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Larry Groce – Mountain Stage

Written by:  Michael D. McClellan

I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They sing while you slave
And I just get bored
  – Bob Dylan.  Maggie’s Farm.

‘Some people feel the rain.  Others just get wet.’ – Bob Dylan

Larry Groce enters the room a quiet and benevolent force, this one-time soi-disant vagabond with roots now firmly planted in Charleston, his love letter to the State of West Virginia – a decades-old, two-hour live performance radio program called Mountain Stage – evidence of a life spent feeling the rain, each musical note an affirmation of Dylan’s poetic maxim, every guest artist a droplet rippling across the surface of our imaginations, connecting people to each other, to music, and to the city he loves.  Kathy Mattea.  Norah Jones.  R.E.M.  Jorma Kaukonen.  Groce has conjured them all, delivering acts both renowned and obscure, blending them using the intuition of a natural-born alchemist.  Dig this:  On Mountain Stage, any given Sunday might feature a country singer’s take on good whiskey and bad women, followed by a South African instrumentalist’s struggle against apartheid, topped with an alt-rock band’s acoustic set of platinum-selling hits.  All of it different, but rest assured, all of it damn good.    Whether it’s the emotional gospel strains of Baptist hymns or the simple, fiddle-driven dance tunes of the dirt-poor, Groce brings his creative genius to Mountain Stage, and it pours right into your ear like water from a tap.

 

Kathy Mattea performs 'Coal Tattoo' live on Mountain Stage.

Kathy Mattea performs ‘Coal Tattoo’ live on Mountain Stage.

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Groce settles onto the couch across from me.  For someone who seems to be in such plain sight, he remains hidden, present but opaque, an open book written in cipher.  I know the highlights but I don’t know the details.  He’s the singer-songwriter with a Top 10 hit and a Grammy nom to his credit.  He’s performed on American Bandstand.  He’s lived all over – New York, Los Angeles – but he considers himself one of us, a real West-by-God-Virginian.  And he’s given us Mountain Stage, locally produced yet nationally respected, a show held in such high regard by those in the biz that A-list performers ask to play there, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Martina McBride among them.

As Groce begins to tell his story, a curious mental image forms and I’m suddenly lifted from my living room sofa into the stars, beyond the outermost reaches of our solar system and into the very fringe of interstellar space, where Voyager 2 continues its lonely, one-way journey away from Earth.  Aboard Voyager is something called the Golden Record, and cut into it are the images, sounds, and music selected to represent the human race should the vessel ever be discovered by extraterrestrial life.  The Golden Record is our ‘bottle in the cosmic ocean’, as Carl Sagan once put it.  There are greetings in 55 languages, the sound a dog barking, an image of the Grand Tetons, a photo of the United Nations at night, the sound of a kiss between mother and child.  There is also 90 minutes of music.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart made the cut.  Beethoven, too, his Cavatina performed by the Budapest String Quartet, six-and-a-half minutes of music so hauntingly sweet, the finality of it so unyieldingly endless and absolute, that it seems written with the vast blackness of deep space in mind.

The penultimate song is one recorded and played by a twentieth-century street musician, Blind Willie Johnson.  The song is Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground, a largely wordless hymn built around the yearning cries of Johnson’s slide guitar and the moans and melodies of his voice.  The two elements intertwine, moving around one another, musician and instrument each taking turns carrying the song for short stretches, as if sharing an oxygen mask at the bottom of a swimming pool.  Johnson hums fragments of a diffused melody, the sound on the verge of drifting away forever, and then answers with the fluttering sighs of steel or glass moving over the strings.  Sometimes the guitar jimmies a low, ascending melody that sounds like a man trying to climb out of a thick bog.  Then the guitar goes up high, playing an inquisitive, hopeful line, and the voice goes high too, copying the melody.  It’s just him and his guitar with no rhythm track, a dispirited and broken man standing in front of a microphone singing the blues, his soul laid bare, his pain bubbling to the surface in a tortured lament.

I can’t help but think that, if he were alive today, Blind Willie Johnson would be right at home on Mountain Stage.  Groce’s first album was a collection of hymns, and to this day he’s drawn to the power in them, so it’s easy to imagine these two musicians connecting on a spiritual level.  It’s just as easy to imagine Groce hanging with any number of late, great musical geniuses were they alive today, from rappers like Tupac and Biggie, who used language as a form of asymmetrical warfare, to country music giants like George Jones.  In fact, Groce honors Jones on his latest CD, Live Forever, with an inspired cover of Choices.  The song is at once real and ironic, given that Jones spent much of his life drinking himself into a straightjacket, and Groce ended up settling down in the West Virginia, a state with a history of moonshine bootlegging.

Groce, who grew up in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas during the 1960s, not only loves the stories of how artists such as Blind Willie Johnson came to be, but also what sets them apart.  To describe the sheer electricity James Brown generated on stage in his prime is virtually impossible to anyone who wasn’t there to witness it firsthand.  You might as well try to describe jazz.  He was the most physical singer who ever lived.  The best dancer.  The master of funk.  But there also was something feral and unrestrained, a hint of danger.  To watch James Brown sing was to watch Muhammad Ali fight.  They were each the baddest thing on the block.  But beyond that, they each used their fame to work for social change.  Those are the stories within the stories – the stuff that enriches the music, and the stuff that Groce explores with the brilliant guests who perform on Mountain Stage.

“We’ve had thousands of guests on Mountain Stage,” Groce says, “and one of the most impressive was a man named Pops Staples.  Pops was the leader of a family group called The Staple Singers, which included his son and three daughters, one of whom was Mavis Staples, who later had solo success.  Pops recalled a story about traveling with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how The Staples Singers would perform before Dr. King’s speeches.  The night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Dr. King told Pops that he wanted him to sing his favorite song.  Pops asked him which song, and Dr. King answered with Staples’ powerful ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)’.  Knowing those lyrics, you can understand why Dr. King would choose it.  Pops’ story was very moving and heartfelt.  That’s the kind of stuff that Mountain Stage is about.”

 

“We’ve had thousands of guests on Mountain Stage, and one of the most impressive was a man named Pops Staples.  Pops recalled a story about traveling with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how The Staples Singers would perform before Dr. King’s speeches.  The night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Dr. King told Pops that he wanted him to sing his favorite song.  Pops asked him which song, and Dr. King answered with Staples’ powerful ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)’.  Knowing those lyrics, you can understand why Dr. King would choose it.  Pops’ story was very moving and heartfelt.  That’s the kind of stuff that Mountain Stage is about.” – Larry Groce

 

Groce has accumulated a vast wealth of stories like these.

