THROUGH THE LENS: Mountain Stage at 40 – From a Small Acorn a Mighty Oak Grows
40th Anniversary Finale - Mountain Stage 2023 - Photo by Amos Perrine
Like a small planted acorn, Mountain Stage presented its initial show in December 1983, showcasing West Virginia musicians to a small but enthusiastic audience for broadcast on West Virginia Public Radio. But word soon got around more widely that the show was extremely hospitable to a certain kind of music that did not get much airplay. Within a few years, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, John Hartford, Norman Blake, John Fahey, and Peter Rowan, just to name a few, played the show. Today that kind of music is called roots music.
While Mountain Stage‘s first national broadcast was in 1985, it would be another two years before it garnered mainstream national media attention. The New York Times started its writeup of the show like this: “‘Mountain Stage,’ a live musical-variety show from West Virginia public radio, is carving its own niche in the down-home airwaves mainly occupied by the famed ‘’Prairie Home Companion.’” The acorn had become a sapling.
But it is well accepted that Mountain Stage‘s watershed moment came on April 28, 1991, when R.E.M. played the show. That was when it was still aired live every Sunday beginning at 3 p.m. ET for two hours. It has been said the R.E.M. appearance is the most bootlegged show in the history of live radio. For those of us who were in the live audience, the show did not end at the two-hour mark; R.E.M. played an additional hour. But that is no different than today, when Mountain Stage‘s live shows often run an extra 45-60 minutes, then are edited down to two hours.
Over the years, established legends including Joan Baez, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Pops Staples, Randy Newman, Laura Nyro, Warren Zevon, and Richard Thompson have appeared on the show. But it also became a kind of a rite of passage for then-unknown musicians such as Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, Lyle Lovett, and Iris DeMent. Each show became an adventure. A list of shows, and the guests who appeared on them, through 2022 can be found here.
Today, 40 years after its humble start, Mountain Stage is a full standing oak heard on nearly 300 NPR stations, available as a podcast, and streamed around the world. Shows are recorded before a live, usually sold-out audience in Charleston, West Virginia. While the edited performances are aired later, shows in Charleston are streamed via video live in their entirety.
Mountain Stage routinely hosts shows away from home, but to celebrate its 40th anniversary year, there were more roadshows than ever before in 2023. In addition to shows in other West Virginia towns (Morgantown, Clarksburg, and Huntington), there were performances in Rohnert Park, California; Blacksburg, Virginia; Athens and Marietta, Ohio; two shows in Franklin, Tennessee; and return visits to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and AmericanaFest in Nashville. And as if that were not enough celebration, instead of a single anniversary show in December, Mountain Stage spread the joy over two shows on consecutive Sunday evenings.
Finally, just as the show’s personnel has given way to a new generation in recent years — original host Groce to Kathy Mattea, executive producer Andy Ridenour to Adam Harris, and engineer Francis Fisher (who died in 2021) to Patrick Stephens — so have its guest performers. Most notably they have included the sons and daughters of those who have previously performed on the show. Last year Teddy Thompson (son of Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson), Lucy Wainwright Roche (Loudon Wainwright III and Suzy Roche), Jenni Muldaur (Maria Muldaur), and Tommy Prine (John Prine) were on the show.
Many thanks to contributing photographers Chris Morris, Melody Gwilliam, and Brian Miller. Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken in Mountain Stage’s hometown of Charleston, West Virginia. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.