In 30th year, radio show offers listeners unique array of world’s best music
The first time singer-songwriter Joe Pug appeared on “Mountain Stage,” he’d only just turned to music full time. The idea that the movers and shakers behind the national radio program wanted to showcase his work left him feeling thrilled, but awestruck, too.
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Before he went on at the Cultural Center in Charleston that Sunday in 2008, he remembers host Larry Groce telling him the show would be carried on more than 130 NPR stations nationwide as well as overseas on the Voice of America Satellite Service. Some 280,000 listeners tune in to each show.
“I was going out to play live, for the first time reaching an enormous audience with my songs,” said Pug, a 28-year-old Maryland native who made his third “Mountain Stage” appearance in Morgantown in April. “There’s no way that’s not a little nerve-wracking.”
The heart of the show’s longtime appeal, Pug explains, can be found in the thinking that led to his initial invitation to “Mountain Stage.”
“The fact that they invited me after hearing my first EP, at a time when I was barely making music for a living – that tells you this is a show that isn’t looking for artists with lots of fans that they’ll draw in,” he said. “They’re going by what they see as good music. They trust their listeners will turn out week after week – and their listeners do because they trust ‘Mountain Stage.’”
Groce, who created the show in late 1983 along with engineer Francis Fisher and now-retired producer Andy Ridenour, believes “Mountain Stage” remains as cutting-edge as ever because it gives listeners a whole spectrum of great music, not just a single genre.
“I like a wide variety of music and most of the people who work on ‘Mountain Stage’ do, too,” he said. “Because we book every kind of artist – from African roots music to folk, blues, jazz, old-time Appalachian, alternative country, progressive bluegrass, even some pop, nearly every musical style there is – we can be very selective. We cover so many music styles, that we can invite just the best in each and give listeners a good sampling of all that are worth listening to.”
Many times, “Mountain Stage” shows highlights artists who go on to A-list careers. Sometimes, Groce notes, the show invites an already well-known artist moving in a new direction.
In its nearly three decades, as Groce and company have completed nearly 800 two-hour shows, the lineup has included nearly 2,000 world-class draws including Robert Cray, Arlo Guthrie, Asleep at the Wheel, Los Lobos, They Might Be Giants, Dr. John, Robyn Hitchcock, Crash Test Dummies, Alison Krauss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sarah McLachlan, Marshall Crenshaw, Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Dierks Bentley, Martina McBride, the Texas Tornados, Buckwheat Zydeco, Timbuk 3, Indigo Girls, Ani Difranco, The Neville Brothers, Lyle Lovette, Phish, Counting Crows, Norah Jones, Ben Harper, Tori Amos, Ryan Adams, Bruce Hornsby – even Bill Monroe, the bluegrass pioneer who was in his 80s when he performed on the show in 1989.
In the spring of 1991, R.E.M. famously headlined a special “Mountain Stage” at Capitol Theater in downtown Charleston – one of just a handful of shows that year for the Athens, Ga.-based band after the release of “Out of Time,” along with high-profile stops such as MTV’s “Unplugged” and “Saturday Night Live.”
Country crooner Kathy Mattea offers a perfect example of the trajectory often seen on Mountain Stage, explained Groce, who himself penned and recorded a Top Ten hit in 1976. The novelty tune “Junk Food Junkie” won him appearances on “American Bandstand,” “Prairie Home Companion” and “The Tonight Show” alongside Johnny Carson.
Mattea, a native of Cross Lanes, made her first appearance on “Mountain Stage” before she was a household name, returned during her highest-profile years and has remained a popular performer more recently as her musical interests have intertwined with social causes she cares about, particularly on the subject of the environment and mountaintop removal coal-mining.
“We tend to book a lot of new artists and artists who are on the fringes,” Groce said. “We’ve stayed away from mainstream pop and a lot of the artists that you hear on other shows. We’re not in New York City or L.A., and the show reflects that. What we do has always been a little off the beaten path.”
With a focus on new, interesting music, “Mountain Stage” remains fresh even as it is poised to begin its fourth decade and Groce points out another way the show continually injects new energy into the program: frequent road trips, both to sites across West Virginia and nationally, with stops including Fairbanks, Alaska; Texas; Boston; Philadelphia; New York; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Ashland, Ky.; Minnesota; and the city of Bristol on the Virginia-Tennessee border.
“Mountain Stage” also has found welcome audiences internationally, including recent ventures to Winnipeg and Glasgow, Scotland. When Groce explains how “Mountain Stage” has gone on the road to three different Athens – cities in West Virginia, Ohio and Georgia – he notes that Athens, Greece would make a fine addition to the list. “Absolutely,” he said. “Why not?”
The out-of-town shows offer a higher profit margin for “Mountain Stage” than the programs produced in Charleston, Groce said. He said that happens, in part, because production costs picked up by the show when it’s at its home in Charleston instead are borne by West Virginia University, West Virginia Wesleyan or whatever entity is hosting the show.
The out-of-town venues also are good for the program’s long-term health, as the change in scenery invariably leads to the Mountain Stage brand getting introduced to new music lovers. While the latest show from “Mountain Stage” is par for the course to reporters in Charleston, when the show plays outside of the Capitol City, writers from newspapers, magazines and other media tend to take note.
“Getting invited by WVU to come and put on shows in Morgantown has been great for us,” Groce said. “It’s great for morale [for staff] to get out of Charleston. It’s not a vacation, by any means, but we all realize how important it is to cultivate new audiences, to cultivate new fans. We know going outside Charleston is a way to expand our fan base.”
While its Mountain State roots are essential to “Mountain Stage,” Groce points out that his focus always has been to simply showcase great music.
“We’re not a Charleston production, or even a West Virginia production,” he said. “Since our very earliest days, we’ve put together a show that’s national in scope. When we were just starting out and had no budget, no equipment and no cache to lure performers here, that was quite a dream, but we’ve always tried to turn our limited resources into a strength. Musicians who come here to play have a different experience than they would if our show were in L.A. or New York. We think that’s a good thing.”
Groce understands how West Virginia can get a hold on a person. Back in 1972, Groce thought he was taking a temporary home in West Virginia following his selection as a musician-in-residence with the then-newly established National Endowment for the Arts. He settled in Barbour County and worked with schoolchildren there as well as in neighboring Tucker and Randolph counties.
By the time the gig wrapped up, Groce – a Dallas native who turned 65 in April – had fallen in love with West Virginia and made it his full-time home. Within a few years, he’d connected with Fisher, a former radio engineer with NBC in New York who had returned to his native state then working in Beckley for West Virginia Public Radio.
Fisher, now 71, was friends and colleagues with Ridenour, who’d grown up in Washington, D.C., and who had remained in West Virginia after completing his degree at Concord College.
At the time, West Virginia Public Radio was expanding its reach across the state and the push was on for new programs. The idea of a music-filled variety show was born, and the first “Mountain Stage” aired live on Dec. 11, 1983.
Groce isn’t sure just how “Mountain Stage” will commemorate the show’s official 30 th anniversary later this year, but he says it’s a landmark he’s excited about.
“We’ll put on 26 shows this year – that doesn’t give a lot of time for retrospection,” Groce said. “But we’re still here after all these years, and still growing, which feels great.
“Our 30 th year is something we’ll highlight any way we can, all year long.”