A West Virginia love song: Mountain Stage celebrates 40 years of performance radio

By Matthew Young, RealWV

“I’m not originally from West Virginia, but I got here as soon as I could.”

Michael Lipton told me that Sunday afternoon, just a few hours ahead of showtime on the second night of Mountain Stage’s 40th Anniversary program. He said it’s a line he borrowed from the show’s co-founder, Larry Groce. Being that Michael and myself are from New York, and Larry is originally from Texas, the borrowed line struck me as pretty significant. 

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Michael in the last few years. He’s a founding member of the well-traveled musical group The Carpenter Ants, director of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, and a 37-year veteran (maybe 38-years, he can’t quite remember) of the Mountain Stage house band. Michael is also a walking, talking encyclopedia of musical knowledge, and an undeniable treasure of the Mountain State. It’s a good thing for all of us that he got here as soon as he did.

Michael Lipton sound checks before night two of Mountain Stage’s 40th anniversary show, on Dec. 10. Photo by Matthew Young, RealWV.

“Larry has the kind of vision that very few people I’ve ever met have – to be able to look at the big umbrella of things,” Michael told me. “When the show tried to go national, they said you could never do a show like this in West Virginia. By then, we’d seen other shows come and go. But Larry would say this is the only place we could have done it. When you live in West Virginia and try to do anything, you have to be very resourceful, and when one way doesn’t work you figure out how to do it another way. And a lot of it is figuring out how you can do it without a large influx of funds.”

After four decades, the production of a Mountain Stage program has become as finely tuned as an instrument can be. But like any good instrument, the flexibility for interpretive license and artistic creativity still exists, even if that flexibility is born out of necessity. 

“I was not qualified to do this job when I started, I didn’t even know what I was doing,” Michael said, laughing at himself as much as the memory. “It’s been an incredible learning and growing experience. Some of it is getting over the flat out fear. And not that I don’t still get nervous, but after you mess up a couple times and realize that life goes on, it frees you up a little.” 

Although Mountain Stage was originally broadcast live on NPR, it has been recorded for later play on NPR stations since 1995. And while the ability to re-record material and edit out mistakes goes a long way in easing any performance anxiety the band members may experience, the plethora of Grammy winning, CMA winning, AMA winning, and gold record selling artists whom they are tasked with playing is enough to give even the most seasoned musician rumblies in their tummy guts. 

And then there’s the far less experienced artists, and the nearly 500-member live audience.

Kathy Mattea, Larry Groce, the Mountain Stage house band, and Sunday night’s guest performers rehearse the show’s finale song. Photo by Matthew Young, RealWV.

“This is live, and it’s being recorded,” Michael said. “And it’s always playing songs we just learned and only rehearsed with the artist once. What it’s really taught me is that the most important thing is to listen. Our purpose is to make the guests sound better. If they mess up, that’s on them. If we mess up, that’s a different story.”

I had the opportunity to spend Sunday with the Mountain Stage crew backstage in their performance home at Charleston’s Culture Center Theatre. And while that was every bit as awesome as it sounds, it was also, at times, overwhelming. 

My job has afforded me the opportunity to spend time with movie directors, politicians, actors, musicians, and professional athletes, and I’ve gotten to interview some of the coolest people in the world. And while it takes a pretty good little bit to impress me anymore, every once in a while I have a day when I feel like I’m wearing my dad’s suit. Sunday was one of those days. Although this time, it was like I was wearing it to a family reunion.

I shared a meal with Kathy Mattea. The woman is a rock star in every sense of the word, so you can imagine how surprised I was to learn that she eats salad and mashed potatoes pretty much the same way I do. We flipped through photo albums of old pictures while discussing the need for the Country Music Hall of Fame Ceremony to be televised. We chatted pleasantly until she stood from the table, and announced that she had to go and paint her face. She then looked defiantly at Larry Groce, who was seated to my right, and said, “You didn’t have to do that when you were hosting, Larry Groce, and you didn’t have to do it in four-inch heels.”

Without missing a beat, everyone seated at the table looked at Kathy Mattea and said, in unison, “and backwards,” before the room filled with laughter. 

I talked history with West Virginia’s Poet Laureate Marc Harshman and Dublin-based celtic guitarist John Doyle, and I told James McMurtry that Ronceverte still hosts the Skyline Bluegrass festival when he told me that he’d traveled to it years ago after buying his first car. I listened to Tommy Prine talk about losing his father three years ago, and I felt the weight of the suit I was wearing when I thought about losing mine not long after. 

And I ate, because neither Michael nor Senior Producer Jeff Shirley were letting me leave their home until I’d been properly fed. 

I saw smiles, and tears, and hugs, and I heard laughter…so much laughter. It was warm because it was family, just like mine, just like yours. And that’s when I realized that Mountain Stage isn’t a product of West Virginia, it’s a reflection. And the show isn’t a love letter to the state, it’s the love song that West Virginia puts out into the world.

“This is Larry Groce, backstage, listening to Marc Harshman’s beautiful poem in tribute to Mountain Stage. His eyes were closed, and he was just lost… A beautiful moment to see 40 years of your work reflected back to you in a tenderly written and enthusiastically performed piece of poetry…” – Photo and caption by Kathy Mattea.

“We were so naïve that we didn’t realize how lucky we were to even do something like this.”

