'Mountain Stage' at 30
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Five years ago, the producers of "Mountain Stage" sat around a table in the conference room at West Virginia Public Broadcasting and discussed their collective pride at what they'd accomplished: They'd built a national radio show that had lasted 25 years.
Truly a significant accomplishment for a show originating from a rural and poor state and from a radio network with limited resources.
Spirits were high that afternoon. They reminisced about the early, chaotic days of the show and how they stumbled their way forward, not really knowing what they were doing but managing to come out ahead.
And while it was a time to celebrate, they were also contemplating some sort of end -- if not of the show, at least their involvement with it.
Executive producer Andy Ridenour, who co-founded the show, said he didn't expect to make it to the 30th year. Associate producer Linda McSparin, who'd managed the myriad contracts and hidden responsibilities of the show for decades, said she'd probably leave after Ridenour. Both wanted a smooth transition.
The producers thought others would stick around. The guys in the band, all working musicians, would probably stay as long as they could play. Francis Fisher, the show's engineer, would have to be carried out on a slab, they joked.
Only show host Larry Groce seemed a little vague about how far his future with "Mountain Stage" might go.
Today, "Mountain Stage" embarks on its 30th season with a show in Morgantown. On the surface, not much appears to have changed in the past five years. The band is mostly the same, except for the addition of guitarist Ryan Kennedy. Groce is still the host.
But Ridenour and McSparin are gone, replaced by a new generation.
Adam Harris considers himself an incredibly lucky guy. The 30-year-old started at "Mountain Stage" in 2005 as an intern, picking up guests at the airport, working the merchandise table and generally doing a lot of grunt work. Now he runs the show, serving as executive producer, a job he took over from Ridenour in 2011.
For a music fan like Harris, a guy with almost encyclopedic knowledge of modern American music, working for a show like "Mountain Stage" is like winning the lottery.
"I feel unbelievably fortunate that I get to book the kind of music I like," he said.
Groce is still artistic director for the show and he has the final say; but Harris contributes suggestions. Harris is always listening, always looking for what he thinks the "Mountain Stage" audience wants to hear and what he thinks the audience might be willing to try.
"It's like Larry always says, 'Our greatest strength is our diversity.'" Harris laughed and then added, "Of course, conventional wisdom might say that's also our biggest weakness."
Still, the show has certain tastes and preferences. Singer-songwriters, folk singers, roots rockers and alternative-country artists have always been well represented, but "Mountain Stage" frequently dabbles in international acts and, from time to time, pop performers.
"Some acts are offered to us, and others we seek out," he said. "What's important to the overall shape of the show is who do we choose to champion and who do we choose to pass on."
In the past couple of years, the show has embraced the catchall genre called Americana, which can mean anything from progressive bluegrass and modern string-band music like The Avett Brothers and The Carolina Chocolate Drops to ragged, countrified rock bands like The Drive-By Truckers and Lucero.
Harris joked, "I think Americana has become this all-encompassing term for anything that has real instruments."
Plenty of people are hungry for that, especially now when the dominant music styles are dance music and electronic pop. Even country music has become very slick and smooth.
Harris said, "I was watching something, maybe the Grammys, and there was Luke Bryan -- he's supposed to be a country guy, right? Other than his belt buckle, you couldn't tell the difference between him and the pop guys. He had that perfectly sculpted hair ...."
Harris couldn't take him seriously.
"Mountain Stage" has had its brushes with mainstream country performers like Vince Gill, Dierks Bentley and Martina McBride, but Harris said the show is careful about the mainstream acts that are booked.
"If we packed the shows with popular artists, we wouldn't be who we are," he said. "And we wouldn't have the audience we have."
"Mountain Stage," he said, wants to grow, wants to increase its audience, but doesn't want to outgrow the listeners it has, which can be a hard path to walk. Instead of waiting for people to discover the show, the producers have to go looking for listeners and supporters. And that has increased their interest in the Internet.
Perks of a low-paying job
Josh Saul, a local blogger, thought "Mountain Stage" could be doing a lot more online. So two years ago, when the show returned from its concert tour in Scotland, Saul contacted Ridenour.
"I sent Andy a carefully typed out email, basically telling him what I didn't like about what they were doing online," Saul recalled. "It turned out that my timing was good."
Ridenour, who was edging out of the show, hired him to work with the radio show's online presence and take over some of Harris' previous duties, including the "Mountain Stage" blog. However, Saul's job description quickly expanded to include oversight of "Mountain Stage's" digital life, which includes various social media (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr) and some Internet video production.
Reaching out to potential listeners via the Internet, he explained, is vital for "Mountain Stage."
"We don't really have a promotional or marketing budget," Saul said. "For an organization like ours, the point was to get what we're about and what we're doing in front of people who care."
Saul said working for "Mountain Stage" isn't all glamour, and it's the kind of job where you never get rich, but he doesn't mind. The job has its own rewards. He's met all sorts of musicians whose work he admires. In Georgia, he got to tell Patterson Hood how much he appreciated his music.
