'Mountain Stage' at 30: Where are they now?
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For a radio show with 30 years to its credit, the cast and crew of "Mountain Stage" have been remarkably stable. Many of the key people who began with the program in the early 1980s have stuck with it as it's grown, expanded and evolved from a rough "Prairie Home Companion" knockoff into the indie music institution it has become.
The people who work on the show are fiercely loyal to the program, but some do leave.
While "Mountain Stage" is one of West Virginia's cultural jewels, it's a job -- and for most of the staff, it's only a part-time job. And people leave jobs. They retire and quit, but just because they've moved on doesn't mean they've completely lost touch with the show. Here's what's happened to a few of them.
Associate producer Linda McSparin was the most recent departure, leaving the show at the end of 2011.
The 63-year-old joined "Mountain Stage" during its chaotic early days, back when the very fragile project was trying to figure out its identity. She came along when help was desperately needed to manage the millions of little details that come with putting on something the scale and magnitude of a nationally distributed radio program.
While host Larry Groce was always the heart of the show, executive producer Andy Ridenour and McSparin served as the left and right sides of the show's brain. Ridenour was the music guy, the taskmaster and lobbyist. McSparin kept track of the paperwork, figured out legal and business issues. She made sure the checks got written and people got paid.
After Ridenour left, McSparin said, her retirement was inevitable.
"It was time to go," she said. "It was a time for young people and new ideas. I had 27 years, and I'm not a very creative person, I'm an organizer, and if it had fallen only to me, the show would have gotten stale real fast."
McSparin said she misses the show, but it was always so hard to get away from it.
She said, "We were on such a weird schedule. You'd have this great vacation planned, maybe two weeks off to go to the beach or maybe to Europe and -- wait, Bob Dylan called and he wants to do the show this Sunday.
"It was always iffy, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
In retirement, McSparin had to get used to not having so much responsibility or deadlines to meet.
"My favorite part has just been being able to pick up and go," she said. "I can go anytime I want for as long as I want."
McSparin said she spends a lot of time with her family. She has kids and grandkids in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Her mother still lives in Missouri, where she thought she'd probably wind up, eventually.
"I haven't lived there in 47 years," McSparin said. "And I just feel drawn back to it, I guess."
It's a plan that's in the works.
"The main thing I've been doing lately is going through the house. I'm downsizing, which is realizing what you have and what you don't need that's been sitting around for years. I've found a lot of things that bring back a lot of memories."
One of the "Mountain Stage" founders, Andy Ridenour took a quiet bow from the show more than two years ago. He began turning duties over to producer Adam Harris even before that, then disappeared from Charleston altogether not long after his last day.
The 64-year-old said, "Well, I left West Virginia and went back to D.C., where I'm from. I got married. We're blending two families: my two girls, and she's got two boys. It's like the Brady Bunch, only they're all grown up and they like each other."
Marriage suits him and also provides him with the means to live in the city where he grew up.
"I couldn't afford to live here on my retirement," he said. "Fortunately, my wife has a good-paying gig."
Ridenour said he keeps busy. He plays a lot of golf and volunteers a couple of days a week at WAMU, where he helps edit and program bluegrass and country content for the station.
Things have changed in the 40 years or so since he last called Washington, D.C., home.
"I drive friends crazy when I drive by some place and I tell them that's where the LaSalle/Packard dealership used to be."
Still, he said, it's good to be back home.
From the early 1980s into the late 1990s, Don Wafer served as production and stage manager of the show, duties since handed off to Paul Flaherty. He had a lot of influence on what "Mountain Stage" would be.
Wafer came to the show through West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Wafer, at the time a recent graduate from the State University of New York-Geneseo, was hired on as the cultural affairs producer just as "Mountain Stage" was getting started.
He had a communications degree and a background in college radio.
"One of the things we did in New York was we put coffeehouse music on the air live," the 52-year-old said.
Among some of the performers he worked with were folk artists Robin and Linda Williams, who later became regular guests on "A Prairie Home Companion."
Wafer was brought in to help build up the show from the small production it was to something more marketable for radio.
Wafer said he loved working with "Mountain Stage," particularly when the show was live.
He laughed and said, "I just enjoyed watching people sweat."
Wafer left the show in the late 1990s after his wife was promoted at financial advisers Smith-Barney. "We moved to New Haven, Conn., and I ended up becoming a stay-at-home housedad," he said.
Still, he kept in broadcasting a little, got involved with doing public address announcing during sports for Yale University.
"We moved again in 2009, this time to Atlanta," Wafer said. "I'm still doing pretty much the same thing."
John Kessler's path took him west, though not directly. He started with the show as a guest, as a member of the Putnam County Pickers.
Deni Bonet and Julie Adams of The Fabulous Twister Sisters helped the band get the gig. The pair convinced Larry Groce and Andy Ridenour that they were used to performing with the Pickers.
Bonet and Adams became regulars, and soon after so did Kessler. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he said.
Bonet and Kessler later married.
Kessler, 56, was the show's first music director and became a local music producer for bands like Crazy Jane, Strawfyssh and Mother Nang, but he and Bonet decided they wanted to try to break into the music business in New York. So, in 1994, they packed up their things and drove north.