“We had the South African trumpet player Hugh Masekela on Mountain Stage,” he recalls.  “He had some pop instrumental hits in the ‘60s, including Grazing in the Grass.  He later had a song called Bring Him Back Home, which became the anthem for the movement to free Nelson Mandela.  In fact, Hugh had been exiled from his own country for protesting Apartheid in South Africa and hadn’t been home since 1961.  Well, Hugh Masekela was on Mountain Stage the week that Mandela became president, and Mandela had just invited him back to play at the inauguration.  Hugh shared this incredible news with us right there onstage.  That’s powerful stuff.  We’ve been lucky.  We’ve had some landmark people on the show who make you so grateful to be a part of it.  People like the late Ruth Brown, and the late poet Allen Ginsberg, who appeared on Mountain stage twice.  It doesn’t get any better than that.”

The more we talk, the more clearly I understand the significance these stories have played in the sustained success of Mountain Stage.  Listening to Pops Staples sing Down in Mississippi without context is still deeply moving, but when you layer in the stories – the late bluesman was born on a cotton plantation, had an eighth grade education, and played with the likes of the great Robert Johnson – the lyrics about the pain of segregation suddenly rise to a whole other level of anguish and shame.

I remember, I use to walk down that gravel road / Walking with my grandma / Mississippi sun, beaming down / I went to get some water / My grandma said, young ‘un you can’t drink that water / She said, you drink from that fountain over there

“People tend to forget that those things happened not that long ago,” Groce says.  “I remember the segregated water fountains, the white and colored bathrooms – they still existed in Dallas when I was a child.  I once asked my mother why this was, and she had no answer, other than that’s just the way things were.  That explanation didn’t sit well with me.  I was young at the time, but I still knew that segregation was wrong.  I later learned that Bill Russell, who probably deserved much more respect than a whole lot of people who were getting treated differently back then, couldn’t stay in the same hotel with his white Boston Celtics teammates in some cities.  I recently read a Frank Sinatra biography, and learned that the same thing happened to Sammy Davis, Jr., who couldn’t stay in the same Las Vegas hotel where he was performing.  Sinatra demanded that the black members of his band be treated equally.  Musicians were musicians to him.  Music was music.”

Groce grew up with music in his blood.  He came by his passion honestly; his grandfather played the fiddle, and his grandmother played the Hawaiian style slide guitar.  He listened to an oddball mix of records – pop songs by Perry Como, novelty songs, country and western songs, Carl Perkins singing Blue Suede Shoes.  His parents sang around the house and were into Broadway, so he had access to their collection of Broadway cast records, productions like Guys and Dolls, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.  They also liked Vegas music, which meant that Groce was exposed to Sinatra at an early age.  He was also heavily influenced by the beautiful hymns he heard in church.

“It wasn’t just one thing, and I think that’s really made a difference in the way that I see music,” he says.  “To this day I don’t like all of any kind of music, but I like some of all kinds of music.  I think that’s reflected in the diversity on Mountain Stage.

 

“It wasn’t just one thing, and I think that’s really made a difference in the way that I see music.  To this day I don’t like all of any kind of music, but I like some of all kinds of music.  I think that’s reflected in the diversity on Mountain Stage.” – Larry Groce

 

The game changer came when Groce was in seventh grade and his mother gave him a vintage Kay F-hole guitar.  His grandfather showed him a few chords, and from there he began to learn songs like every kid does.  Groce was hooked.

“I learned to play without lessons,” he says, proudly.  “The group I hung around would each learn something, and then we would teach the other guy.  Some of us were more interested in playing music, some were more interested in singing, but all of us were interested in writing songs.  We looked at artists like Bob Dylan, who wrote their own songs, and we wanted to emulate them.  We tried to write songs that were about something other than just ‘I love you’.  There’s nothing wrong with love songs, but we all thought that there were other things to write about.”

A year later, Groce and his friends found their musical universe expanding.

“I started singing when I was in the seventh grade,” he says.  “I learned commercial folk songs from groups like the Kingston Trio, which led me to acts like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan.  I bought Dylan’s first record when I was thirteen.  Two years later the Beatles came to the US. The Rolling Stones and the Kinks were some other big groups from the British Invasion that I liked, so these were big influences.  On the other hand, I would listen to country music by Johnny Cash, and bluegrass music by Flatt and Scruggs, so there wasn’t one particular genre that held my attention for very long.”

Groce is years away from his Top 10 hit, the novelty song Junk Food Junkie, but even back then he was comfortable performing in front of crowds.

“My first paying gig came when I was fourteen.  It was me and two other guys singing pop and folk songs at a sock hop.  The rock ‘n roll band would play, and then we would come up and sing during breaks.  We also got paid for singing at other places around town – old folks homes, and places like that.”

If you want to revel in the misery of concrete yard art and sad trees, go to South Dallas.  South Dallas is  the metro area’s redheaded, economically-challenged stepchild, at least when compared to its North Dallas counterparts, with its ridiculous oil money and drill-bit multimillionaires.  Like most who grew up across the Trinity River, Groce didn’t come from great wealth or old money and didn’t go to private school, but he wasn’t exactly George Jones, either, struggling to survive a journey down a rugged road that would have killed lesser men.  What Groce and Jones had in common were Texas roots and a serious love of music, chronic singers who followed completely different paths into the music business, Jones dropping out of high school at sixteen to perform live on a Jasper radio station, Groce staying put through graduation.

“My high school, Adamson High School, was in Oak Cliff,” he says.  “The people of North Dallas always looked down on the people of Oak Cliff and its hardscrabble ways, but that’s where many of the city’s best musicians have come from.  It’s funny, but Adamson had four students in four years who went on to have hit records.  I don’t think any of us were in any music programs, we just played music on our own.  The oldest was a guy named Michael Martin Murphey who had many hits – Wildfire being the biggest.  I used to go watch him play in a Dallas coffeehouse called the Rubaiyat.  That’s where everybody played when they came through town, people like Jerry Jeff Walker. Because the Rubaiyat didn’t serve alcohol, I was able to get in before I was of legal age.

 

Michael Martin Murphey, who went to the same high school as Larry Groce.

Michael Martin Murphey, who went to the same high school as Larry Groce.  A multiple Grammy nominee, Murphey has six gold albums, including Cowboy Songs, the first album of cowboy music to achieve gold status since Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins in 1959. He has recorded the hit singles “Wildfire”, “Carolina in the Pines”, “What’s Forever For”, “A Long Line of Love”, “What She Wants”, and “Don’t Count the Rainy Days”.

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“Ray Hubbard was the next one of the four – Ray Wylie Hubbard is what he goes by today, and he’s enjoying a big well deserved renaissance.  Ray had a song that Jerry Jeff Walker sang called Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother, which was a funny, tongue-in-cheek answer to Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee.  Ray and I were in a jug band that played a lot of weird novelty songs.  We also covered the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Flatt and Scruggs.  We ended up with a regular gig at the Rubaiyat, opening for whatever national act was performing that night.  I was still in high school at the time, Ray was in college.  We played there for several months, which was a great experience because I learned what it was like to play for money.  You had to show up, you had to be there six nights a week, and you had to do two or three shows a night.  The last show was after the bars closed, and then all types would come pouring in…strippers, drunks, you name it.  For me, it all started at the Rubaiyat.  That’s where I learned to play for crowds and please people.”

