Roadside Theater's first play was Mountain Tales and Music – a production of Jack and Mutsmeg stories originally from the British Isles and the ballads and fiddle tunes that had been passed down from generation to generation in the Appalachian Mountains since the late 1700s.
Roadside was founded in the coalfields of central Appalachia in 1975 as part of Appalshop, which had begun six years earlier as a War on Poverty/Office of Economic Opportunity job training program for poor youth. From its inception, young Appalachians saw Appalshop as a means to tell the region's story in the voices of the people living there.
By 1975, radio and television were eroding the telling of traditional stories that had once been commonplace on front porches, at family gatherings, and around the coal stove at the local general store. Roadside’s founders were looking for a way to reinvigorate this tradition for the next generation, and created a new kind of theater in the process.
Like in front porch storytelling, this theater had no fourth wall. Three to five actor/storytellers carried the narrative, batting lines back and forth, playing different characters, sometimes speaking in unison, and always playing to and with the audience. Roadside performers, who grew up hearing the traditional stories, knew them by heart, so they could go off-script when the spirit struck them and return to the script to finish the tale.
Roadside didn't have a formal theater space until 1985 so performances were held in churches, community centers, schools, and, in warm months, in a portable canvas revival tent pitched up the hollows. People of all ages loved what Roadside was doing, because it was for, about, and by them.