‘The Baddest Band in the Land’

The Western Carolina band, “Pride of the Mountains,” is as big a part of football Saturdays as the teams on the field

The Western Carolina marching band, called “Pride of the Mountains,” has nearly 500 members and plans to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2019. (Rick Sammons / For the North State Journal)

CULLOWHEE — Halftime isn’t usually the best time to visit the concession stand or restroom at a college football game.

Unless you’re at Western Carolina.

In that case, you can zip right through the line without much of a wait.

It’s not that there’s an abundance of facilities at E.J. Whitmire Stadium or that the crowds are that small. Rather, it’s because the show is only just beginning when the first half ends.

(Rick Sammons / For the North State Journal)

Officially, the 490 musicians that entertain at every Catamounts home football game are known by the title of “Pride of the Mountains Band.” But they like to refer to themselves as the “Baddest Band in the Land,” and they put on a performance that keeps most fans in their seats long after the teams leave the field for the locker room.

“You’ll see people won’t get up for halftime,” said drum major Holly Thomas, a senior from Jacksonville. “They’ll wait until after we’re done to get up to get snacks and go to the bathroom. It’s like no one leaves and then all of a sudden everyone gets up for like the last two minutes of halftime.”

The roots for that tradition were first planted more than two decades ago with halftime shows designed by innovative director Bob Buckner. Current leader David Starnes has pushed the limits of creativity even further since taking over upon Buckner’s retirement in 2011.

Though the WCU band might not look like anything out of the ordinary as it enters the stadium with its traditional style uniforms and marching style, its unique personality becomes evident from the first notes of its game day performance.

The show, titled “Now is the Time,” is a musical plea for world peace using songs from several different generations of artists, infused with numerous multimedia enhancements.

(Rick Sammons / For the North State Journal)

It begins with dramatic sound effects and a recorded version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” piped over the stadium’s PA system. Then, as the band converges from the four corners of the field into one large formation in the middle, it turns toward the stands and blasts out the Styx standard “The Best of Times” with a solid wall of sound.

The program continues with selections from Louis Armstrong, Chicago, The Fifth Dimension, Coldplay and others before coming to a climax with the band members throwing their fists into the air at the end of the Beatles’ “Let it Be.”

“With all the electronics, it feels more like a rock concert than a marching band,” Starnes said. “It’s just a new identity, and a lot of colleges are starting to infuse that kind of entertainment value into their production.

“As technology has advanced, what it has done with outdoor pageantry, now we’re able to bring in more layers of that. There’s a lot of wattage out here. There’s a lot of software and a lot of samples and things that you don’t usually see and hear with a marching band.”

Another unique feature at WCU is that in addition to the usual halftime show, the band also returns to the field after the game is over for an encore performance.

It’s a tradition that began because of the way Whitmire Stadium is situated. With most of the games starting at 3:30 p.m., the glare of the setting sun around halftime makes it difficult for those on the far side of the field to get a good look at the show.

The postgame performance gives those fans an opportunity to see what they missed. And very few people leave until the final note is played. Many of them will have their cell phones and other devices out recording the performance.

(Brett Friedlander/North State Journal)

As much as the audience gets into the show, the performers have even more invested in it.

“When I first saw it, it was crazier than any marching band that I’ve ever seen,” cymbals section leader Terence Holmes, a senior from Hickory, said. “When I saw all the cool stuff they were doing, how innovative they are, I just wanted to be a part of it.”

The uniqueness of the band’s presentation, combined with its tradition and reputation around the state through performances at numerous high school contests and festivals, is the reason so many young musicians gravitate to Cullowhee — despite WCU’s relatively small size and off-the-beaten-path location.

Junior drum major Spencer Childress said the Catamounts’ trumpet section when he first arrived had more members than his entire high school band in Charlotte.

Another reason for WCU’s appeal is the fact that the Pride of the Mountains performs only one show a year rather than doing a new one every week as do most other college bands.

“My sister was a drum major in Chapel Hill back in 2016 and they march a different show every week,” Childress said. “She comes to a lot of the games here and just speaking to her, I think she really enjoys the one-show-a-year thing. It’s very satisfying to work up one show, learn to love your show and do everything you can with it.”

That doesn’t mean band members have it easy.

The show they do is so intricate that it’s installed in increments over several weeks early in the season. Then once the entire 10-minute production is on the field, the band practices three times a week working to get everything just right.

“It’s like a skeleton in the beginning,” Emma Schaefer, a senior drum major and clarinet player from Brevard, said. “Once you learn the show you get to produce it more. You get to add different elements. Like the fist stuff that we do in the third movement got added only about a month ago.

“It was a new thing that makes the theme more apparent as we go on. It’s really cool because it gives us the opportunity to push what we’re trying to portray through the entire season.”

(Brett Friedlander/North State Journal)

The process of developing the idea for the show, designing its movements and incorporating the audio and visual effects actually begins long before the first game. It’s a collaborative effort that involves both administrative staff and students.

“Something that is important about what we do is that we have a commercial electronic music degree here,” Starnes said. “All the kids we have running this electronics stuff are mixing video and sound in the studio throughout the entire week. Then as a part of their curriculum, they’re doing the marching band as an ensemble, but not playing. They’re doing what their gig is going to be.”

Although WCU has a school of music, only about a fourth of the nearly 500 band members are music majors. That, said band parent Eric Josephson, speaks to the leadership and dedication of Starnes and his staff.

“David Starnes is a superstar,” said Josephson, whose son Silas is one of 21 sousaphone players on the field for last Saturday’s season finale against Wofford. “He knows every kid out there. His ability to find small flaws, but to fix them without embarrassing or offending is next level. The kids are out there out of their own passion.”

And there figures to be even more than ever next year. That’s because the band is scheduled to make a trip to New York to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

“When we went to Macy’s my freshman year in 2014, we had a lot more people in the band,” drum major Thomas said. “So we’ll probably have even more next year, too.

“It was a really humbling experience because you’re on national television and you know millions of people are watching. We actually got to lead the parade. I’ve got the little participant pin that’s on my corkboard at home, and I’ll probably frame it with my band plaques someday.”

It will take around $750,000 to take the band to New York for the parade. A campaign to offset at least some of that cost through the university’s fundraising arm kicked off last Saturday.

Starnes said he is confident WCU’s fans and alumni will come through in a big way — not only because of the band’s popularity, but perhaps because of all the money they’ve saved from not having time to visit the concession stands at halftime.