Hubbard, an against-the-grain, touring road warrior, has appeared on Mountain Stage twelve times through the years.  The two have remained friends.

“I still see Ray regularly on the show.  As a matter of fact, Ray stuck around after his most recent performance on Mountain Stage, and we recorded a song by another Texan, Billy Joe Shaver, called Live Forever, which ended up being the title of the CD.  It’s a wonderful song.  We joked about it, because it’s the kind of song you shouldn’t record until you realize that you’re not going to live forever.  As a kid, you sing that song and you believe it.  It’s better when you’re my age, when you know your long years are behind you and you only have a short time left.  It was very moving to sing this song with Ray, because we hadn’t performed together in more than 45 years.”

Groce pauses a beat to reflect, and then, the way house cats do in the middle of a nap, rouses suddenly, expanding on the musical talent pouring out of Adamson during that era.

“I was the third of the four from our high school to have a hit song.  A year below me was a guy named Chuck Stevenson, who went by Buckwheat for a short time, before shortening it to B.W. Stevenson.  Sadly, he died in his late 30s, but he had two hits of his own, the biggest one being My Maria.  Whatever the reason, it was very odd that we all went to the same school at almost the same time.”

~  ~  ~

OPENING ACT:  LARRY GROCE AND THE STRONG POWER OF WEAK CONNECTIONS
(Stories of the obscure and the fantastical)

Kay Kyser:  “Can you please define a weasel?”

Contestant:  “A weasel is a little man.”

Kyser:  “Are you sure?”

Contestant:  “That’s what I heard my mother call my father.”

~  ~  ~

Before Groce gained national attention with the release of Junk Food Junkie, he embarked on a cross-continent odyssey that would ultimately lead him to West Virginia.  The year was 1966.  He had just graduated from Adamson High and set off on his own, convinced that music would be a big part of his future.  The turbulent Sixties was in full swing, with Vietnam on everyone’s mind, Los Angeles fresh off the heels of the 1965 Watts riot, the assassination of JFK in Dallas two years prior, and the Civil Rights Movement continuing the fight for racial equality.

“There was a lot going on in our nation and in the world.  I went away to college, and everybody else I hung around stayed in Texas,” Groce says.  “I enrolled in a small college in Illinois. I kept writing, and I became an English major.  Words were very important to me.”

So was music.

“I was a college senior when I recorded my first album, which was a collection of traditional hymns.  I recorded it in Nashville and it came out in 1970, the year I graduated.  I recorded my first original, secular album in Los Angeles in 1970, and released it the same year.  That was the beginning of my recording career, such as it was.

“The hymn album was an interesting experience, because I had never recorded before and I knew nothing about the process.  The Christian Science Church, which put out the album, hired an experienced Nashville producer. I think eight track recorders had just come into common use, and I don’t know if sixteen track recorders even existed…the Beatles, for example, started out using four track recorders.  It was a mostly acoustic album, although we did use a primitive synthesizer to emulate the harpsichord on one song.  Synthesizers back then weren’t like today; they were boxes that you plugged into, and if you wanted a different sound you had to change the plugs.  I had no idea how to make a record and when we were done the first mix sounded rough to me but I didn’t trust my ears so I was very grateful when the church got Kay Kyser to step in. He quickly agreed that it needed to be remixed and he helped in that process. It was a very fortunate thing for me that Kay decided to help out.”

 

kay-kyser-and-merwyn-bogue

Kay Kyser, an American bandleader and radio personality of the 1930s and 1940s, influenced the path that Larry Groce would take.

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Everybody knows the names Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Red Skelton.  Mention Kay Kyser and you’re likely to get blank stares, but there was a time when Kyser’s name was just as big as the others, his star just as bright.  Kyser, it turns out, was one of the most outrageous, over-the-top performers of the whole swing era.  From the late 1930s to the late 1940s, his orchestra produced eleven number one records and thirty-five top ten hits, while also appearing in seven feature films with such stars as Lucille Ball and John Barrymore.  Kyser, like Benny, Hope and Skelton, was also a major radio personality, with one of the highest rated shows in the country.  Then, at the height of his popularity, and with TV transforming comedians like Bob Hope into show business royalty, Kyser disappeared from public view.

Poof.

Like Dave Chappelle decades later, Kyser simply quit and never came back.

“Kay Kyser had a popular radio show called Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, featuring his band, which was in some ways a novelty act like those played on The Dr. Demento Radio Show later on,” Groce recalls.  “Kay was an interesting character.  I believe he was the first radio personality to get a contract that paid $1 million a year, which was an astronomical sum in the 1940s.  Kay was a zany character.  He was also famous for doing a lot of novelty songs, like Three Little Fishes with Ish Kabibble, who was in his band.  That song became a huge hit.  Interestingly enough, Mike Douglas got started as a singer in Kay’s band, years before he had The Mike Douglas Show on TV.  Kay became a religious person later in life and walked away from the entertainment business.  Every now and then he would go on Mike’s show and talk about the old times, but that was it.”

Never known as a shrinking violet, Kyser was head cheerleader and class president at the University of North Carolina before heading north to pursue a career in entertainment.  His audacious personality not only produced big laughs, but was also responsible for his big break in show business.

“Kay told me some great stories, like how he got his national contract with NBC Radio,” Groce says.  “Kay’s band was on WLS in Chicago and was very popular, but at the time he didn’t realize how far the station’s 50,000-watt signal could broadcast.  During one show, he jokingly told his listeners that he’d give a Kollege of Musical Knowledge diploma to anyone who could answer a trivia question, and asked his listeners to mail in their answers.  A couple of weeks later he was shocked to learn that he was getting mail from as far away as Indiana, Arkansas and Missouri.  Well, the station realized it had a marketing opportunity and quickly printed certificates to capitalize on it.  The Kollege of Musical Knowledge became a regular part of the show, with Kay asking a question every week, and it wasn’t before long that he was receiving big loads of mail.  That’s when he told his manager that he wanted to get onto national radio. But they weren’t making any headway so Kay decided and that he needed a stunt to get the attention of national management.

 

Three-time Grammy-winner Keb' Mo' performs live on Mountain Stage.

Three-time Grammy-winner Keb’ Mo’ performs live on Mountain Stage.

