From Doc Watson to R.E.M.: Celebrating 33 Years of the Mountain Stage Radio Show
When you enter the stage entrance at the Culture Center on the grounds of the State Capitol Complex in Charleston, West Virginia, where Mountain Stage calls home, you pass half a dozen or so poster boards on easels that list the date of every show and the artists who performed on those shows. I have seen many artists and visitors peruse those names and become mesmerized. From the worlds of Americana, alt-country, country, alternative rock, international, jazz, blues, Cajun, bluegrass, zydeco, and even a bit of classical, and mixing in the masters with those who are emerging, it’s as though the best the music world has to offer has come to play the Mountain Stage. In fact, over 2,000 artists from 50 countries have appeared on the show.
Two days ago, December 4, 2016, Mountain Stage celebrated its 33rd anniversary with show number 885. Let that sink in for a moment.
Here is my salute to and celebration of what Mountain Stage has meant to me and so many other music lovers around the world. This is not the “official” history of the show, but rather my impressions and remembrances over these many years.
As with most beginnings, the Stage’s was a tenuous one. It began when West Virginia Public Radio producer Andy Ridenour had the idea for a live music radio show in 1981.
He connected with Texan Larry Groce, who had a hit the decade before and was then living in rural West Virginia. Groce then brought on board former NBC radio network engineer Frances Fisher, to do the recording and mixing. That was the core. But just the core, as no show can exist with just a vision and a core. You also need stage crew, stage manager, marketing, booking, associate producers, interns, and others who do miles of legwork, catering, phone calls, pickups and drop offs and tons of incidentals. If you see a live show between the guests you’ll also see a flurry of movement in equipment changeovers. This is coordinated by drill-like efficiency by the unflappable stage manager, Paul Flaherty. There is virtually no down time between guests.
Speaking of which, while the radio audience hears only Groce’s introductions and ad libs, what makes the show function as well as it does and run as smoothly as 30 year old single malt are the folks you don’t hear. As Ridenour (who retired a few years ago) recently told me, “My reflections on the show, from a distance, now include the fact that how fortunate we were, in the beginning, to have such a talented and dedicated support staff and crew readily available. While, early on, we had some “seat of our pants” learning going on, there were people who grew into their roles and laid the foundation for an industry reputation as one of the best production teams around. I am extremely proud of these folks and it has only gotten better, as you would expect. They are like family. They made my job a lot easier. They also provided the bridge of a smooth transition, when it was time for my retirement, to a new executive producer, Adam Harris. I miss working with them.”
There was a pilot show in 1981, but funding prevented the show from becoming regular until December 1983. It was envisioned as a monthly live show, with the emphasis on live. Sundays at 3 p.m. It was walking on a tightrope, without a net.
It’s first shows featured what was available, which was mostly local talent. The next year, 1984, saw it’s first uptick when Tim O’Brien’s mother called and asked if his band, Hot Rize, could be on the show. Given the family link to Wheeling, the band was quickly booked.
The second significant event came in 1985, when the show had its first out of state show at the Spoleto Festival in the other Charleston, in South Carolina. It was broadcast via satellite by NPR. It was also the first show NPR ever broadcast via its new satellite dish.
The third came in 1986, when the show went to the Public Radio Programmers Conference in San Diego, California. That show also featured a young up-and-coming country artist also from West Virginia, Kathy Mattea. It brought her a larger audience and made local public radio affiliates from across the country aware of the show. They stood up and took notice. The show is now carried by 180 stations.
In 1987 Mountain Stage moved to larger historic theatre in downtown Charleston, the Capitol Plaza, where Charlie Chaplin once performed. The reason this became significant to me is because it was also the home of the West Virginia International Film Festival, which I helped found a couple of years before. I had had the theater to myself, and now I had to work around Mountain Stage’s schedule. However, knowing the theater as well as I did paid off a few years later.
