elements of fun and danger while not many are looking,” Williams said. “On a night most of the show performers come out, it would be like an extension of the finale song at Mountain Stage.”

Michael Lipton has a guitar foot pedal in both camps, playing electric guitar for Mountain Stage and with the Carpenter Ants, which includes original members Ted Harrison (bass), Jupie Little (drums) and recent addition Mark Bates (keyboard), who joined after lead singer Charlie Tee died in 2021. Tee’s prosthetic leg is front and center on the stage in tribute. 

“After the Mountain Stage show we’ve already interacted with these people and they come over and it’s completely on the same playing field,” explained Lipton, who owned the bar. “It’s more fun when people are involved in a musical way – when you mix it up and play off one another. To me, that’s what makes it fun. It’s unrehearsed.”

The audience is a diverse mix of hippies and hipsters spanning a wide age demographic with an interest across several music genres from R&B and rock to folk and bluegrass.

Maureen Martin of Palm Springs, California, was at the Empty Glass after seeing Mountain Stage with her fiancé Jerry Mikkelsen. “We come here after the show and meet some of the artists and dance a little bit,” she said. “They’re just family.”

“People feel like they are getting to know the person they just watched on Mountain Stage and that’s really cool,” added Ellis. “People end up loving the place and fitting in. Everybody ends up being on the same level when it comes to the love of music.”

Word is spreading about Charleston’s improbable live music mainstay. 

“Should we let the general public in on this?” Williams asked about the wisdom of sharing the magic of the Empty Glass. “Maybe it should be our little secret, with the bands. I don’t think I’d miss it whenever I can attend again. Even if the visiting artists don’t show up, it’s a more personal moment/glimpse with the show staff in a relaxed atmosphere. It’s quite the opposite of the Culture Center Theater, providing good contrast to that experience.”