Mountain Stage: A Simple Song
The popular West Virginia-based radio show celebrates 30 years of bringing music into homes far and wide.
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Thirty years ago, there were no iPhones, iPods, or iPads. No World Wide Web. The CD was just arriving on the scene. But 30 years ago, through the always reliable airwaves, a little music program called Mountain Stage debuted on public radio. It was a simple concept—spawned from an idea between host Larry Groce, sound engineer Francis Fisher, and former executive producer Andy Ridenour—focused on live performances from four to six genre-bending musicians in a two-hour radio format. This year, Mountain Stage celebrates its birthday with a look back at how far it has come over the past three decades and what its lasting impact has meant to the people and performers behind it.
Mountain Stage and its team’s hospitable disposition is only one understated component of why this acclaimed program appeals to music lovers across the globe. The show, a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, is recorded live before an audience, most frequently at Charleston’s Cultural Center, backlit by the red glow of the ubiquitous ON-AIR and APPLAUSE light boxes. For area music fans, the show provides a chance to see premier musicians like R.E.M., Phish, Dr. John, and Regina Spektor up close and personal. The recording of the live show is then distributed to more than 100 National Public Radio stations across the country, and internationally via the Voice of America satellite service.
Adam Harris, executive producer for the show, says public radio is the perfect home for Mountain Stage because it allows the music to be shared with outlying areas, not just the folks in the venue seats. “We think of Mountain Stage in Charleston, and the lights of the stage,” he says. “But that show gets carried into parts of the world and country that don’t have performing arts centers, in places that don’t have a stoplight, a music store, or even a Walmart. But you can listen to Mountain Stage through the radio. We’re taking world-class talent and delivering it into every nook and cranny throughout the country.”
Mountain Stage’s amiable host Larry—a successful musician himself—has performed on various programs including American Bandstand and The Tonight Show with his Top 10 song “Junk Food Junkie.” He brings West Virginia style with an artist-driven approach to each show that Mountain Stage records. “What we try to do is express what I see as the personality of West Virginia, and that has to do with being direct, being unpretentious, and not pretending to be something we aren’t,” Larry says. “If somebody needs help in West Virginia, somebody helps them. And we try to give that personality to the world from Mountain Stage. Because we are not a West Virginia music show, we are a world music show located in West Virginia.”
Adam explains that Larry’s informal and friendly hosting style helps support a comfortable atmosphere for the musicians who travel far and wide to appear on the show, which keeps them coming back. “What we do is put the artist in their natural atmosphere and watch them thrive, and we tape it so the radio listener gets to come back and sort of witness what happened here in West Virginia, or wherever we are at the moment,” Adam says. “And live audiences respond in a unique manner each time to the stories the artists tell. It’s not something that is recreated. Each and every time we do a show, it’s its own little Mountain Stage.”
In 2012, the crew took the show across the country to record concerts in states like Minnesota, Georgia, Ohio, and even Alaska, where they hosted two sold-out performances. Adam estimates nearly 16,000 people were in attendance for the year, with more than 112 guest artists, including a slew from countries all over the world. In a proud dad type of moment, he describes conversations with fans in Alaska who traveled more than 600 miles just for a chance to be in the audience during a taping of the show they had listened to so often on the radio.