The R.E.M. Show
While there had been important events in the show’s development, there is one that stands by itself, which no one disputes. Coming off its landmark Out of Time album, R.E.M. let it be known they would not be touring to support it. R.E.M. was about the biggest thing in music at the time, certainly the biggest indie band. Fans could not believe it; it was like when the Beatles stopped touring. Then, in early 1991, Andy Ridenour got a cold call from R.E.M.’s people and asked if they could be on the show. He walked over to Groce and drolly asked what he thought.
But R.E.M. had not just called out of the blue. Peter Buck had appeared on show the year before when he backed a friend. As Buck explained later, it was such a great show full of great people who were doing something of note that he wanted to support it. He then talked to the rest of the band, and in April 1991 R.E.M. performed on the show. While that show was broadcast across the country the following week, we in the audience got more as R.E.M. played much longer than the allotted two hours. It also became a bootleg that rivaled boots by the king himself, Dylan. R.E.M. has just released a box set commemorating the 25th anniversary of the both the album and show and included is their entire performance on that sunny April afternoon.
I know because I was there, and the governor had proclaimed it “R.E.M. Day” in the state. What is often missed are the other notable performers on the show, Clive Gregson & Christine Collister, Billy Bragg, and Robyn Hitchcock. Before the show, Hitchcock entertained those waiting in line by strolling around outside taking requests. And here is where my theater knowledge came in: I was able to snag prime seats. It was quite a high, and we nearly busted a gut when Groce tore into”Positively 4th Street” as if it were the Royal Albert Hall 1966. But no one yelled “Judas” in this crowded theater. We were entranced.
That show had another impact, as former producer Linda McSparin noted: “We no longer had to call people to be on the show, they called us.”
In it’s 33 years, the Mountain Stage has not stayed at home; it has travelled quite a lot. There have also been shows in Scotland, Canada, Alaska, Minnesota, New York, Georgia, North Carolina, Idaho, Philadelphia, Boston, and every state that borders West Virginia as well as many different towns within the state. In fact, during the two-year period of 2006 and 2007 almost half of the shows were presented out of town. My favorite out-of-town show was in Nashville, the 2000 tribute to John Hartford, where Gillian Welch sang “In Tall Buildings.” I cannot describe the feeling I had when that happened. It’s my favorite song of his, and I had gone to ply my trade in one tall building, so it hit home.
The show evolved over the years. First, at the very beginning there was some tension between those funding the program, who wanted to focus on regional talent, and the show’s originators, who wanted it to be national in scope. Fortunately, Groce and Ridenour’s vision took the day, and the show expanded from a monthly show to one that usually airs 26 new shows a year. Plus, there is no rigid timetable, enabling shows to be scheduled when the artists are available.
Second, it had to overcome the perceptions some folks had with its name, Mountain Stage. The name gave the appearance as concentrating on “mountain” or traditional music.
Third, it was unfairly compared to another, better known show, A Prairie Home Companion, because early in the show’s tenure there were comedic skits and faux sponsors. Unfair, as APHC was a written skit show with a couple of musical guests, and Stage was a live music show with a couple of skits. But those comparisons were soon dropped as it became obvious that what the show was best at was presenting live music in a real theater with a live audience.
Fourth was the format itself. Initially, some performers played two shorter sets, one in each hour, with the headliner both opening and closing the show. That was changed to each performer doing a single, 20-30-minute set, three in the first hour and two in the second. Plus, in the first hour vocalist Julie Adams does a song with the Mountain Stage band. In the second hour, Bob Thompson does a piano solo, usually, to my delight, a jazz standard or an original.
Fifth, the show changed from being a two-hour show live broadcast (1983 to 1995) to a show that usually runs 2 hours, 30 minutes that is then edited down to two hours. However, I have been at some shows that lasted to over three hours as there was just too much going on to hold it down. As Assistant Producer Joni Deutsch says when she warms up the crowd, “It’s live radio, you never know what’s going to happen next.”
