In A Far Away Place – Mountain Music Ambassadors in China

This article is a contribution from Raymond W. McLain, Director of the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University.

When Sarah Wood stepped up to the microphone in Qingdao, China and sang, In A Far Away Place, the resounding carol of the audience was reminiscent of the response she receives from a poignant love ballad back home in Kentucky – in part because of the lilting virtuosity in Wood’s voice, but also because she was singing it in Chinese. She was traveling as part of the Mountain Music Ambassadors from The Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University on a concert tour – one of five tours to The Peoples Republic of China the Center has carried out over the past 7 years, with appearances in cities including Beijing, Tainjin, Guilin, Nanning, Yangshuo, Guangxi, Hangzhou, Lubang, and Qingdao.

The exhilarant and engaging program was thoughtfully crafted to employ the talents of this assembly of musicians with selections of bluegrass, old time, country and Americana music. The Mountain Music Ambassadors for this tour was comprised of current and former students from the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, Andrew Preston, Austin Tackett, Melissa Caskey, and Matt Holleran, who tour regularly as The Woodsheep, instructor, Sarah Wood, and director of the Center, Raymond McLain.

In addition to representing an American Traditional Music repertoire, the group performed original compositions and six songs in Mandarin. Andrew Preston, who earned his Bachelor of Arts in Traditional Music from Morehead State University in 2016 remarked, “It was essential for us to represent the traditional music of our southern mountain region in the presence of an audience that may be unfamiliar with it, particularly with popular numbers like Rocky Top; and, we also wanted to represent the thriving growth of folk-inspired contemporary music in Appalachia by including original tunes, like those from our recent Woodsheep recording, Watching Mars. Perhaps most importantly to our goal, it was imperative for us to engage our audience and sing the material that was going to communicate and entertain – for example, singing familiar songs in the native languages of the audience. We’ve learned in our time at The Kentucky Center for Traditional Music and on the road that the enjoyment of our audience is the aim of our music.”

Pictured below are some performances the band gave in Jimo City, a cultural hotbed for over 2,400 years, situated in the countryside city of Qingdao, population 9,000,000. The group was honored to bring traditional music from their southern mountain home in the United States to such an incredible center of Chinese heritage and international culture.

Across from the stage, situated adjacent to an ornate Chinese temple, the immense crowds each night gathered, attentive and enthusiastic. In addition to quality sound engineering and stage lighting, the Chinese technicians provided impressive, elaborate graphics on an LED screen behind the band, often syncing perfectly with the music and the ambiance of the night. A Chinese host communicated the set list and song descriptions to the eager audience in Mandarin. An adept singer in his own right, he sweetly serenaded members of the band, and after quickly befriending them, joined McLain for a duet of John Denver’s Country Roads during the final two nights of the tour. With audience interaction a key aspect of the band’s performances, a translator on site was quick to deftly interpret McLain’s English between songs. Moreover, Wood, Caskey, and Holleran led dances with children and members of the audience in a dance area by the stage to encourage audience participation. The Chinese are gracious hosts. Each day, the band felt more welcomed by the warmth of the crowd, the presenters and the sound crew.

The audience in Jimo City, China all don raincoats to enjoy the performance by the Mountain Music Ambassadors, visiting from Morehead State University

A particularly memorable moment is caught in this photo, as a rain shower briefly stopped the show. Presenters quickly handed out a multitude of ponchos, and the band resumed with the entire crowd in raincoats.

The educational focus of The Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University is the traditional music of the southern mountain region of the United States. As Bill Monroe once said, “The sun never sets on Bluegrass Music.” The national and international reach of its influence through the touring, songwriting and recording of Morehead State Traditional Music students, graduates, and instructors provides a testament to the global appeal of music. The relationships forged and the songs sung on these international tours provide just some examples of the educational and interpersonal value in studying traditional music at the collegiate and professional level.

At the end of the tour, The Mountain Music Ambassadors found themselves in “a far away place,” and learned that a love of music reverberates as deeply in China as it does in the hills of Appalachia.