photo: Brian Blauser
“At first we had no money, no expertise and no equipment, so we were in perfect shape to set out and try to do this,” Mountain Stage co-creator Larry Groce says with a laugh. “I told the guys when they approached me about it: ‘I’m excited about this; I’m in. But can we say this is going to be a national show instead of a state show?’ They said, ‘Sure, whatever you say,’ although I think they were humoring me. My thought at the time was, ‘We probably don’t have a shot, but let’s aim at it.’”
As it turns out, their aim was true (as future Mountain Stage performer Elvis Costello would likely attest). The two-hour live music show, which debuted in 1983 out of West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Charleston, W.Va., is now carried by nearly 300 public radio stations nationwide. The program recorded its 1,000th episode last October and has long offered a platform both to local artists and national musicians across genres, including: John Prine, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, Dr. John, Allen Ginsberg, R.E.M., Ben Harper, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Nickel Creek and Phish.
Although Groce is not a West Virginia native, he has lived in the state since 1972. It was his base of operations in 1976 when his song “Junk Food Junkie” became a Top 10 hit, leading to appearances on The Tonight Show, American Bandstand and other national programs. Groce has released nearly two-dozen albums— including a series of popular children’s records for Disney— yet he also fostered a deep connection to the Mountain State, as owner of The Morgantown School of Ballet from 1980-85 and co-publisher of West Virginia’s alternative tabloid, Graffiti from 1992-2004. In 2020, he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and in 2022, he received an honorary doctorate from West Virginia University.
Meanwhile, Groce has remained integral to Mountain Stage, serving as host as well as artistic director from the get-go, originally alongside executive producer Andy Ridenour (who retired in 2011) and engineer Francis Fisher (who passed away in 2021).
In September 2021, Groce handed hosting duties over to West Virginia native Kathy Mattea, and he plans to retire from the program at the end of June.
“About five or six years ago, I started telling the others, ‘I’ve never missed a show but it won’t happen forever.’ ” Groce recalls. “This was after Andy retired and Adam [Harris] took over—he came on as an intern and now he’s the producer. We were over 800 shows in, and even when I had a heart attack, I was back 10 days later. But I realized that it was time to start teaching people what I do and thinking about the next host. We realized quickly that it should be someone with a special relationship to West Virginia.”
That person was Mattea, who had appeared on Mountain Stage more than 30 times, including the NPR Convention where the show made its pitch to go national. Mattea—a two-time Grammy winner (and eight-time nominee)—moved to Nashville in the late ‘70s, signing with Mercury Records the same year that Mountain Stage debuted.
Given the ongoing demands of her career, Mattea acknowledges that she experienced a brief moment of reluctance after receiving the offer.
“Then, once I really sat with it, I realized that it checks all the boxes of what I think is important in the world—West Virginia culture, my hometown, these people who have built this thing from nothing to provide a platform for music at a time when platforms are shrinking, and the chance to have fun and meet people,” she says. “It’s been everything I hoped it would be and some things I couldn’t have imagined. I collaborate. I get to sing harmony with some of these people. I do the finale every week, and occasionally I perform a song in the show. It’s loosened me up about music so much. When I first realized that it checks all those boxes, I knew I had to say, ‘Yes.’”
How did you become involved in the creation of Mountain Stage?
LARRY GROCE: I was approached by these two guys who worked for public broadcasting. I’d met Francis Fisher when I first moved here, and Andy Ridenour had interviewed me on the radio. They told me that West Virginia Public Broadcasting was going to put up more towers and become a statewide network. So to celebrate, they wanted to do a statewide variety show.
Initially, it was once a month and it paid well, so I could stay home for at least one weekend a month and do a job here. I’d never hosted anything before but that had never stopped me if I thought I could do something. [Laughs.]
So I just fell into it, and the musical mixture was organically what we all liked. None of us said, “I only like this kind of music.” We didn’t want to just be a bluegrass show or a blues show or a singersongwriter show. We wanted to have all kinds of stuff on it from the beginning.