The marriage didn't survive the trip. The pair soon split. Bonet stayed in New York and Kessler returned to Charleston.
"'Mountain Stage' was good enough to hire me back," he said, then added, "It's all good now. Deni and I are old friends."
Kessler stayed in Charleston for another three years before deciding to go to Seattle.
He didn't seem to have a firm plan, except to keep playing music.
"I didn't know what else to do but be a performer. So, I started playing in a couple of bands," he said. "I knew Terry Evans from 'Mountain Stage,' and went out on the road with him for a couple of months, but after a couple of months, I wasn't doing so well. I was struggling and working as a handyman, a trade I'd picked up along the way."
The turning point for Kessler was a disaster. He broke his right hand.
"They put it in a cast -- I couldn't be a carpenter. I couldn't play music," he said.
While struggling to make a living, he volunteered at a public radio station in Seattle, hosting a world music show once a week.
"The station manager must have known I needed help and told me they were hiring at the smooth-jazz station."
For eight months, Kessler worked from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. monitoring equipment. Then he spotted a newspaper ad asking for a part-time jazz and blues host.
Kessler said, "Hell, I could do that."
The radio station wanted an announcer to step in as the host of a well-regarded jazz and blues show, "All Blues," on one of the top-rated public radio stations in the country, KPLU.
"It's disproportionately popular for the station," he said. "And it was popular to begin with."
Kessler said he didn't start the show, but was proud to have been able to keep it going over the past 13 years.
"I won so many awards, I had to ask the local blues society to stop giving them to me," he said. "It wasn't fair. I was the only professional blues host around."
Kessler also branched out to work on other shows, including "Bird Note," a daily two-minute program about birds and nature, heard now on about 150 stations. Kessler also co-hosts "Record Bin Roulette," a weekly four-minute radio program syndicated on about 30 stations.
"And I've been a musician all along," he said.
He married a Seattle glass artist and found himself happily in the role of stepdad, though now the kids are grown.
"I guess I'm doing pretty good," he said.
Fiddle player Deni Bonet tends to bubble when she's happy and lately, Bonet has a lot to be happy about.
"I'm going to be playing with JD & The Straight Shot and opening for The Eagles," she said. "It's going to be very exciting -- I get to hear The Eagles."
She said she'd also be traveling by private jet -- possibly courtesy of The Eagles, but just as likely courtesy of James Dolan, front man for JD & The Straight Shot.
Aside from playing Southern-fried rock 'n' roll mixed with blues, Dolan's day job is president and CEO of Cablevision Systems and the executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Co.
Bonet's getting the gig is a pretty lucky break since, she said, she came in as a replacement.
"I've had a lot of music to learn quickly," the fiddler added, not that she minded.
Bonet performed with "Mountain Stage" from its pilot show in 1983 until 1994 when she left for New York. In the years since, she has remarried and managed to piece together a respectable career working with everyone from Cyndi Lauper and Sarah McLachlan to Robyn Hitchcock and Pete Seeger.
She's also a solo artist. Her latest record, "It's All Good," was released in the U.S. in February and in Europe in May.
Europe has sort of embraced her, she said. About 60 radio stations over there are playing her song "One in a Million."
She said, "It's like those T-shirts that say, 'I'm big in Japan.' I'm big in Europe!"
A video of the song, released on YouTube, has garnered more than a 100,000 hits.
"It's just a crazy time for me," Bonet said.
Keeping in touch
Everyone keeps in some contact with their friends and former co-workers at "Mountain Stage," but some more than others.
Bonet has kept in touch with her Twister Sister bandmate, Julie Adams.
"I've been bugging her for years to come up to New York," Bonet said. "She and Josh came up a while back and Julie and I did this acoustic thing in the city. It was so much fun."
She also filled in last year for "Mountain Stage" bandleader Ron Sowell when he couldn't go to New York for a couple of shows with the Appalachian Children's Choir.
Bonet said he called her up and said, "Hey, Deni. Want to put together a bluegrass band?"
Bonet and the choir performed at Lincoln Center, at the United Nations building and then last summer, Bonet came to West Virginia and performed with the choir in Huntington.
Kessler has kept on good terms with "Mountain Stage," and hears from some of his old friends. On Aug. 23, he'll be joining some of those friends when the Putnam County Pickers play for Charleston's Live on the Levee series.
Wafer said he listens to the show on the Internet, and when the show came to Athens, Ga., last year, he visited the crew.
McSparin said she hears from Adam Harris and associate producer Jeff Shirley every now and then.
"The first year, I think I heard from them a half a dozen times. I guess we did a good job training them up for the job."
She also talks to piano player Bob Thompson every now and then, but her most frequent contact with her friends at "Mountain Stage" is drummer Ammed Solomon.
"He's my handyman," she chuckled.
Ridenour said he thinks it's a good thing they've all remained friendly. He hears from different people from the show at different times and tries to keep up with things without intruding.
"I probably talk to Adam half a dozen times a month," he said. "I talk to Larry all the time. Those are friendships we built over years."
"'Mountain Stage' at 30" is an occasional series. Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.