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“As luck would have it, the NBC Radio executives were having a board meeting in Chicago.  Kay just pushed his way around the secretary – you have to understand, security back then wasn’t like it is today – and barged in with a big sack of mail.  He walked up to the president of NBC Radio, and, for dramatic effect, poured the letters on his head.  It caused a big commotion, and security was called in.  Kay figured that the police were going to arrest him, but he knew that his stunt was the best way to get board’s attention.  Kay told the president that he’d just dumped one week’s worth of mail on his head, and with that kind of following he should have a national radio show.  The president eventually calmed down and agreed to talk to Kay.  The rest, as they say, is history.”

Kyser had long since receded from public view by the time Groce recorded that first album down in Nashville.  The church knew that it would take a professional’s touch to help save it, and a call was made by someone from there that had a relationship with the retired radio personality.  Fortunately for Groce, Kyser agreed to inject himself into the project.

“Kay looked like someone who might sit around the courthouse in a small town, swapping stories with a bunch of old guys and living in the past,” Groce says, reflecting on that first encounter.  “He wore his pants a little bit too high, and a white shirt with a collar open. He didn’t look hip at all, or like anyone who would be a big fish in the entertainment business, and that fooled a lot of people.  Kay was very sharp.”

 

“Kay looked like someone who might sit around the courthouse in a small town, swapping stories with a bunch of old guys and living in the past,” Groce says, reflecting on that first encounter.  “He wore his pants a little bit too high, and a white shirt with a collar open. He didn’t look hip at all, or like anyone who would be a big fish in the entertainment business, and that fooled a lot of people.  Kay was very sharp.” – Larry Groce

 

Considering that Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge ran for eleven years, and that he presided over it all dressed in an academic gown complete with mortarboard, it’s easy to get lost in the visuals and underestimate the genius inside the man.  Forget that he couldn’t read a note of music, and that his musical training was limited.  Groce’s album needed help, and bringing in Kyser was the perfect remedy.

“We immediately knew that the mix was a mess.  I just said, ‘Here’s what I think, Mr. Kyser – it sounds bad.’  And he said, ‘You’re right, this is no good.  We’re going to remix it.  Let’s go to the studio.’  And we did.

“We connected immediately.  Kay had a great sense of humor and could deliver a line with a straight face.  We went to the office of a graphic designer who the church was talking to about designing the album cover. I had already been there and told Kay that the head man had a sign above his desk that read ‘We don’t give a damn how they do it in L.A.’, probably because Nashville was just emerging as more than just a center of country music, and a lot of people were coming in from Los Angeles, trying to tell people in Nashville how to run their business.  Well, when Kay met the guy he says with a straight face, ‘Let me tell you how we do it in L.A.’  They guy looked at him, and then looked at me and said, “Who is this guy?”  It was a great moment.  That’s the kind of guy Kay was – he looked like an old country gentleman who didn’t know what was going on, but he was very sharp.  He was a great comedian.”

Kyser would later play a pivotal role in Groce’s decision to live in West Virginia, a testament to the strong power of weak connections, but Kyser was hardly alone in this.

“Ron Krisel was a good friend of mine in college, and he and his brother Gary came from a show business family,” Groce says.  “Their mother’s name was Virginia Weidler.”

Like Kay Kyser, Virginia Weidler’s name isn’t immediately recognizable, her story nearly lost through the years.  Weidler was a child actor who appeared in more than 40 movies before the age of twenty-one.  She played Dinah Lord, the little girl in The Philadelphia Story, alongside Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart.  She acted with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Too Hot to Handle, Bette Davis in All This and Heaven Too, and Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway.

And then, just like Kay Kyser, Virginia Weidler vanished in plain sight.

“Her mother told her that, in order to be happy, she needed to walk away from acting when she was no longer a child star, and that’s what she did,” Groce says.  “Virginia got married and lived a happy life.  Other child actors of that time period struggled in one way or another; Shirley Temple was one exception, but look at Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  Sadly, Virginia Weidler passed away at a young age, before I visited Ron’s house in Los Angeles, so I never got to meet her.”

Groce, however, did get to meet the musical side of the Weidler family.

“Virginia Weidler had three saxophone-playing brothers who were also in show business – Warner, Walt, and George Weidler.  Since their last name was a little too German, they ended up changing their stage name to Wilder and became known as the Wilder Brothers.  They were in show business at a young age, working as child extras in the Our Gang comedy series.  They later played in the Dorsey Orchestra and other big bands.  Interestingly, George was married to Doris Day for a few years.

“Ron and Gary had an interesting perspective because their family had been in show business, and it was because of them I was later able to get my foot in the door with Disney.  They introduced me to the Wilder Brothers, who had a little studio on the corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica Boulevard.  A lot of people recorded there at the time because it was cheap.  Weirdly enough, even the Manson family had recorded there once.  They knew people, and they helped me get a contract with a new company called Daybreak Records.  The head of Daybreak Records was a guy named Sonny Burke, who was married to Peggy Lee and who produced the last several Sinatra albums.  I did two records with them, one in 1970 and one in ‘71.  They got distributed and got some good reviews, but they didn’t get much airplay or sales.  It was still worthwhile, because I made some good connections and I learned a lot.”

~  ~  ~

Groce settled in New York City as the ‘70s dawned, building his career one gig at a time.  There was no hint that he’d ever have a hit song.  He was just another dude with a guitar trying to find a job, another  songwriter jotting down lyrics in a notebook.  Turns out everyone can’t be Hank Williams, arriving on the music scene like a bolt of lightning, but then again, Hillbilly Shakespeare died in the back of his Cadillac on New Year’s Eve, the drugs and alcohol finally catching up to him, his body laid to rest in a silver casket at age 29.

Groce’s career arc was far less tragic.  He lived in a one studio apartment with his now ex-wife on 93rd and Broadway, playing regularly at an organic restaurant-slash-coffeehouse called Focus, while she pursued her PhD at New York University.

“Focus was owned by two high school teachers who were interested in photography,” Groce says.  “It attracted and eclectic crowd; I met a guy there named Sid Kaplan, who was a developer and printer for several big time, black-and-white photographers, guys like Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

“Playing at Focus was ultimately how I got the idea for Junk Food Junkie.  In 1970, organic food restaurants weren’t so common.  I would eat their brown rice, and then I would sneak and have a hamburger and French fries, and that’s where the lyrics for Junk Food Junkie came from:  ‘Oh yeah, in the daytime I’m Mr. Natural, Just as healthy as I can be, Oh, but at night I’m a junk food junkie, Good Lord have pity on me…’”

Groce performed regularly at Focus, where he continued to meet talented and interesting people, and wherever else he could find work.  He also continued to write songs – reflections of small-town picaresques, studies of drunken ennui, tales of soured romance, whatever moved him at the moment – and although many of them would never see light of day, the exercise kept his creative side sharp.