Can you remember a moment early on when it started to feel like a national show?
LG: We did one show in December of ’83 and then in ‘84 we did 12 shows. We got a postcard almost at the beginning from the mother of Tim O’Brien. Tim’s a West Virginia native, but he was living in Colorado and playing with the band Hot Rize. She said, “Would you consider having my son’s band on your show?” I wrote her back a postcard, saying, “The question is, would your son consider being on our show?” He was more famous than we were. [Laughs.] But he came on and Tim has ended up being the person who’s been on the show more than anybody else.
Then after that, I remember getting Norman Blake on the show. It was like, “Damn, the guy said, ‘Yes!’” We didn’t have any money to offer him and we still only had a few stations, but then we thought, “Let’s keep asking and see what we can get.”
John Hartford was someone else we went after early on because we all loved him and he symbolized what we believed in, which is the old and the new. I gave a quote about him one time that I think is still used on John Hartford’s website—“John has one foot deeply rooted in the past and the other a few steps into the future, and both are dancing.” [Laughs.]
That’s kind of what we wanted to have. We wanted to have a foot in the past and a foot in the future. A foot in international stuff and a foot in American stuff. We wanted to have old and young. I think that’s West Virginia in a way because once you’re here, you’re part of the family. I got accepted even though I wasn’t from here. I’ll never be a native, but I’ll be a West Virginian until I die.
As you continued inviting new artists to perform, is there someone you can think of that some people felt was a stretch but seemed perfectly logical and almost inevitable to you?
LG: We just kept asking and then, all of a sudden, there were people that kind of caught our drift. We had Peter Buck on the show with Kevn Kinney, and Peter said to me after they finished their set, “I really like this show. I think I’ll see if the band wants to do it.” And I thought, “Yeah, there’s a good chance that’s gonna happen.” [Laughs.] Then Andy said, “We got a call from Bertis Downs. Would you like to have R.E.M. on the show?” I said, “Any time day or night, any day of the week.” So they did the show [on 4/28/91] and that opened up a lot of doors.
I wouldn’t say that was inevitable. I didn’t expect a call from R.E.M., but they liked the spirit of the show. For a year or two after that, [Michael] Stipe used to write me letters and suggest some people for the show. I did several of them, including one I am particularly grateful for, which is Vic Chesnutt. We had Vic on many times. It was like, “Why would you want to keep things apart? Why wouldn’t you want to have alt-pop, alt-indie bands along with singer-songwriters and acoustic artists? What’s the problem with that? What’s the problem with having an old fiddler from West Virginia on the show along with a band from Africa?” It wasn’t a problem for us.
We’ve always tried to have as good a balance as we can; although that goes over the course of a year, not necessarily on one show.
You wrote the theme to Mountain Stage. Can you talk about the origins of “Simple Song?”
LG: We had another theme before that one. I played it on the dulcimer. It only lasted three or four years, then I thought it was time to write a new one. When I did that, I used a metaphor that I love because West Virginia is called The Mountain State. And really, what are mountains created by? They’re created by rivers.
So the idea that a little drop of water could come out of Pocahontas County, W.Va., and go down the Gauley River, into the Kanawha River, into the Ohio River, into the Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico and then all around the world is a real deal. That really happens, and it could end up who knows where—in somebody’s glass or inside a fish or whatever.
I thought that metaphor was a strong one because I also believe in songs. Songs are really important. The combination of words and music is so magical. It can do so much and it can actually change your way of seeing the world—sometimes in a very short period of time. It’s got to be one of the oldest things that humans have experienced.
The idea of the power of the song, and of the world turning around a song, just came to me. It’s like, “This is what we are. This is what we’re trying to do. We’re sending our little beam out into the world and there will be people out there that get it. That’s all we can ask for and it’s satisfying to us that we’re able to do that.”
So that’s how I wrote that song. Over the years, we’ve considered changing it, but every time we did—and it was not an ego thing—I’ll ask, “What are we going to put there? What’s the image? What’s the metaphor? What’s the feel?” And nobody could figure out what would be better.
