Southern musicians come in all shapes, sizes, and sounds. They rock, they croon, they pluck and jam. But rarely do they unite on stage under a single banner. For over thirty years, Mountain Stage has been changing that.
Founded in 1983 by radio producer and music promoter Andy Ridenour, network engineer Francis Fisher, and singer-songwriter Larry Groce, Mountain Stage has become a live-radio standard.
The three men were fish out of water in far-from-music-capital West Virginia when they began Mountain Stage decades ago. Groce landed in Randolph, Barbour, and Tucker Counties as an artist-in-residence in the early ’70’s, while Fisher (a West Virginia native) and his family moved back to West Virginia around the same time in pursuit of a simple life after a stint in NYC. Groce and Fisher met in ’72 and found common ties in the music industry.
Radio man Ridenour and Groce met later, in 1976, following Groce’s sardonic hit “Junk Food Junkie.” Ridenour started working for West Virginia Public Broadcasting the following year, and Fisher followed in 1978. Fisher soon helped create the first state-wide radio system. Meanwhile, Ridenour began broadcasting live jazz for West Virginia Public Radio—a project that would inspire a new live music project.
Ridenour proposed a live variety show to his general manager, who gave him the go-ahead. Ridenour next approached engineer Fisher to see if the project was doable once per month. Fisher said yes, but with two caveats: he wanted to be a part of it, and Groce needed to host.
The trio began working together on what would become Mountain Stage. Though Groce especially had dreams of a national show, they had to start small. Their pilot episode premiered in 1981 in Charleston with a house band and guest performers, all from West Virginia.
Though the show preview found immediate success, Mountain Stage still had one particularly large barrier to overcome: funding. Two years later, in 1983, WVPR could finally fund a once-monthly program.
Over the years, the musical catalogue featured on the show began to expand to include artists of all types and origins. Rockers could open a show, followed by twangy country, and the whole thing might end with a bluesy encore. The only necessity for the show’s featured artists was talent, and it still holds true today.
That’s not to say there isn’t a loose formula for the program. Mountain Stage always opens with “Simple Song,” written and performed by the host himself. The now weekly, two-hour show usually features five musical guests of varying sounds and fame. A single show could include a top-ten artist alongside a new nobody whose big break is pending.
Today the Mountain Stage has grown far, far beyond its humble West Virginia roots. Now distributed by NPR, it’s broadcasted on over 200 stations across the country and the world, plus hosted online for fans without a local station. Some 2,000 hours of Mountain Stage performances exist, totaling over 800 episodes. Over the years there have been a series of TV shows and specials highlighting the program, as well as albums and traveling shows in larger cities and at festivals. Thousands of visitors make the trek to Charleston every year to watch the show live. The Mountain Stage podcast counts over 22,000 subscribers and most episodes receive some 40,000 listens.
Like the Grand Ole Opry or Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage now marks a pivotal point in an artist’s career. Dozens of artists have been catapulted into stardom in part thanks to the show, including Sarah McLachlan, Norah Jones, Barenaked Ladies, and Ben Harper. Other artists remember their performances on the show as markers of a new level of success, including R.E.M. The rockers proved their accessibility to a wider audience when they performed on the West Virginia stage in 1991 following more traditional shows in hubs like NYC and LA. Simultaneously, they introduced Mountain Stage to an entirely new audience. Mountain Stage was never mere background noise, but the appearance of R.E.M. proved it an appealing show for multiple generations and tastes.
The program is available around the world, but their latest endeavor stretches not just distance, but time. They’re raising funds for an archive project in order to make every show available online.
Mountain Stage stands as a testament to what can come from a single creative idea, and a few dreamers to make it possible.
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