“There were four of us who played at Focus once or twice a week,” he says.  “One of them was Melissa Manchester.  I became friends with both Melissa and her husband at the time, Larry Brezner, who later became a very successful film producer, with hit movies like Good Morning, Vietnam to his credit.  Melissa took the famous songwriting course from Paul Simon at NYU.  Coincidentally, so did The Roches, who have been on Mountain Stage.  Terre Roche has written about the influence that Paul Simon had on her and her sisters.  As a matter of fact, Paul asked them to sing backup on one of his records.”

After a year in New York, Groce was story rich but pocket poor.

“I didn’t have an agent or a manager until later, so I would have to get my own jobs.  I played wherever I could find work – coffeehouses, college campuses, parks.  It was also a struggle financially.  At Focus, I didn’t get paid a fee to perform; instead, they would pass around a basket.  Some nights I’d make $75 or $100, which wasn’t bad money back then, but a lot of times it was less than that.  Having a record helped, because if you had a record, that meant that you were one step up from somebody who had nothing, even if you weren’t famous.”

 

“I didn’t have an agent or a manager until later, so I would have to get my own jobs.  I played wherever I could find work – coffeehouses, college campuses, parks.  It was also a struggle financially.  At Focus, I didn’t get paid a fee to perform; instead, they would pass around a basket.  Some nights I’d make $75 or $100, which wasn’t bad money back then, but a lot of times it was less than that.  Having a record helped, because if you had a record, that meant that you were one step up from somebody who had nothing, even if you weren’t famous.” – Larry Groce

 

The lack of income expressed a sober arithmetical fact.  He still wanted to pursue his dream, but the bills needed to be paid.

“I moved to Los Angeles sometime in 1971.  I was on the radio a bit out there, thanks to a syndicated show called FolkScene on KPFK, which was a local, left wing, community radio station.  I would go on the show and perform every three or four months.  A mix of artists would come and play – from complete unknowns to national names like Tom Waits.  It was all acoustic.  I played the Troubadour, as well as any other club where I could land jobs.  By 1972, I realized that I wasn’t a very good fit for the commercial music business.  I became convinced that I wasn’t ever going to be commercially successful, and I felt like I just didn’t fit with the people that I met in L.A.  I didn’t particularly like the lifestyle, because I didn’t drink, or smoke, or take drugs – not that everybody did, but that was part of the scene for a lot of musicians.  I wasn’t judging them, because what they did was none of my business, but I knew that it wasn’t for me.  And that’s about the time that I got a phone call from a guy from North Carolina named Loonis McGlohon.”

Like Kay Kyser and Virginia Weidler, Loonis McGlohon comes with a story.  The writer of hundreds of jazz and popular songs, including the cantata A Child’s Christmas, McGlohon also wrote the theme for Charles Kuralt’s On the Road.  He was a well-known songwriter and arranger who worked with Jimmy Dorsey and Judy Garland at various points, and who also co-authored two Sinatra hits.

 

Norah Jones, just one of many great musicians to perform on Mountain Stage through the years.

Norah Jones, just one of many great musicians to perform on Mountain Stage through the years.

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“I can only guess that Loonis learned about me from Kay Kyser, since I think they both were from North Carolina” Groce says.  “One day he called me out of the blue asked if I would like to go to West Virginia as part of a program for the National Endowment for the Arts.  I thought he wanted me to go there for a week and play as an artist in residence, so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go play anywhere.’  And then he tells me that this isn’t for a week, that it’s for nine months.  The money was good, and we were looking for a chance to go somewhere else anyway, so I talked to my wife about it.  Since we were on the east coast at the time and getting ready to drive cross-country to L.A., we decided to drive down from Connecticut and take a look.  There were a lot of firsts on that trip to Charleston:  It was the first time we’d ever been to West Virginia; it was the first time I’d ever heard the word Kanawha; it was the first time I ever seriously considered doing something so different than what I’d been doing up to that point.”

Certain places, for unknowable reasons, become socio-cultural Petri dishes, but West Virginia has never been one of them.  Groce, who had tried the big city life, felt an instant connection to the Mountain State.  The job itself also had appeal.

“It was both intriguing and challenging, because the State Arts Council was just emerging at the time.  There was no Culture Center yet.  It was very small, maybe three people, and they were the ones who were going to oversee the program, with funding provided by the NEA, the State Arts Council, and some local money.  The job covered Barbour, Tucker, and Randolph counties – I had no idea how big or small an area that was, but I liked the people that I met with, so I immediately had a good feeling about it.  We drove north of Charleston to Philippi, and then to Elkins, so we could explore our potential new home.   I remember sitting and eating in a little restaurant on Main Street in Philippi, and then later crossing a covered bridge and seeing Alderson Broadus College on the hill.”

Smitten, it didn’t take Groce long to make up his mind.

“By the time went got back to Los Angeles I had decided to take the job,” he says.  “I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there, I just knew that I was being hired to serve the community musically.  They gave me a small budget to buy instruments, and some money to bring in people for concerts.  They asked me to visit schools and share my love of music.  The rest was up to me.  I had never done anything like this before, but I loved it.  What I found were two very important things; first, I really liked working with children – playing for them, helping them to write songs, and doing all of those things that you could do musically with children.  Secondly, I found that everybody I met in West Virginia was so friendly, which was unlike where I was before, and I instantly recognized that this is where I fit in – not in Los Angeles, not in New York, but here in West Virginia. Many of the older folks here reminded me of my grandparents”

Feeling really at home for the first time since leaving Oak Cliff, Groce wasted little time establishing roots.

“We decided to live in Philippi, renting a little house from a prominent doctor, and two years later we bought a house on Route 19, just outside of town.  The house was built in 1876 and sat on 19 acres, and the man that built it used oak and poplar cut right there on the property.  The bricks were also made right there.  It was a grand wood frame house, with nine fireplaces – they cut walnut for the mantle pieces, the doors, and the window frames.  The original owner died at 92, after falling off his horse in a fox hunt. I thought, these are the kind of people that I admire.”

While Groce felt connected to the community, there was the small problem of his contract coming to an end.  By then, it was clear that the people of West Virginia loved him back.

“Although the job with the NEA was over in nine months, the people in Randolph County wanted me to stay, and they came up with the money to continue my work.  I traveled all over –  some days I would drive 100 to 120 miles, from Philippi to Hendricks in Tucker County, down to Valley Bend in Randolph County, and then back home.  Those were country miles, two lanes and a lot of curves, and in the winter it could be really difficult.  I visited a couple of one-room elementary schools.  I developed a way to work with kids, and I helped them to write songs.  It was rewarding work.

“That first year, I was one of only three people in the country doing this NEA program…there was an African drummer, a New Orleans jazz player who played clarinet, and me.  Eventually, the program changed; they didn’t pay people to stay in one place for nine months any longer, they paid for shorter stays instead.  I did some of those shorter residencies also because I was on the move and would mix the residency work with regular concerts, even after I had the hit song.  Over a ten year period I ended up doing residencies in 21 states.  I would stay at a school for anywhere from three days to two weeks, work with the kids, and then travel back home or do other gigs. I continued to do it along with clubs and other concert work right up until I started working with Mountain Stage in 1983.”