Have you allowed yourself to take a moment to appreciate what you’ve been able to accomplish by advancing quality live music over all this time?
LG: Only recently. In the past, we didn’t have a chance to retrospect very much. We were too busy trying to stay alive and trying to get the next show ready and the next five shows ready—getting 25 shows a year ready, and so forth.
Since our 33rd birthday, we started looking back a little bit. I also have a little bit more time now, particularly since I’m not the host anymore. But I’m still the artistic director and I do a bunch of stuff for the show. I used to edit it all but I’ve taught other people how to do this stuff. If I had quit two years ago, then they’d have had to hire two or three people, but I’ve been teaching them how to do it.
I’ll tell you though, it’s hard for me to have a sense of what people might feel about us. We’re way out of the mainstream. I seldom travel to Nashville, New York, LA or places like Austin or Minneapolis where there are big music scenes. I hope that people feel the way you mentioned, but I don’t have any big evidence of that.
We just try to be true to ourselves. We do it because we think it’s the right thing to do. We certainly don’t do it because we think we’re going to get famous or rich from it.
I’m finally going to step away at the end of June, and it’s going to be a new world for all of us. The other people who work for the show work for the state of West Virginia because Mountain Stage is owned by the state via West Virginia Public Broadcasting. At the very beginning, I told them: “I’m going to remain a contract employee.” So I will have had what amounts to 40 one-year contracts. That will end June 30 of this year. I look at it this way: 40 years, that’s a nice tenure.
I’d like to leave on a good note before they kick me out or before I start not liking it. Our last three or four years have been up years, which is totally surprising for what they call a “legacy show”—which means you’re old. [Laughs.]
Kathy, you’ve lectured about music in educational settings. Do you view your role at Mountain Stage in a similar light?
KATHY MATTEA: Before Mountain Stage, I was doing a regular residency at West Virginia University in their Appalachian music program. I would spend a few days talking with the kids, encouraging them and being a presence there. That stopped when COVID hit. Then I took over Mountain Stage full time so I haven’t had a chance to do that since then. But at Mountain Stage, I feel like I’m the student. [Laughs.] I’m learning to facilitate this live entity. One of the things that came to me after I’d done it a little bit is the realization that it’s a very satisfying feeling to be the person who keeps everything moving for this show.
I want the audience to feel like they’re more excited to hear the next person than they were when they walked in. I can take a few minutes to open them up to the artist. Rather than education, I would characterize it as facilitation. I’m facilitating a connection between people and music. I still feel like I have a lot to learn. Larry has it in his bones because he created the thing. I’m stepping in and learning as I go.
Do you remember the first time that you either heard Mountain Stage or heard about it?
KM: I heard about it because they called and asked if we wanted to be on. I think within the first year of it starting, I was on with Tim and Mollie O’Brien. We sang a song together and I can remember sitting in the dressing room in the basement of the old Capitol Theatre going over that song.
Tim and Mollie are so fun to sing with and I remember thinking how ambitious it was to believe that people would come to Charleston. It’s not exactly on the beaten path and I thought, “This is really interesting.” This was before they went national.
Not too long after I started, Tim O’Brien was on the show, and Adam Harris, the executive producer, showed us a picture of us backstage at that first show. Then we redid that same pose and took the same picture 40 years later.
Can you talk about the blend of music on the show and what that represents to you?
KM: I think part of what makes Mountain Stage special is the wide range of music that they bring to the world. Larry put it very well to me one day early on when it looked like I was going to step into this role. He said, “Kathy, I don’t love everybody that we book on the show. It’s impossible. But every artist we book has a constituency and they deserve the chance to widen their audience and be heard by more people. That is what we’re doing.” I thought that was a beautiful way of putting it.
