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Making Music in the Mountains

Prestonsburg Tourism and WLEX to partner on a new show highlighting city’s music scene


By  Matt Wickstrom

Mountain Arts Center
Brennen Meek, producer at the Mountain Arts Center’s recording studio in Prestonsburg, looks on from the control room during a session with Rachel Messer and her band.

Prestonsburg Tourism and Lexington-based NBC affiliate WLEX 18 have announced a partnership that will yield a 30-minute show on the TV station highlighting the Eastern Kentucky community’s music scene. Of particular focus will be the Mountain Arts Center, a theater, meeting space, recording studio and art gallery that first opened in October 1996. The show began filming May 6 at MAC’s recording studio with engineer Brennen Meek and is expected to air the last week of May on WLEX.

Meek, a native of Paintsville, is a renowned engineer and a 2015 graduate of the Blackbird Academy, a top-tier school for professional audio. Blackbird Academy was launched by John McBride and his wife, country artist Martina McBride, and is based at Blackbird Studios in Nashville. Artists who’ve recorded at Blackbird include Bruce Springsteen, Tim McGraw, Miley Cyrus, Bon Jovi, Kenny Chesney, Lionel Richie, Sheryl Crow, Dolly Parton, Buddy Guy, Kid Rock and Mariah Carey.

After his time in Nashville, Meek returned to Eastern Kentucky to begin working at MAC. In the time since he’s helped bring a bevy of projects to life, including “CMH23,” a television show airing Mondays at 8 p.m. on The Country Network featuring a blend of local and nationally known artists.

Meek has also worked with individual artists on recording projects, including The Wayward Dolls, a group that won the award for Best Americana Song in November 2019 at the X-Poze-Ing Music Awards, a partner of the Chicago Music Awards; Prestonsburg native Nicholas Jamerson, who recorded his debut solo album “NJ” at MAC after years performing as half of the acclaimed country duo Sundy Best; and Rachel Messer, a West Virginia native and former Kentucky Opry member who appeared on NBC’s “The Voice” in 2018.

The collaboration between MAC and WLEX comes at a time when MAC and other performance venues across the country have had to shutter their doors due to COVID-19, resulting in unforeseen revenue and job losses. According to MAC Executive Director Joe Campbell, the facility has lost $21,000, mostly from rental revenue. That’s not even counting lost ticket fees and sales due to postponing or canceling all MAC events through June 26. Campbell said MAC had to lay off four full-time staff members April 2 and hasn’t scheduled shifts for another dozen or so part-time staff since mid-March.

“Right now we have 10 to 12 employees helping with day-to-day operations, and we’ve already had to lay a few of them off,” Campbell said. “I’m afraid that we won’t be able to bring some of them back when we’re able to open back up.”

To stay engaged with the community, Campbell and the MAC team immediately began a deep dive into the venue’s archival footage at the onset of the shutdown, searching for old shows to share to their Facebook page. Thus far, rebroadcasted shows have included a 2004 concert from Goose Creek Symphony, a 2003 performance from Billie Jean Osborne’s Kentucky Opry and the Kentucky Opry Jr. Pros, and a 2005 show by IIIrd Tyme Out. Meanwhile, in-person music lessons offered at the MAC to roughly 150-170 students per semester have been moved to the virtual realm.

While the short-term financial impact from COVID-19 may look bleak, Campbell is hopeful for the future and the return to a new normal due to collaborations like the one with WLEX. There are also future events planned, such as the Appalachian Art & Entertainment Awards, a Grammy-like celebration highlighting the best of the 13 states comprising Appalachia that is scheduled for March 20, 2021.

For more information on the MAC visit MACarts.com.

Matt Wickstrom is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].