Groce pauses.  He smiles.

“That’s how I fell in love with West Virginia.  In many ways, I felt like West Virginia was the roots of where I came from.  Even today, there’s a way of life that still seems to carry on here, one that’s gone from a lot of other places.  And that doesn’t mean we are backwards; I think that what people care about here are things that I think are important.  So it fits with me.  I’ve been here since 1972, and I don’t foresee ever leaving West Virginia.”

~  ~  ~

ACT TWO:  FROM JUNK FOOD TO POOH
(Groce blows up)

Oh, folks but lately I have been spotted
With a Big Mac on my breath
Stumbling into a Colonel Sanders
With a face as white as death
I’m afraid someday they’ll find me
Just stretched out on my bed
With a handful of Pringles potato chips
And a Ding Dong by my head
  – Larry Groce.  Junk Food Junkie.

~  ~  ~

Much in the same way that Pulp Fiction resuscitated John Travolta’s acting career, Junk Food Junkie brought Groce’s recording career back from the dead.  Groce had walked away from Los Angeles and turned his back on the music industry.  He was as cold as he could get, but he’d left on good terms and he still had that itch.

“I realized that if I still wanted to be a singer-songwriter I had to make it a priority and get back out into the world,” Groce says, “and some of my LA music friends  encouraged me to get back into circulation.  I went back to L.A. in ‘74 and connected with a guy who would eventually become my manager.  He started finding work, pushing for a record deal, and doing all of the other stuff that people in the business do.  I played in some pretty good coffeehouses and listening clubs around the country during this time.”

One of them, McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, was celebrated for its intimate, acoustic concerts.  A homey hang for L.A. bohemians, it was L.A.’s premier triple threat of musicality: Music store, music school and concert hall.  To enter McCabe’s was to enter a strange world where the ringing of the cash register didn’t seem to matter.  It was a church without the ridiculous theology, a zone where worship of music without commercial baggage was practiced, a retail outlet where humanity prevailed over profit.  It’s still alive and well today, and over the years some big names have walked through the doors.  Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Townes Van Zandt have all performed at McCabe’s.  Bob Dylan briefly took lead-guitar lessons there. Joni Mitchell came to hear slack-key guitarists Ledward Ka’apana and Cyril Pahinui.  George Harrison dropped by to shop.

 

McCabe's Guitar Shop, is a musical instrument store and live music venue on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. Opened in 1958, McCabe's specializes in acoustic and folk instruments, including guitars, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, fiddles, ukuleles, psaltries, bouzoukis, sitars, ouds, and ethnic percussion. Since 1969, McCabe's has also been a noted forum for folk concerts.

McCabe’s Guitar Shop, is a musical instrument store and live music venue on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. Opened in 1958, McCabe’s specializes in acoustic and folk instruments, including guitars, banjos, mandolins, dulcimers, fiddles, ukuleles, psaltries, bouzoukis, sitars, ouds, and ethnic percussion. Since 1969, McCabe’s has also been a noted forum for folk concerts.  McCabe’s is where Groce recorded ‘Junk Food Junkie’.

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“McCabe’s was an institution.  It was a guitar shop in the front, but in the back they had a room that held about 150 people.  There was a small stage, and all kinds of people played music there through the years.  You had an interesting mix of performers – famous artists and up-and-coming acts.  I played at McCabe’s several times.  We later learned that they were recording the performances, but we didn’t know that.  Since they should have gotten permission, we asked for access to the recordings.”

Groce’s smile carries a hint of nostalgia.  McCabe’s holds a special place for him still.

“McCabe’s is where we recorded Junk Food Junkie.  It was a song that had always resonated, because whenever I sang it people thought it was funny and went crazy.  My manager wanted to put it out as a single.  I was all for it, although at the time I didn’t realize that I might get labeled as a novelty singer. There have always been performers who’ve done those types of songs – Little Jimmy Dickens years ago, Weird Al today – but I wasn’t thinking about being labeled that way at the time.  I just knew that people liked the song.”

 

“McCabe’s is where we recorded Junk Food Junkie.  It was a song that had always resonated, because whenever I sang it people thought it was funny and went crazy.  My manager wanted to put it out as a single.  I was all for it, although at the time I didn’t realize that I might get labeled as a novelty singer. There have always been performers who’ve done those types of songs – Little Jimmy Dickens years ago, Weird Al today – but I wasn’t thinking about being labeled that way at the time.  I just knew that people liked the song.” – Larry Groce

 

There was work to be done before Junkie could be considered commercially viable.  The record couldn’t be successfully marketed and sold in the mainstream without a more polished sound.

“My producer sweetened the sound by adding bass and drums in the studio, which was difficult because the song didn’t stay in time – it was just me on the stage at McCabe’s when it was recorded, so I would slow down and speed up wherever I felt like it.  I’m sure the studio musicians were cursing me as they tried to follow along, but drums and bass were needed to make it sound like a commercial record.  We even added some applause and laughter in certain places to beef it up a little bit.”

His song complete, Groce quickly realized that there were other obstacles.  They couldn’t break through without a record deal.

“The next challenge was getting a record company to take it,” Groce says.  “The novelty of the song had some appeal, but everyone turned us down.  That’s when my manager formed a record company, put the song out himself, and hired an independent promotion guy to promote it to radio stations in four states – California, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.  Nowadays, radio stations are programmed by a select few who generate scientifically sampled playlists.  There was a time when you could work with the jocks at the stations and get them to play your records, and I was one of the last people to do that with this song.  The problem was, we didn’t have any distribution.  The song would climb to as high as 18 or 20 in a certain market, and then the station would call my manager’s record company – which didn’t exist, except for the purpose of getting Junk Food Junkie made – begging to get some of the records so they could sell them.  He would get the names of record stores in the area and send out a small batch for them to sell for free.  We didn’t care if we made money on it or not, we just wanted to keep the song going.”

 

'Junk Food Junkie' would would become a Top 10 hit and land Larry Groce on the music map.

‘Junk Food Junkie’ would would become a Top 10 hit and land Larry Groce on the music map.

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The song was gaining regional altitude, but Groce knew it needed additional thrust if it was going to escape the atmosphere and go national.

“There was a station in Colorado that held a song-versus-song contest, with the listeners voting to decide the outcome, and my record stayed on the air for five straight days, beating out some big name acts.  On Friday it was declared the champion for that week, which meant very little, except that the station made a big deal out of it, and it climbed into the Top 10 on the charts at that station.”

That week proved to be the tipping point.  Groce suddenly knew how Kay Kyser felt when he received that avalanche of mail, and he knew that it was his turn to seize the moment.