It feels like the common denominator is a kind of respect for what someone has built with their music and the audience they’ve gathered together, whether they’re just starting out or they’re an icon. So it is about honoring the following they have. If they’re young, they’ve built to a point where they deserve a chance to widen their audience, so you give them that opportunity. If they’re established, this is a chance to honor their body of work, what they’ve put into the world and the people who have a special place in their heart for them. It also gives them the chance to bring their music to some people who might not hear of them otherwise. So for me, that’s clear.
I also have to say, it’s been a sweet thing in my 60s to step into something where the whole role is not about me. I am only there to facilitate shining a light on other people’s music. After a lifetime of people asking me: “What song do you want to sing?” and “What’s going on in your artistic life,” it’s so sweet to be able to do this service for other people’s music, while still being in the service of music overall. I’ve enjoyed that part. I also feel like I get to be the recipient of what the show is putting out into the world. It’s about that intangible electricity. It’s kind of nebulous. You can’t nail it down, but it’s an energy connection between artists and audiences through the music. It’s an exchange both ways. That is what Mountain Stage is about at the end of the day for me.
Is there an artist who comes to mind that you’ve taken pleasure in introducing to a new audience?
KM: There’s a young woman named Joy Oladokun who is a singer-songwriter with an amazing story. She writes like a sage and getting to see her perform and getting to meet her was memorable. There’s a guy named John Fullbright who I had not heard before. There was a young man on the last show we taped, Scott Mulvahill, who played bass for Ricky Skaggs for years. He has embarked on a solo career, and he stood there playing the upright bass like it was a guitar, while singing into the mic. I couldn’t believe what I was watching with his virtuosity. I’ve experienced something like that with person after person.
Then there’s someone like Ray Wylie Hubbard. I’d never met him but I got to see his set and then I got to know him a little bit. What a delightful man. In college, I sang “Redneck Mothers” every night in a jam session or something. [Wylie also attended the same Texas high school as Larry Groce, where they were in a band together.]
When David Bromberg came on, I said, “I can’t believe we’ve never met.” He said, “No, but I love you! Do you want to sing a duet with me tonight?” I was like, “Hell yeah, I do!” He produced a record that started the newgrass movement and changed my life—John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain. That record was a big part of getting me to Nashville.
Now that you’ve experienced Mountain Stage from Larry’s perspective, what have you learned about him or the show?
KM: I just think, “Oh, my God, he thought this up out of his freaking head. Forty years of this show came out of a vision that he had.”
The other thing about Larry that a lot of people don’t know is that he’s a steward of the arts in every way he can be. He’s constantly writing songs, he’s writing musicals, he’s encouraging young artists. He’s supporting the arts in Charleston and all over West Virginia and beyond. He is a force of nature, and it’s been great for me to be able to pick his brain about things.
I feel lucky to have come in at a time when he’s still subbing for me when I can’t do it. He’s still there when I’m doing the show. He comes every week, hangs out backstage and watches. So I get to have a conversation with him. And, through those conversations, I’ve come to have a deeper understanding about some of the nuances of what they’ve created. I have so much respect for his vision, his energy, his focus and his affection for the place that I’m from.
Larry says, “I’m not from West Virginia, but I got here as soon as I could.” [Laughs.] Sometimes it takes somebody coming in from the outside and going, “Oh, my God, I don’t ever want to leave this place. It’s so special,” for the people who live there to see how truly special it is.
You mentioned COVID earlier. Live music is at the heart of Mountain Stage. Do you think that artists and audiences experience live music differently these days?
KM: Whatever it is that goes on between an artist and an audience will always be important, compelling and at the heart of everything. When a song or a record moves you, then you cannot wait to be in a room with that person and experience that human-to-human connection.
The way music facilitates that is beyond time. It’s part of the primal human experience. I don’t think that’ll ever go away. There are all kinds of ways to experience it, but I know that during COVID we heard from a lot of people who were like, “We can’t get out and hear live music and we’re so glad to have this radio show to listen to.” So we plowed through and did some shows without audiences, although we would acknowledge there was something really big missing. But we are fiercely trying to stay the course because we now understand how important it all is in a whole new way.