“Mountain Stage”

A show with a global reach comes to Morgantown

January/February 2016


Formed in 2010 featuring young musicians who play the violin and the ukulele and noted by some media outlets for their unique quirkiness, Wild Child features members who had not even entered the world when West Virginia Public Radio’s “Mountain Stage” burst on the scene in 1983.
And that’s just how longtime host Larry Groce believes it should be.
“I make a real effort, as an artistic director, to put on one band a week that was not born when we started the show,” he said.
“Mountain Stage,” which is distributed by National Public Radio and carried by 155 stations in the United States — up from 113 in 2010 — might have celebrated the big 3-0 in 2013, but Groce, aided by staff members in their 20s and 30s, makes sure to keep the show fresh and interesting.
So when “Mountain Stage” kicks off 2016 with a live show at West Virginia University’s Creative Arts Center at 7 p.m. Jan. 17, the lineup not only will include Wild Child, but also the uniquely-named experimental rock band Blitzen Trapper and soulful singer Ruby Amanfu.
The goal to be young and fresh intensifies in a university town, noted associate producer Vasilia Scouras.
“Our demographic is pretty diverse, and in Morgantown it gets younger,” she said.
“Mountain Stage” has been doing three or four annual shows in Morgantown for the past several years. This appearance is the first time that it has been incorporated into the WVU University Arts Series.
“We chose to add the January event to the series so we could open it up to a wider audience,” said Kristie Stewart-Gale, marketing and advertising manager for WVU Arts & Entertainment.
At the Morgantown show, Scouras expects fans from Pittsburgh who cannot even hear “Mountain Stage” on a public radio station there.
“”They listen to our podcast or they can pick up West Virginia Public Broadcasting in certain parts of Pittsburgh,” she said.
And if Steel City listeners can hear a podcast, so too can the ones in Europe and Asia or anywhere in the world.
“We know our footprint is global thanks to iTunes, and the web,” Scouras added.
Three of the five musical acts had been announced as of late November, and two of them — Blitzen Trapper and Amanfu, in her previous incarnation in a duo with Sam Brooker — will be returning to the show.
“I just loved the flow of it,” Amanfu said in a telephone interview in November. “I can’t wait to come back.”
Amanfu will be singing songs from her latest album, “Standing Still,” in which she covers little known works by other artists.
Wild Child will be appearing to support the band’s recently-released third album, “Fools.” Singer and violinist Kelsey Wilson looks forward to the appearance.
“We’re really excited,” she said. “It’s kind of an extra level of pressure that we don’t normally think of in a live show. You’re performing not just for the people in front of you. What you do doesn’t stay there. I’m excited to see what it’s like.”
What “Mountain Stage” is like is a show that allows artists to meet each other and sometimes join in on other sets when the mood strikes them. Jazz pianist Bob Thompson, a member of the “Mountain Stage” house band, usually gets to play a piece by himself; the group also backs other artists when needed as well as Groce, who had a hit in 1976 with the novelty song “Junk Food Junkie,” and house singer Julie Adams when they perform solos. The show ends with a finale song featuring most if not all of the acts.
The Culture Center Theater at the state Capitol Complex in Charleston serves as home base for “Mountain Stage,” but branching out into other West Virginia cities has become more of a priority.
“We feel like we’re a state show,” Groce said. “This is our home.”
The idea for a live music radio program first materialized in 1981 as West Virginia Public Broadcasting began to build towers around the state.
“There was talk and the feeling that they should have a show besides news and entertainment,” Groce said.
Longtime former producer Andy Ridenour and sound engineer Francis Fisher worked at West Virginia Public Radio and thought a host should be brought in. Texas native Groce, who was living in Barbour County at the time, was recruited for a pilot show. Groce did not want to limit the types of acts that would appear.
Fundraising delayed the actual start of “Mountain Stage” to December 1983, considered the show’s official launch, and episodes were done at the pace of one a month for the first few years until that more than doubled to the current 26 a year.
Regional acts appeared at first, and then the scope of the show began to broaden.
“Then in 1986 we started going national,” Groce said.
The show hit a pinnacle in 1991 when popular alternative rock group R.E.M. made one of only three live appearances that year on “Mountain Stage” following the release of the band’s most successful album, “Out of Time.”
The show also can boast a who’s who list of before-they-were-stars performers who have appeared, including Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Sarah McLachlan and the Barenaked Ladies. Others who performed when they already were famous include Elvis Costello (in Nashville), Bruce Hornsby, Joan Baez, Richard Thompson, Odetta, Fontella Bass, Nanci Griffith, Mavis Staples and Martina McBride, just to provide some examples of the wide variety of artists who have graced “Mountain Stage.”
“Chris Stapleton, who was first on our show with the SteelDrivers in 2008, just
brought home Album of the Year, New Artist and Male Vocalist at the CMAs,” said producer Adam Harris, who also noted Stapleton just appeared on the show last June.
For many years, the two-hour show was broadcast live on West Virginia Public Radio. That changed in 1995 and now “Mountain Stage” is taped and broadcast later.
That takes the live component out of the mix and allows for longer live shows and more editing post-performance.
Through the years, the “Mountain Stage” audience has grown, attracting more out-of-state fans who can live stream the show or listen to podcasts if they are not within radio reach of one of the stations that carry it.
Scouras has been keeping tabs on Morgantown attendance, which she said averages about 800 audience members. Fans often attend because they like one or two of the acts on the show and are willing to check out a few more.
The multiple-artist format also means that many audience members will be exposed to an act they otherwise might not ever have heard.
“At the end of the day, we are music discovery,” Scouras said. “Even if you don’t know any ‘Mountain Stage’ acts, we hope people trust us to curate their Sunday night.”
Or, like 23-year-old assistant producer Joni Deutsch — who goes through CDs and recommends acts such as Wild Child to Groce and Harris — put it:
“I know most people will walk into the Morgantown show for Blitzen Trapper, but I bet they’ll walk out of the show with Wild Child on the brain and in the ears.”
For tickets, call (304) 293-SHOW or check out www.events.wvu.edu/ or mountainstage.org