THROUGH THE LENS: The Essence of Roots Music – Mountain Stage’s 36th Season
Larry Groce Cheering on a Mountain Stage Audience - Photo by Amos Perrine
The 36th year of public radio roots music show and live concert series Mountain Stage was bookended by two high-energy, sold-out shows. Greensky Bluegrass and Donna the Buffalo, both jammy bands with Deadhead-like followings, began the year in Charleston, West Virginia, and the man-of-the-moment Tyler Childers (whose most recent album topped the 2019 ND Readers Poll) ended it with a huge bang. The tickets were so hot for the latter show that there were 24,000 would-be online buyers for just over 400 seats. They were gone in 60 seconds. The line for the 50 tickets sold by a local bookstore began at 3 a.m. — seven hours before the tickets went on sale. The only other local show to rival that was the 1991 R.E.M. performance.
Host and Co-founder Larry Groce Honored
As noteworthy as those shows were, the biggest moment of Mountain Stage‘s season happened off-stage. At the end of 2019, host and co-founder Larry Groce weeks was selected by the Charleston Gazette-Mail as West Virginian of the Year.
The paper has selected individuals from the arts before (though more often it’s a sports, political, or business figure), but in its 68-year history it had never named an artist best known for playing and promoting roots music. While Groce has made other significant contributions to the state, all stem from helming the longest running, and most successful, live music show public radio has ever had. After 36 years, it’s better known and more highly regarded than ever.
The honor is a testament to Groce and what he’s instilled in the entire Mountain Stage team, and the community at large. His work has made Mountain Stage not just the showcase for music in the state, but one of the state’s most-desired tourist destinations. The key, I think, is that Groce remained true to his vision, and the world eventually caught up. In other words, the show was devoted to roots music before roots music was cool.
This honor came not long after Groce was selected to be inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2020. By my review he’s only the second non-native to be so named. Coincidentally, the other non-native is Mountain Stage pianist Bob Thompson.
While Groce may be best known for Mountain Stage, he’s also made, or been a significant contributor to, 17 albums. The most recent, 2016’s Live Forever, lovingly mixed originals with songs by his favorite songwriters, such as Townes Van Zandt and Ray Wylie Hubbard. It had been 25 years since his last record, and in my ND review I noted that as the record was so moving he should not have stayed away so long. Moreover, his song “When the Mist Clears Away” captures the “magnificence and obscurity” of his adopted state like few others.
Not bad for a Texas boy who originally came to West Virginia in 1972 on a nine-month NEA grant. It’s as though the state adopted him.
Women Artists on the Rise
Just as it’s been ahead of the curve on promoting roots music, Mountain Stage has also been leading the way on providing a forum for women artists to present their talents to a wider audience.
The show has always had a significant number of female artists, from the prominent (e.g., Emmylou Harris, Ani DiFranco, and Regina Spektor) to up-and-comers at the time (e.g., Norah Jones, Margo Price, and Lucinda Williams). There have even been a few shows that featured only women artists. But the Aug. 11, 2019 show was the first all female show that also had a female host, Kathy Mattea. Mattea, who had earlier been named as the show’s permanent guest host, welcomed Beth Nielsen Chapman, Carrie Newcomer, and Lisa Mednick Powell, along with two younger artists who are well-known to ND readers, Erin Rae and Lillie Mae. As with every show, they played to a packed house.
I also did a quick review of women artists who were on the show this past year. My count revealed that women artists, either solo or those who were an integral part of a duo or group, comprised slightly more than half of the guests. Here’s just a few more: Anna Tivel, Adia Victoria, Courtney Marie Andrews, Catherine Russell, Molly Tuttle, Maya de Vitry, Shawn Colvin, Lucy Kaplansky, Rebecca Loebe, Kelly Willis, Teresa Williams, Patty Griffin, Eilen Jewell, Abigail Washburn, Kelsey Waldon, Rayna Gellert, Allison Moorer, Chely Wright, Michaela Anne, Mary Gauthier, Allison Russell, and Cary Ann Hearst.
With some 130 guests, solo artists, and bands having been on Mountain Stage in 2019, the photos below are just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve also included Christopher Morris’ photos of the post-Stage Jam at a local bar, The Empty Glass. A more complete collection (well over 200 photos) can be found here.