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‘Mountain Stage’ kicks off 35th season

November 30, 2018

Courtesy of WV Public Broadcasting Amy Ray is scheduled to make her tenth appearance on the Mountain Stage.

As fate and the aligning numbers will have it, on Sunday evening, “Mountain Stage” host Larry Groce and West Virginia Public Broadcasting will celebrate the program’s 35 years on public radio with episode No. 935 right here in the 35th state of West Virginia.

“That is exactly how we planned it out 35 years ago,” said Groce, laughing of the alignment.

Although numerologists can tell us the meaning later, Groce and crew is celebrating the anniversary the “Mountain Stage” way - by sharing the sonic elixir of fresh cut live music made with original lyrics, no borders and no BS.

“Mountain Stage” episode 935 will be recorded before a live audience at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2, at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston.

Headlining the show is The Amy Ray Band, featuring Amy Ray of Indigo Girls. Ray, who also appeared on the 500th episode of “Mountain Stage,” and is making her 10th appearance on “Mountain Stage.”

Also on the bill is up-and-

coming Oklahoma blues rocker Parker Millsap, New York actress and singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell, nationally traveling Mannington, West Virginia-based Americana rocker William Matheny and - reunited for the first time in 17 years - Canadian pop rockers Crash Test Dummies, who appeared on “Mountain Stage” in 1991 four years before they hit the charts.

Tickets are $20 advance or $30 day of the show, if not sold out. Get tickets online by calling 877-987-6487, or at Taylor Books in downtown Charleston.

A Dallas native singer-songwriter who scored a top-10 hit in 1976 with his song “Junk Food Junkie” and went on to record hit albums for Disney, Groce helped birth the show for a newly formed West Virginia Public Radio network back in 1983.

Original producer Andy Ridenour, who retired in August 2011, came up with the idea of “Mountain Stage” as a way to show off WV Public Radio, and teamed up with hot-shot chief engineer Francis Fisher (who had worked as an engineer with NBC Radio in New York), and Groce, who was a nationally touring act, to imagine a new funky and fresh live performance radio show.

Unlike more genre-specific shows like “The Grand Ole Opry” and “Austin City Limits,” “Mountain Stage” has always found room in the inn for just about any roots music the world over from African and Celtic sounds to blues, jazz, bluegrass, country R&B, folk, rock and gospel.

Through the years, about 3,000 artists have poured in from more than 50 countries to come play the “Mountain Stage”. Mostly at its home base in Charleston, though they have done road shows through the years from New York City to Philly and from Athens, Georgia, to Athens, Ohio.

Groce, who played just about every TV and radio show you can name as a recording artist, said he wanted to treat all artists the way he wanted to be treated in a professional atmosphere that also reflected his adopted state’s neighborly laid-back feel.

“From the very beginning, we wanted to set up an atmosphere that was like the best atmospheres I found when I had the hit song and went on performing shows,” Groce said this week by phone. “Some were very good and a lot were not so good as to how they greeted you and treated you.

“Number One, I never wanted to tell people what they should, could or couldn’t sing. Number Two, I wanted songwriters to have a chance to perform at least three songs. Number Three, I wanted to treat everyone egalitarian as much as possible. Everyone gets the same amount of rehearsal time, the same dressing rooms and the same food. I didn’t want anyone to come in and think I am the low person on the totem pole. That is never the way it has been. I don’t think that is the way West Virginia is. It is the most egalitarian place I have ever been to. What is important is how you act and treat people - not how much money or how many cars you have. That has always been our goal and all of the staff has bought into it, and so has the hotel and the catering. Artists come into this place and they are treated with respect, like a ‘do unto others’ philosophy.”

Through the years, “Mountain Stage” has reeled in many of the pioneers and giants in a wide range of roots music field. Just a few of the seminal artists to play “Mountain Stage” are: Joan Baez, Brownie McGee, Bill Monroe, Pops Staples, Doc Watson, Koko Taylor, Dr. John, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Buddy Guy, Townes Van Zandt, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Chucho Valdes, and John Prine, just to name a few.

For dozens and dozens of musical artists, “Mountain Stage” gave them one of their first international platforms for folks to hear their music.