“That showed us that the song had something going for it.  My manager went back and negotiated with the record companies, and that’s when Warner/Curb, Mike Curb’s label under Warner Brothers, agreed to take it on.  The contract negotiations dragged on and it took almost six months before we could release the song again on a Warner Brothers label.  We thought the delay might have killed it.  Well, it was re-released in 1976 and it started climbing the charts.  It spent 15 weeks on the Billboard Top 100, reached No. 9, and sold a half million copies.  It gave me national exposure.  Dr. Demento chose it as his song of the year in 1976.”

The hit validated Groce’s decision to return his roots.

“Because it was such an oddball song, I got more mileage out of it than if it had been a love song or a rock song.  It was a little weird, it was recorded live, it was funny, and it was about a clash of cultures – healthy and organic versus fast and greasy.  All of those things together made it a fun song.  Deejays liked it.  Radio stations would have contests where listeners would call in, and they would give away everything that was in the song, things like Twinkies, Cheetos, and Dr. Pepper.”

Junk Food Junkie became a national sensation.  The New York Times wrote about it.  People magazine had an article dedicated to it.  Groce appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on a night when Joan Rivers was guest-hosting.  He was on The Merv Griffin Show twice.  He was also on The Midnight Special; the guest host that night was Janis Ian, who later appeared as a guest on Mountain Stage.

“I also performed on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand,” he says.  “Dick Clark had a standing policy that every act appearing on the show had to lip-synch.  I explained to him that I couldn’t lip-synch the song all the way through, because I had recorded it live and some of the parts were tricky.  He told me not to worry about it.  He asked me to point out the tricky parts, and that he’d have the cameras cut away to the kids dancing.  That’s what they did.  They showed the kids’ reactions during those parts. So I lip synched a song that was recorded live.”

~  ~  ~

I’m proud to nominate a bear
Who’s been a friend to me
A bear whose name and story is
known by millions sea to sea
And so right now, without more words
Or any more ado
I give you our next president
The honorable Winnie the Pooh
  – Larry Groce.  Winnie the Pooh for President

~  ~  ~

Walt Disney borrowed against his own life insurance to pay for Disneyland’s original design, and according to friends and family, he never seemed happier.  It was his sandbox.  “You will find yourself in the land of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy,” he crowed in early brochures for the park.  “Nothing of the present exists.”

Disney, it turns out, is very much a part of Groce’s yesterday, and thanks to the magic of music royalties, a pleasant part of his tomorrow.

“Junk Food Junkie was a hit, and then, almost as suddenly, the song Winnie the Pooh for President was nominated for a Grammy,” Groce says, his next story reaffirming the strong power of weak connections.  “Gary Krisel was working for Disney’s record division by this time, and he went to his boss and said, ‘I’ve got a friend who I think could write some fun stuff for us.’  They were doing this marketing campaign with Sears called Winnie the Pooh for President, and they needed a song.  Nothing they had tried to that point had worked, and Gary’s boss was starting to get desperate.  That’s when Gary says, ‘My friend has a hit song on the radio.’  At that time, Junk Food Junkie was number two on KHJ Radio in Los Angeles.  That helped Gary convince the guy that this wasn’t a nobody, and he agreed to give me a chance.  So, I wrote this song, Winnie the Pooh for President, and they liked it.”

 

'Pooh for President' would generate a prestigious Grammy nomination for Larry Groce.

‘Pooh for President’ would generate a prestigious Grammy nomination for Larry Groce.

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So did the Academy’s voting members, who recognized the song with a Grammy nomination.  Whether you’re talking Pooh or Prince, a Grammy nod is heady stuff.

“It wasn’t a hit song or anything, and it wasn’t played on the radio.  It was part of a fun and educational book- record that helped kids understand the election process.  That was 1976, the year Jimmy Carter was elected, so they decided to do a mock campaign, with Winnie the Pooh running for president.  The idea was that Piglet had nominated Winnie the Pooh, so I wrote the song that way, to be sung by two people:  Sterling Holloway, the man famous for doing Winnie the Pooh’s voice, and the guy who did Piglet’s voice.”

Walt Disney originally considered Holloway for the voice of Sleepy in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but passed at the last minute.  Four years later he chose Holloway as the voice of Mr. Stork in Dumbo, which led to several other prominent roles, including the iconic character Winnie the Pooh.  Groce still finds it hard to believe that Holloway sang his song.  Even harder for him to believe is that he ended up on the record with Holloway.

“The song starts out, ‘I’m proud to nominate a bear…’, but what they found out was, the guy who did Piglet’s voice couldn’t sing very well,” Groce says.  “So they turned to me and said, ‘You’ve got to sing Piglet’s part.’  I was able to pull it off.  Sterling Holloway came in later and overdubbed Pooh’s part.  They played it like it was at a convention, with applause and all this other stuff.  It was cute, and I guess the marketing campaign was a really big success for Sears.  The song was nominated for a Best Recording for Children Grammy in 1976.”

Struggling to find gigs just a few years before, Groce now found himself in demand.

“That was the first thing that I did for Disney.  Around this same time, Disney secured the rights to Little Golden Books in a deal with Western Publishing, and they wanted to turn them into book-records.  They asked me to write at least one song on every recording, so I wrote 36 songs.  It was great fun.”

Groce had found a niche at Disney, thanks to the strong power of weak connections.

“By 1978, Gary was climbing higher in the Disney organization, and he said, ‘We’re going to do a record called Disney’s Children’s Favorites, and we’re going to put 25 or 26 songs on it.  I want you to work on this with us.’  Most of the songs were songs that we all knew but weren’t being recorded anymore.  Songs like Red River Valley, Turkey and the Straw, all of the childhood songs that we use to learn but had been forgotten by the recording industry.  He said, ‘I want you to sing them.’  And I did. I went to Nashville, and worked with some really good musicians.  Everyone had a blast working on these old songs.  When does a serious Nashville musician get a chance to play Red River Valley?”

Groce’s relationship with Disney didn’t end there.

“I worked on several other Disney projects, like one called Goin’ Quackers, which was a collection of funny songs, and also Mousercise.  Gary showed me a vintage a cartoon they wanted to use for a national television commercial to sell it. The cartoon had a bunch of bugs in a tree dancing, and one of the bugs looked like Cab Calloway.  They wanted me to watch it and try to write something, and if they liked it they would put it on the record and use it on the commercial.  So I immediately started writing a song that became Bugaboo and they used it.”

 

“I worked on several other Disney projects, like one called Goin’ Quackers, which was a collection of funny songs, and also Mousercise.  Gary showed me a vintage a cartoon they wanted to use for a national television commercial to sell it. The cartoon had a bunch of bugs in a tree dancing, and one of the bugs looked like Cab Calloway.  They wanted me to watch it and try to write something, and if they liked it they would put it on the record and use it on the commercial.  So I immediately started writing a song that became Bugaboo and they used it”

 

Groce continues to enjoy the fruit of all that hard work because many of those albums continue to sell in their original or repackaged forms.

