On the way to a Morgantown, W.Va broadcast of Larry Groce’s Mountain Stage, I remember talking with my friend about what it might be like to attend a (rock, country, folk, high-energy) concert where all of the attendees stayed in their seats. We were looking forward to this experience, but wondered if it might feel a little confusing, as we’re the type to stand, dance and jump around when the mood strikes. However, we had no idea how “in for a treat” we truly were.
For those who haven’t heard of the Mountain Stage series, it’s an eclectically curated, two-hour, live music radio broadcast, hosted by a friendly and talented fella’ named Larry Groce. Each of the year’s 26 (give or take) episodes are comprised of around five different bands/artists who are given a block of time to perform to a live audience.
Larry Groce, co-founder and host of the West Virginia based Mountain Stage series, wanted something special and different in the radio and entertainment world. Originally more of a variety show over 30 years ago, the first episode of Mountain Stage was broadcast and included spoken word, live music and comedy. As the show progressed, it predominantly became a live music show featuring three bands and three songs, and grew to further include around four to six bands which perform four to six songs per show. There was, and is, no other direction given to the bands – just the basic time limit to work within, and the invitation to perform.
Groce, a successful musician and artist in his own right, helped create the Mountain Stage series after touring and performing on numerous talk and performance shows throughout the world. Taking notes on what he enjoyed and wanted to tweak, he helped form what he feels is the ideal environment for the performers who cross the Mountain Stage. All invited artists are well fed and cared for. All bands get equal treatment – no one is considered an opening act or a headliner and each band/artist has the same amount of time to perform.
This environment also extends to the crew of Mountain Stage. “No one tells one another how to do their jobs,” Groce notes. There is also a lot of respectful exchange that happens all around us as he and I talk after the show, making it challenging to decipher who has been there the longest, without my being told -not that it bothered me to wonder.
Adam Harris, executive producer of the show, is a prime example of the loyalty fostered by such an environment. Adam first began working with the mountain stage crew as a volunteer, and worked his way up to the executive producer position. Adam “was so good, we had to keep him,” Groce said.
One of Harris’s favorite things about the Mountain Stage performances is the last song of the night. Mountain Stage has become known in part for the closing number, in which all the acts from that particular broadcast play one song together, on the same stage. The night I attended, just days after the news of David Bowie’s passing, the song chosen for this night’s performance was “Heroes” Each artist took a turn at a small solo, while also blending with all 20+ artists on the stage.
And there’s something else that’s kind of different, that’s also offered to the musicians: being a live music recording (with as few edits as possible), there is very little time between acts. Many of the performers end up staying backstage throughout the entire show, watching the other artists and spend a bit of time just hanging out – often a rare opportunity during concerts. Everyone has a chance to get to know one another, and they often form friendships from their short time together. They go from being relative strangers to sharing a stage within hours.
JT Nero, songwriter, vocalist and musician for Birds of Chicago (one of the fine acts, and gifted songwriters of the evening who’s heard his band’s music being described as “everyday gospel” or “secular gospel,” neither of which he minds) mentioned in the days leading up to the show that he was “aware of Blitzen Trapper to some degree and the very cool thing they have carved out for themselves. Outside that, this will be an entirely new group of artists for us – which is very cool,” he said.
And the list of artists, if researched beforehand, may leave you scratching your head as to how they were grouped into a show. I, for one, couldn’t begin to define a theme for what I was about to experience, based on what I was listening to as a cross-sampling online. The night I attended the WVU Creative Arts Center for the Mountain Stage show, the acts that appeared were:
Wild Child (an Indie band from Austin, Texas),
Ruby Amanfu (Soul/pop solo artist from Nashville, Tenn.),
The Suitcase Junket (a One-Man-Band from Amherst, Mass.),
Birds of Chicago (Rock and Roll Poetry, and “Secular Gospel” from Chicago and Montreal) and
Blitzen Trapper (a Rock n Roll/Folk-ish band from Portland, OR)
But then after seeing them perform in one night, live, together and in succession, it all began to make perfect sense. Larry Groce doesn’t like to follow a formula – where you only book the acts who are already getting lots of “air time.” No, instead, he and the Mountain Stage team (which span the age ranges of 20s-60s) work to curate a collection of talented performers that absolutely feel right. It’s nothing short of magical to experience how the music, the performances and the experiences all make sense together. “There’s something different – something magic, sacred, weird, odd and moving about the way Mountain Stage comes together. That’s why Mountain Stage exists,” Groce said. And after just one night of experiencing the Mountain Stage, I trust their judgement, and their magic.
Larry Groce never thought the show would go this long (over 30 years, now). But while there is a fair amount of time spent searching for the right artists for their stage, already-well-known acts such as Martina McBride called Mountain Stage asking to come aboard.
McBride discovered there was a magical flexibility in the performance requirements for their acts, and was excited to share an album of “oldies” she had recorded. The Mountain Stage was the perfect option to share this work, as Larry Groce had insisted that he wanted her to only play the music that she loved, and not what she thought she had to play. “Those are the kinds of things Mountain Stage wants to support,” Groce shared.
The once “almost concern” I had about the atmosphere feeling “odd” quickly melted away after the beginning of the first performance of the evening. I became awe-struck, lost in such powerful performances that I could barely contain myself – yet wanting to pay the utmost respect to what I was witnessing. Each song revealed a new layer of the evening, causing me to find new musical loves and become of fan of several new artists in one night.
JT Nero (Birds of Chicago) loves to perform. To him, “Making music and performing it for a different collection of people every night – it’s a a soul-cleansing and soul-fortifying thing. It’s a feeling that I can’t match anywhere else in this life.” He and his wife Allison Russell (songwriter, co-lead vocalist and musician for Birds of Chicago) also love the value placed on songwriting within the Mountain Stage audience.
Larry Groce also mentioned, that the Mountain Stage is unique because it fosters “two types of literature: escapist and interpretive. Interpretive is where storytelling and songwriting comes in. That’s what we’re moving toward.”
This jewel of West Virginia, which is broadcast to roughly 150 radio stations across the nation (and the world), is proud to have its roots right here in the state of West Virginia. We’re a “(inter)national music show that comes from West Virginia. Our view is from W.Va,” Groce adds.
Based in Charleston, W.Va., Adam Harris said they will travel anywhere there is a Public Radio broadcast. Shows often happen in Athens, Ohio, as well as Morgantown (Mountain Stage’s “second home for more than 10 years”) and Wheeling, W.Va. Out-of-area shows are also common, and have included stops in states such as Texas, Alaska, and soon to be Lexington, Ky. The Mountain Stage will return to the WVU Creative Arts Center in Morgantown on April 17, and include: David Lindley, Judy Collins, Ari Hest and The Brothers Comatose.
Other upcoming Charleston shows include two sold out performances on 2/14 and 2/21, and shows for which tickets are still available on 3/13 and 3/20 (all Sundays), with a special Lexington, Ky. performance set for 4/3.
Be sure to stay updated on the Mountain Stage calendar and purchase tickets for any of the upcoming performances. Tickets range from $20 to $35, with a student rate of $10 for select shows.
All of the artists for Mountain Stage are carefully selected and grouped with an enhancing blend of musicians solo artists, bands, from all parts of the country, spanning all genres. And while the team works together to make the magic happen, Larry does also spend time listening to each and every CD that is mailed to his office. If you’re interested in performing on the Mountain stage, find some info here.
See Larry Groce perform alongside 9 other talented musicians, right here in the Marietta People’s Bank Theatre’s at The Fields of Gettysburg show on Friday, 2/5, at 8 p.m.