Larry Groce said that to me about 90 minutes before the show started. Although he hasn’t hosted for two years now, Larry would be on stage Sunday night to introduce Marc Harshman. Unfortunately, he left the remarks he’d prepared at home. But rather than running back to grab his forgotten notes, Larry spent 45 of those 90 minutes letting me talk his ear off. (Who am I kidding? Larry did most of the talking).

“In reality, we didn’t have enough budget, we didn’t have enough equipment, and we didn’t have enough expertise,” Larry told me. “We had a little bit of all of those things, but not really enough to do a national show.”

The “we” Larry referred to were himself, and fellow Mountain Stage creators Andy Ridenour and Francis Fisher. Andy retired in 2011, and Francis sadly passed away in 2021.

“Really and truly, our naivete helped us,” Larry said. “If we’d have waited to get everything in line, we’d have never started. We spent so much time over these 40 years scrambling and worrying about the next show, not about the next year – just about if we were going to be able to do the next show. We really didn’t look up or take a breath for a long time.”

“I look back with tremendous gratitude and satisfaction,” Larry added. “Not only do I think we did a lot of good shows, but we also had a great time and formed a team. This couldn’t be done without this team of people. We are a West Virginia show, and we’re happy about that. We just quietly proceed, and we don’t pay attention to what we can’t do. We think of it like a little light that we’re beaming out.”

For the family of Mountain Stage, their anniversary celebration marks the end of one chapter, and the beginning of the next. In 2021, after some 950 shows, Larry decided it was time to bring a new voice to the microphone, and turned his legacy over to Kathy Mattea.  

“I’m still involved in the show artistically, but more and more I’m turning it over to other people,” Larry noted, adding that he’s unsure if the day will ever come when he finds himself completely disconnected from Mountain Stage. 

“I think Kathy is doing great, we were lucky to get her,” Larry said of his successor. “She’s the opposite of me; she was born and raised here, then she left. But she, herself, I think she’s more famous than the show. She really wants to do this. She’s at the time in her career when this is interesting to her. There’s really no other reason for her to do it – we don’t pay her enough money to make it greatly worth her while.”

Although Larry made light of Kathy’s salary and Mountain Stage’s humble budget, he stressed the concepts of variety and evolution as the show’s greatest resources. Since its earliest days, Mountain Stage has been an Appalachian masterclass in blue collar-bootstrapping. Now 40 years, two hosts, and 1,028 shows later, the instrument behind Mountain Stage is honoring the past by reaching toward the future.

“There’s so many different kinds of artists that we offer, and I think that’s what’s kept the show going because we didn’t stay in one lane – we take a lot of lanes,” Larry said. 

There are so many other amazing people behind Mountain Stage who deserve to be recognized. While I didn’t get a chance to talk to them all or include them here, West Virginia Public Broadcasting recently did a really good short documentary that highlights quite a few of them. Don’t sleep on that one. 

I do, however, have to offer a personal thank you to two additional people. First is Mountain Stage Executive Producer Adam Harris for letting me crash his party on Sunday. And the second is Associate Producer Mallory Richards, who has been a super valuable resource to me over the past several months. 

I can’t put into words how much I needed a day like Sunday, and how good it was for my soul. I can’t say that I fully understand West Virginia, and I doubt I’ll ever lose my New York accent or my New York attitude. But days like Sunday make me believe that even though I was born a New Yorker, if I’m lucky, I’ll die a Mountaineer. 

So to borrow a line from Michael Lipton who borrowed it from Larry Groce, I’m not originally from West Virginia, but I got here as soon as I could.

I think the best way to end this is with a story that Larry told me about one of his favorite memories from Mountain Stage. He told me a bunch of stories on Sunday, but I think you’ll really like this one. 

In closing, let me just say happy birthday, Mountain Stage. Here’s to the next 40 years, and the 40 after that. 

Now here’s your host, Larry Groce… 

“The first time Gordon Lightfoot was on Mountain Stage was a big deal for me, because he’s Gordon Lightfoot. 

“When I was 15, I bought his first record, and he’s written some of the coolest songs that we have. When he came on the show, we were told that ‘Gordon doesn’t go and sell merchandise, he doesn’t sign anything, he doesn’t do finale songs.’ In those days our format was a little different. The lead act did two sets; they opened the show, and then they closed the show. 

“When people come to West Virginia to do the show, we’re the first people they meet. Then they meet other people at the hotel and restaurants. But here, people are treated like you’re supposed to be treated. Often it disarms people, because they’re treated like humans are supposed to treat each other. And you don’t always get that everywhere. 

“After the first set, Gordon said, ‘I think I’m gonna sing on the finale.’ So then, he finishes the set, everythings done, and Andy (Ridenour) comes up the stairs with Lightfoot’s road manager and says, ‘Where’s Gordon?’

“Our impression was Gordon was going to come downstairs, change, and leave for the airport. I didn’t know where he was, so we look out and he’s standing by the stage door, and there’s a long line of people with albums and stuff, and he’s signing every one. And his road manager says, ‘I’ve never seen him do this.’ 

“That’s what West Virginia is, and that’s what we want the show to be – that kind of atmosphere. He just realized that the people here, they didn’t want a piece of him, they just wanted to say thank you. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be – that’s West Virginia. That’s Mountain Stage.”

Facebook
Twitter
Reddit
Email

Related stories

Jefferson County Alumni Speak

In 1866, Page Jackson High School became the first publicly funded school for African American students in Jefferson County. The school was symbolic for African

Give us your feedback