Just a few of the now famous acts who played “Mountain Stage” as fledgling artists include Kathy Mattea, Lyle Lovett, Barenaked Ladies, Lucinda Williams, Phish, Widespread Panic, Norah Jones, Alison Krauss, Sarah McLaughlin, Ani DeFranco, Counting Crows, Ben Harper, Keb Mo, Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, Nickel Creek and Tyler Childers.

For instance, the first time Groce brought on Crash Test Dummies, the year was 1991. They were on a bill with Widespread Panic on a show that drew only 200 people, or less than half a house, to the Culture Center Theater.

The Winnipeg-based Crash Test Dummies, fueled by Brad Roberts distinctive bass-baritone vocals, and its hit “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” would see its second album, “God Shuffled His Feet,” become a million seller in the U.S. by 1994 and earn the band three Grammy nominations, three more Juno nominations and eventually sell five million records.

Groce, who remembers first listening to the Dummies cassette they sent, said CTD had an originality of songs and vocals that he felt needed to be heard. And that kind of secret sauce blend of great original songs, a unique sound and/or quality vocals that rise above the mainstream are still what Groce is always looking for in artists for “Mountain Stage.”

“I think for me it has to be the songs and originality of the material that is probably the most important thing,” Groce said. “It either has to be something different that we haven’t heard or something so good in a more traditional or mainstream way that the material stands above the others. And then there’s the possibility that the vocal or vocals really stand out. Thank goodness there has been a trend lately toward a lot of harmonies.”

One interesting trend in the past few years is an increasing number of regionally based artists who have been invited to play “Mountain Stage”, such as Qiet, Ona, Tyler Childers, Hello June, John R. Miller, Parachute Brigade and Parkersburg songsmith Todd Burge, who has performed on “Mountain Stage” 12 times since 1991 and who has been one of the rare guest hosts filling in for Groce.

Some of other guest hosts have been Tim O’Brien, Joni Deutsch, Conor Knighton and two-time Tony Award-winning stage rocker and Huntington native Michael Cerveris.

“I was just writing something about how it has been such a good year for music from our region,” said Harris, who began as an intern in February 2005, and moved into his current role as executive producer when Andy Ridenour retired in August 2011. “It says something about the strength of the local music how many guests we have been able to feature. It is not a given that being from West Virginia will help get you on ‘Mountain Stage.’ It has to be good enough for a national audience and fortunately of late we’ve had a lot of great stuff from the region from Ona and Hello June to Todd Burge and Parachute Brigade.”

In total, there have been about 4,000 sets of music on “Mountain Stage” but only 3,000 unique guests, meaning a lot of artists have been invited back as their career progresses and they release new original music to share.

“I think a big focus of the show is that we didn’t set out to make the hippest show on radio and TV, our goal has been to be good and keep a high standard,” Groce said. “We want to book people that we want to have back on - not just the sensation of the day.”

When Amy Ray steps on stage Sunday, she will be the rare guest that has performed on “Mountain Stage” 10 times. There are only a couple dozen to complete the feat, and its some pretty good company: Renowned artists like Bela Fleck, Todd Snider, James McMurtry, John Hammond, Chris Smither, Peter Case, and some top shelf locals such as Burge and guitar phenom Robert Shafer.

“When these artists come back around - it may sound silly, but they are glad we are still around and they still have this platform,” Harris said. “Artists appreciate a familiar place to come and the staff and crew are like family. Even if you may only see each other every other couple of years, there is a camaraderie that feels like a little family reunion where you catch up with everybody, and even if you haven’t talked to them in a year and a half, feel like you are picking up right where you left off.”

To pay homage to the show’s history, “Mountain Stage” has a board downstairs in the green room that has the list of shows and eye-popping, iconic bands and artists that have played “Mountain Stage”.

“It is great to see our young bands looking at the board and seeing things on the show that were before they were born or when they were little children and to see their reaction,” Groce said. “Not everybody knows who has been on the show. To them it may just be a thing that you know helps your career and you don’t know the history, which is why we put the board downstairs. This is what we are doing here and what they are a part of.”

In recent years, the “Mountain Stage” staff has - in addition to also starting a podcast that carries additional content (including the all hands on deck finale song) - been digitizing the immense archives, and sharing the unique content of shows from the vault.