The alt-country rocker gave him a hug.
And backstage at a show in Bristol, Va., Saul happened upon an open guitar case. It belonged to Marty Stuart, and the guitar inside was something special. It was a custom-modified 1954 Fender that once belonged to country-rock pioneer Clarence White.
The guitar is legendary. White had it hollowed out and a mechanism installed that with a squeeze of a trigger changes the tension on the instrument's B-string, giving it an effect sounding almost like a steel guitar.
Stuart's guitar tech saw him looking at the guitar and let him pick it up, try it on and even play it a little while he explained how the unusual instrument worked. He even gave Saul a pick to play it.
"That's the thing about this job," he said. "It's not the best-paying gig in the world, but you have experiences that just aren't for sale."
Never gets to see the show
Jeff Shirley's path to the business office of "Mountain Stage" was an unusual one. Back before the very mellow 40-year-old joined the crew, he traveled with the jam band The Recipe and managed its merchandise table. He sold T-shirts, CDs and stickers for the band from 2001 to 2007.
Three years ago, Linda McSparin asked Shirley to work a temp job, selling merchandise at a "Mountain Stage" show. She was impressed enough to ask him to work the next show.
"The show after that she made the job permanent," Shirley said. "The show after that I became the merchandise manager. Then she made me the ticket manager."
The following year, when McSparin decided to retire, Shirley was tapped to replace her as associate producer.
"They started to give me more to do," he said. "They trained me all last year." He sighed and rolled his eyes. "I'm still learning."
Shirley handles the nuts and bolts of the business end of the show: the contracts, the lodging, the catering and the tickets. He makes sure the band gets paid, he coordinates travel, he deals with the different venues and with legal issues. He also handles special artist requests, called riders, which are occasionally necessary concessions just to get the artist to perform.
Often the requests are little creature comforts to make musicians feel more at home -- a certain brand of soft drink, food that's different from what they get on the road (after six weeks on the road, nobody wants pizza) or even access to a big-screen television to watch football. Famously, these riders can get weird. Certain rock and pop acts have asked for obscure brands of beer and liquor, sports equipment or other things of a less than savory reputation.
Shirley tries to accommodate guests as best he can within the realm of reason. And sometimes a request that seems outlandish is really rooted in something completely understandable.
"We did have one artist who said she wanted a dog or two at the show for her to pet," Shirley said. "I guess she was missing her own dog. But most of the time, the requests are pretty tame."
Shirley loves his job, though it's probably the least glamorous at "Mountain Stage." While he handles the day-to-day business, he still works the merchandise table and helps shuttle artists back and forth from hotel and airport.
"I never get to see the show," he said, smiling. "But I've still got a lot of favorite moments, you know? Picking up Judy Collins at midnight. Spending time with Todd Snider, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Paul Thorn."
Show's future -- and Groce's
Not many people remember, but back in the mid-1970s, Groce had a top-10 novelty hit called "Junk Food Junkie." He also was part of several very successful children's records released through Disney.
However, more than anything else, Groce's legacy is "Mountain Stage." He's proud and protective of that legacy.
"Radio shows like this don't last 30 years," he said. "Most of the time they decline, but we're having kind of a renaissance. We've picked up a few stations. We've added some listeners."
These strides, he explained, are modest, but even these modest strides are encouraging. He likes where the show is these days.
"It's become one of those things some artists want to check off their list," he said. "We're not the Grand Ole Opry, but there are lots of younger artists who come do the show because it means something to them. It sort of legitimizes who they are, maybe."
He also loves seeing guests return who've played the show for years.
"Robert Earl Keene has been coming back for around 25 years," Groce said. "And we just had Bruce Cockburn on the show, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. There's a sort of tacit acknowledgement between us -- we're still here.
"I love that."
Groce believes the new blood at "Mountain Stage" has helped rejuvenate the show.
"I feel rejuvenated," he said.
But Groce is also 65, and while his health is fine right now, the heart attack he had a couple of years ago altered his outlook somewhat. He loves what he does, but he's got a wife and two young daughters.
"About a year from now, after I turn 66," he said, "I'll start stepping back."
The withdrawal is expected to be gradual. First, he'll give up some of his duties behind the scenes, such as editing the show for broadcast. Groce oversees that process and directs what material in each broadcast stays and what goes.
After that, he'll start to turn over the show's creative direction. He's always taken input about the kinds of guests to put on the show, but those duties will fall to others.
"I used to listen to everything," he said. "But now we get so much stuff. I don't want anything to fall through the cracks."
He also expects his work with FestivALL will be cut back.
"FestivALL has been around for almost 10 years," Groce said. "And it's grown. There are a lot of people involved with that, and I was never the one who had all the ideas."
Finally, he'll back away from his hosting duties, perhaps turn it over to others, but maybe not entirely.
"I want to stay involved with the show as long as I can, as long as the show goes on."
"Mountain Stage" can be heard on West Virginia Public Radio at 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.
"'Mountain Stage' at 30" is the first of an occasional series.
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5195.