‘Mountain Stage’ celebrates 35th anniversary this weekend

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — “There’s a spring in the mountain and it flows down to the town.”

“There’s a song in my heart, just a simple, little tune. But the rhythm and the melody won’t leave me alone. Around the world, it’s just a simple song.”

These lines are the first words heard by the listeners of “Mountain Stage,” sung by its host Larry Groce. He will sing the lines again this Sunday at the state Culture Center marking the start of Mountain Stage’s 935th episode, a celebration of the show’s 35th anniversary.

“That some little drop here in West Virginia can go who knows where in the world, that’s the way songs are,” said Groce, who also serves as the show’s producer and artistic director. “They can start by some person very obscure and it’ll end up everybody in the world knows that song.”

Mountain Stage, produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, began in December 1983. Groce, Francis Fisher and Andy Ridenour are the program’s founders.

“West Virginia Public Broadcasting was going statewide and building towers all over the state. At that time they only had two, but they knew they were going to have eight or nine at the end,” he said.

Groce was born and raised in Dallas. After living in New York City and Los Angeles, he moved to West Virginia in 1972 for a nine-month program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Now 46 years later, Groce lives in Charleston.

“I had management in Los Angeles, but I loved it here,” he said. “I love the people. I love the attitude. I love the way West Virginians are.”

He was living in West Virginia when his biggest hit, “Junk Food Junkie,” reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1976.

“They (Fisher and Ridenour) called me because they didn’t think they had the skills to host or to pick talent and put together some kind of show like this,” Groce said.

The early plan for the program, according to Groce, was to do a monthly show. Groce agreed to host, as he was still traveling for work.

“We had no money, no experience at this and no equipment. We were in the perfect position. Everything to gain and nothing to lose,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Listen, let’s do a national show.’ I already had a national hit, so I was trying to up our goals.”

The pilot episode was in 1981, but the show didn’t start until December 1983 due to funding. Shows were once a month until 1985 when the number of shows went from 12 to 16 a year. In 1986, National Public Radio picked up “Mountain Stage” for national distribution.

“Our idea of being a national show paid off because we weren’t going to settle for, necessary, being just a statewide show,” Groce mentioned. “We had the idea since National Public Radio was national, we could get picked up and distributed.”

NPR had its doubts about the program’s potential; Groce said “Mountain Stage” was expected to get picked up by 50 stations at most because of its location.

“It’s very difficult to do a show like we’re talking about,” he said. “In another way, it’s the best place to do it. It doesn’t cost so much to do it compared to trying to do one in New York City. The space, the unions, everything else. It’s not as expensive.”

“Mountain Stage” is currently carried by 243 stations across the country. While most shows are done in Charleston, tapings have been held in other states and as far away as Glasgow, Scotland.

“Sometimes, it’s good to have low expectations of you — sometimes — until you prove them wrong,” Groce said. “And we didn’t fall into the stereotype of only doing country or bluegrass music, because that is what the stereotype is. We put on all kind of stuff.”

Past performers of “Mountain Stage” have included country and bluegrass artists — such as Don Williams, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley — but also artists and groups such as The Band, Booker T. Jones, Mavis Staples and Warren Zevon.

“It’s based on, mostly, the quality of the material, the songs, then the singer and then the musicianship and the band and production,” Groce explained of how acts are selected.

Groce continued: “The first most important thing is the material. John Prince is the perfect example.” (According to Groce, Prine has been on “Mountain Stage” four times.)

“You may think he’s a good singer, bad singer. Who knows? I don’t care, but his songs are great. When you hear it, you think, ‘Wow, what is this? Where did this come from?'”

Groce has nothing against artists played on Top 40 radio, but he selects musicians he described as having “substance” to their work.

“Hopefully, you can have this person on and keep having them on. They’re an artist, not a flash-in-the-pan or a commercial success for a while. Their music may change, but they’re an artist and they will grow,” he said.

When it comes to the episode that most sticks out to fans, Groce pointed out the April 1991 show with R.E.M. The band had just released their album “Out of Time,” but chose not to tour that year.

“They only did three shows: They did ‘Saturday Night Live,’ they did ‘MTV Unplugged’ and they did ‘Mountain Stage,'” Groce said. “We couldn’t have talked them into that. They had no reason to do our show. They are 100 times more famous than we will ever be.

“That show really put us on the map,” he added. “At the time, R.E.M. was the biggest band in the world.”

Randy Newman during his May 1999 performance on “Mountain Stage.”

As for his favorite show, Groce said it is Randy Newman’s May 1999 appearance. Newman’s 45-minute-long set included songs like “Political Science,” a satirical critique of American foreign policy, and “Short People,” Newman’s most popular song which takes aim at prejudice.

“There should be courses taught about Randy Newman’s songs to kids,” Groce said. “What he does in a song and what he does with a song when he communicates is pretty profound. He might argue with you on that because he doesn’t seem to be totally self-inflated.”

The program has also been among the first steps for emerging artists; Sturgill Simpson performed on “Mountain Stage” before releasing his first record “High Top Mountain” in June 2013; his latest album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” won Best Country Album and scored an Album of the Year nomination at last year’s Grammy Awards.

“We’ve had so many people that have been and later became famous that it’s like you want to walk where other people have walked,” Groce said. “They want to be on our show, they see the list of people and say, ‘Wow, I want to join that group of people.'”

Groce said being a live show has its benefits; artists can make edits after a song is recorded, but a live performance forces them to be on the spot and engaging with the audience.

“What we try to do is embody an attitude that we think is West Virginian, which is to be straight-forward, a little self-deprecating with humor, not pretentious, warm, inclusive, friendly and human,” he said. “The audience is part of the show. How they react is a big deal.”

Groce said while his time as host is not forever, he hopes the impact of “Mountain Stage” continues for future generations, allowing listeners across the United States to get a new perspective on music and West Virginia.

“We know there is no guarantee that ‘Mountain Stage’ will be on the air. As soon as we quit presenting something on the air that people want, we’re gone,” he said. “We appreciate and are grateful for the fact that we’ve had this opportunity to do a show like this in a place this small without big money.”

Sunday’s show will feature Amy Ray, Crash Test Dummies, Parker Millsap, Anais Mitchell and William Matheny.

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