Lastly, the start time was changed from 3 p.m. Sunday to 7 p.m. Sunday. This gave artists additional time to get from their Saturday night gig to Charleston. And it gives the artists and the crew time to do complete sound checks.
All this is to emphasize that it is live music as you would hear it a club or small hall. Live music is on the radio, but it is either done in the studio with just an interviewer present or, as with WoodSongs and eTown, one or two artists performing combined with an interview portion. Nothing is wrong with either of those formats, it’s just that Mountain Stage is 100% undiluted live music. There is also a sense of adventure as the show does not rely upon the tried and true: it ventures into the unknown and the up and coming. You may have tuned in to hear someone familiar, but I guarantee you you’ll discover someone new that you’ll want to hear more of.
Ricky Skaggs says that “Mountain Stage feels like home.” That is not accidental. When Groce was making the rounds with his hit single in the ’70s, he appeared on a lot of well-known national shows. He remembers how he was treated, and he took that to heart. He learned what to do and what not to do. You can also get someone once, but if you want them to come back you have to treat people right. Just ask Jason Isbell, Todd Snider, The Indigo Girls, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Dawes, Ani DiFranco and many, many more who have returned multiple times.
Isbell considers it “A necessary stop for any artist, established or emerging. You just never know who will be listening to the show, on purpose or by happenstance. If you tune in to hear one artist you know and like, you’ll hear three or four more. Your act just may be one of those and people become aware of you.” Even in the internet age, radio is still very important.
The R.E.M. show was eight years into the show’s history, and 25 more have come and gone. The show has gone through many changes, as must any living, growing thing. No doubt we’ll see some more.
While it would be far easier to name the folks who have not appeared on the Mountain Stage, I will nonetheless identify some significant ones and personal highlights. Early in the show’s tenure, I made a point to see personal heroes: Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Bill Monroe, Laura Nyro, John Prine, Tony Rice, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, the Neville Brothers, Ralph Stanley, Ian Tyson, Pops Staples, Ruth Brown, Loudon Wainwright, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Allen Ginsberg, Rickie Lee Jones, Allen Toussaint, Doc Watson, Richie Havens, Rosanne Cash, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Del McCoury, Gordon Lightfoot, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Arlo Guthrie, and The Band, just to name a very few.
Others who were unknowns at the time: Norah Jones, Sturgill Simpson, Gillian Welch, Lyle Lovett, Rhiannon Giddens, Nanci Griffith, Cowboy Junkies, Alison Krauss, Ryan Adams, the Avett Brothers, the Civil Wars, and Ben Harper.
There have even been some folks that I was not familiar with at the time but who now loom large in my musical sphere: Iris DeMent, Kelley Ryan, and, of course, Nellie McKay, who is the brightest, wittiest, most challenging singer-songwriter of musical and social conventions of her generation.
My most memorable “unknown” was, however, not unknown to me. In April 1989, an artist I had caught by sheer chance three years earlier in an Austin bar made her first Mountain Stage appearance: Lucinda Williams. She did much of the Rough Trade album solo. I was a happy man. All that was missing was holding a Corona cold against my hand.
Other notable shows: Randy Newman and Richard Thompson, who did full hour sets on a single show; Emmylou Harris and Spyboy doing most of Wrecking Ball; Regina Spektor, who had a grand piano pulled up the edge of the stage and did a full hour solo set; Wilco; and Pink Martini, who has done two shows (one a full hour set) and will appear again in 2017.
Mountain Stage has also featured some of New York’s jazz clubs’ brighter talents: Cassandra Wilson, Joe Lovano, Don Byron, Jason Moran, John Pizzarelli, Joshua Redman, and the finest voice of his generation, the unmistakable Andy Bey.
There has also been a subtaintial amount of world music as well: Mariza, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Oumou Sangare, Youssou N’Dour, Angelique Kidjo, Les Yeux Noirs, Baba Maal and one of my favs, Virginia Rodiguez.
