"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 ly...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.