This past week when CBS Sunday Morning aired a segment on songwriter John Prine (who is up for both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame), Harris tossed up a “Mountain Stage” archived 10-song set from 1997 that was first posted to the web in 2013.

“I noticed the CBS Sunday Morning piece so I put it out there and it has been getting lots of shares because this is something that we have that nobody else has - this great 10-song set from 1997,” Harris said.

Harris said archiving and then sharing those heirloom shows has been a slow, steady process.

“We haven’t put any additional staff time to it so right now it is being done whenever time can be afforded to put into it,” Harris said. “But more and more frequently we are pulling out the stuff that is timely in any way; like when an artist passes away, we can go dig something out. That is going to help us in the future to acknowledge our history and give us a chance to recognize artists and to show our great content.”

Although “Mountain Stage” has been a priceless postcard and advertisement for the beauty of the people and music akin to West Virginia for 35 years, Groce said there’s no guarantee it will last.

In fact in early 2017, a bleak state budget forecast drastic cuts to West Virginia Public Broadcasting that could have ended “Mountain Stage,”

After an outpouring of support from listeners around the world, “Mountain Stage’s” funding was kept intact when the budget came out in July 2017. Groce said they came out of the process healthier because of it, starting initiatives such as the “Mountain Stage” membership.

“Like any shock to the system, at first it is scary and it is challenging. You don’t know what is going to happen but if you survive you end up better off and I think that is really true,” Groce said. “Many people were speaking out for us without us asking them to saying you can’t do this and they contacted their legislators and the Governor. We later made a lobbying effort but there were so many people spontaneously speaking out, young people, older people, musicians, non-musicians and people who go to the shows live. The people here (at WV Public Broadcasting) had their hands tied because they are state employees but I am not so I could go out and lobby and say something about it. We ended up, I think, leading the charge and making people realize that we could end next year. God didn’t ordain that ‘Mountain Stage’ would be here for a certain number of years - as soon as the people quit listening and supporting it will stop.”

Harris said they started a Friends of Mountain Stage group and a Mountain Stage membership where folks who pay $10 or more a month get a full week of advance ticket sales for the Charleston shows and other perks.

“We were developing the membership program and we decided to rush it and get it out there and give people a chance to support the show,” Harris said. “That has continued to grow and adapt as we have went along. We are really grateful that people have stepped up to support. All of PBS will be getting less funding whether we like it or not. Individuals, companies, corporations and grants are going to have to step up and they are and that is the good part.”

With a renewed vigor from public support and appreciation, the “Mountain Stage” team is focused on doing what it does - arguably better and longer than any other live performance public radio show - and making West Virginians proud of its radio show heard weekly ’round the world.

“I have felt this way from the beginning that we have a responsibility to represent the state of West Virginia,” Groce said. “We do not take that lightly. Nobody said you have to say you are listening to live performance radio from the Mountain State of West Virginia but they are paying for this. I want West Virginians, even if they don’t like the music, to be proud of the way that we do things.”

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Heading To ‘Mountain Stage’:

WHAT: Host Larry Groce and West Virginia Public Broadcasting will celebrate the program’s 35 years on public radio with episode #935. Headlining the show is the Amy Ray Band, featuring Amy Ray of The Indigo Girls. She is making her 10th appearance on “Mountain Stage.”

Also on the bill is Crash Test Dummies, Parker Millsap, Anais Mitchell, and nationally traveling, Mannington, W.Va.-based artist William Matheny.

WHERE: Culture Center Theater at the State Capitol Grounds Greenbrier and Washington streets, Charleston

WHEN: Doors open at 6:30 p.m., show at 7 p.m.

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $20 advance or $30 day of the show. Tickets are $15 for Mountain Stage Members. Mountain Stage Members make a recurring gift of $10 a month or more and receive online pre-sale access to all of the Culture Center Theater shows.

GET TICKETS: Get tickets online, by calling 877-987-6487, or locally at Taylor Books in downtown Charleston.

ON THE WEB: Go online at www.mountainstage.org where you can access the “Mountain Stage” podcast, archived shows, videos and more.

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