Then there are those small moments that could almost go unnoticed to the casual listener. Mine include John Martyn doing “Solid Air;” Linda Thompson closing the show with “Dimming of the Day;” Loudon Wainwright’s “Hank and Fred” (about visiting Hank Williams’ grave the day Fred Rogers died); Lucinda Williams’ “Essence” in 2001 (at the end of a grueling tour during which I had already seen her six times); Julie Miller admonishing the crowd when she did “All My Tears” to check out jazz vocalist extraordinaire Jimmy Scott who had sung on her recorded version of the song; the McGarrigles doing “Mendocino;” Chris Smithers’ cover of “Killing the Blues;” Maria Muldaur channeling Sister Rosetta Tharpe; Robyn Hitchcock’s version of “Visions of Johanna;” Robin Holcomb’s “Deliver Me;” Willis Alan Ramsey(!), John Cale, Charlie Louvin, Warren Zevon, Dr. John, Donovan, and then there’s Morphine in 1993. It was one of the last times I saw Mark Sandman. Also on that bill were John Martyn and Ali Farka Toure. Wow. That’s the kind of mix you are likely to see on any given Sunday evening on Mountain Stage.
But as usual, there are also some memorable moments off stage. Jesse Winchester was on the 500th show and afterwards there was a dinner. Winchester and I shared a table, just the two of us. Two days after Joan Baez appeared on the show in 1997 I stood in the checkout line at the Fairway market on upper Broadway in New York behind her. A chat with Doc Watson where he told me about MerleFest, a festival I have attended every year since. A few years ago I explored a historic theatre, the Keith-Albee in Huntington, West Virginia, with Nellie McKay. We, along with Bob Thompson, then closed down the hotel bar at 2 a.m.
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
This is just an introduction to and some reminiscing about Mountain Stage. More information on the show can be found on its website, including the official history of the show, and in 2003 the book 20 Years of Mountain Stage, which features photos of many of the artists who have been on the show. The show can be heard not only on the radio, but also on the NPR Music site, via podcasts at iTunes, and on the Mountain Stage website. Beginning a couple of years ago, the show has partnered with Vuhaus to stream video of selected shows. Check the show’s website to see which shows will be broadcasted live that way. The show this past Sunday with Iron & Wine and Tift Merritt was streamed. A digital archive project is under way to make every show available. A 70+ page list of all the guests and show dates is also available online.
Last and certainly not least, attention must be paid to the Mountain Stage Band who, in addition to backing Adams on her number and providing the ubiquitous filler music, often serves as the backup band to many of the visiting artists. That, of course, requires a quick study. Those arrangements are pulled together by the band leader, acoustic guitarist and harmonica player Ron Sowell, who has been with the show almost from day one. Day one distinction belongs to drummer Ammed Solomon and vocalist Adams, who was also one of the Twister Sisters with Deni Bonet. Pianist Bob Thompson came on board in 1991, and later Mr. Steady himself, bassist Steve Hill, and electric guitarist Michael Lipton, who can and has played everything, but I love most of all his clanky, hard-edged blues solos. The newest member is guitarist Ryan Kennedy, who adds his finesse of jazz and classical to the mix and can also play some tasty blues as well.
The band also is the core for the finale song. It is chosen days before the guests arrive and invariably they do not know what it is, so the house band has to pick up the slack while at the same time permitting the guests to take their solos. Those songs are rarely heard in their entirety on the radio, but are always highlights for the audience. But almost always the only way to hear the entire finale is to download the podcast. It’s also the only way you can consistently hear the solo numbers of Adams and Thompson.
Now scroll through photos of many of the artists who have performed on the Mountain Stage. Many are by Brian Blauser. His are the photos you most often see on the show’s and NPR Music’s websites. He has websites where many more Stage photos are available: www.musicianpix.com and www.bandbstudios.com/bsms.php.