“I didn’t get royalties as a singer on Disney’s Children’s Favorites, just a fee. Even though my name is on the record, Mickey Mouse appears on the cover and he’s somewhat more famous than me. I did get royalties as a writer.  If I had gotten royalties as a singer, I would be living in a different house right now [laughs].  I ended up doing three more Disney’s Children’s Favorites – volumes two, three, and four.

“One time they called me and explained that they were doing a lullaby album with a variety of singers. They asked, ‘Do you have any lullabies?’  To which I said, ‘Of course I do. I’ll send one to you right away.’  That night I wrote a song called Mountain Lullaby and sent it off the next day.  What did I have to lose?  They thought it was great and put it on the record.  Today, the Appalachian Children’s Chorus here in Charleston often sings Mountain Lullaby and it sounds wonderful with the children’s voices.  So I have these things that are still alive today, almost 40 years after I worked on them.”

Eventually, Groce moved on from Disney.  So did Krisel.

“Gary went on to become head of marketing for Disney.  Then he jumped over to DreamWorks, and he worked there for a while.  He became very successful and then retired in his forties I think.  He did very well for himself.  I’m still very grateful that he helped me get my foot in the door at Disney.”

~  ~  ~

ACT THREE:  THE RISE (AND RISE) OF MOUNTAIN STAGE
(If you build it, they will come)

There’s a spring
In the mountain and it flows down to the town
From the river to the ocean it goes the whole world ‘round
That spring of water goes the whole world ‘round
  – Larry Groce.  A Simple Song

~  ~  ~

Despite the national success of Junkie and the multiple projects at Disney, Groce had yet to find his higher calling.  Looking back now, it’s easy to view his career arc as a beautiful triangulation – singer-songwriter, artist-in-residence, host-producer – but as the ‘80s dawned, Groce was trapped in a kind of pre-iconic limbo, having not yet become the face of a revered performance program, and having not quite gotten his fill of performing on the road.

“I went to England and appeared on a BBC show called Get Set for Summer, which was a Saturday morning children’s entertainment show,” he says.  “I was actually on with Tears for Fears, and I sang Disney songs.  I did Prairie Home Companion three times.  I was on Canada Tonight, and several other Canadian TV shows.  I did a special on the Disney Channel when that network first started.  I was on Nashville Now.  I went on Dr. Demento’s radio show couple of times, which, at the time, was recorded in his basement if I remember right.”

Every stop would play a role in helping shape Mountain Stage.

 

Larry Groce

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“In the beginning, Mountain Stage was something of a variety show and had spoken word performance and comedy as well as music.  We were trying to introduce the show to the NPR stations so we took it to a public radio conference in San Diego. We tapped Kathy Mattea, who was just ascending in the world of country music, and asked Dr. Demento come on and do a comedy routine.  We did the same thing with Gordon Jump, the guy that used to play the Maytag repairman and starred in WKRP in Cincinnati.  I knew him through California connections. We did some comedy and poetry and various things back then, but we eventually evolved into music only.”

Groce is happy to cite the influences that he’s borrowed from through the years, giving credit where credit is due.  Mountain Stage is an amalgam of experiences good and bad, of moments big and seemingly insignificant.  Just as Prince borrowed from Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Muddy Waters and Duke Ellington to name a few, creating his own identity in the process, Groce has built Mountain Stage by using the same philosophy.

“One thing that’s really shaped Mountain Stage is all of the shows that I did leading up to it.  Merv Griffin and Dick Clark were both very nice to me.  These were two huge commercial names in the entertainment business, guys who were millionaires many times over.  Merv Griffin owned the Wheel of Fortune TV show, and nobody was bigger than him in terms of pop television, and yet he was extremely nice to me.  The same was true with Dick Clark.  When I went on Dick’s show in Los Angeles, he had a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the guest room, which was straight from the song [laughs].  So we sat and ate, and he just got to know me.  He said that it was great to have me as his guest, that he loved Junk Food Junkie, and that we would have a fun time with it on the show.”

 

“One thing that’s really shaped Mountain Stage is all of the shows that I did leading up to it.  Merv Griffin and Dick Clark were both very nice to me.  These were two huge commercial names in the entertainment business, guys who were millionaires many times over.  Merv Griffin owned the Wheel of Fortune TV show, and nobody was bigger than him in terms of pop television, and yet he was extremely nice to me.  The same was true with Dick Clark.  When I went on Dick’s show in Los Angeles, he had a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the guest room, which was straight from the song [laughs].  So we sat and ate, and he just got to know me.  He said that it was great to have me as his guest, that he loved Junk Food Junkie, and that we would have a fun time with it on the show.” – Larry Groce

 

What emerged from those experiences was a philosophy that has not only sustained the Mountain Stage for more than thirty years, but one that has endeared it to some of the most talented and successful musicians in the world.

“Three guiding principles were important to me when we started Mountain Stage,” Groce says quickly.  “One, I didn’t want to ever tell anybody what to sing on the show.  That’s up to the artist.  I didn’t care what they sang.  Two, I wanted to give every guest a chance to sing at least three songs and have about the same amount of time as the other guests onstage and in sound check.  There have been a few times where we’ve bent the rules, a few exceptions where people might have complicated setups but we only push it so far.  And three, I wanted everybody to be treated as equally as possible. I didn’t want the headliner to be treated like a star, and then turn around and tell everyone else to go sleep in the toilet. I wanted to make it as egalitarian as possible.  As a rule, every guest gets the same great food to eat, the same quality hotel accommodations, and so forth.  It’s been that way since the very beginning.  Everybody gets about the same amount of time to rehearse and to do sound check.  They use the same dressing rooms.  It makes no difference whether you come on first, last, or anywhere in-between.  Everyone is treated well on Mountain Stage.

~  ~  ~

When I left my home
And my family,
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station,
Running scared,
Laying low,
Seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go,
Looking for the places
Only they would know.
  – Simon & Garfunkel.  The Boxer

~  ~  ~

Larry Groce didn’t do it alone.

He is quick to point out that Mountain Stage is a team effort, that there are many hands involved – have been for decades – and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Hell, Mountain Stage wasn’t even his idea.  Groce is the face of the show, the Elton John to a small army of Bernie Taupins, but he understands that nothing gets done without the hard work of some incredibly talented and dedicated people.  You don’t land a group like R.E.M. without having your shit together.  A show like this doesn’t survive – nay, thrive – for more than thirty years by relying solely on the talent of one person.

Mountain Stage started with two guys who I already knew – Francis Fisher and Andy Ridenour – they called me,” he says.  “We all brought something different to the show.  Francis was the live radio guy and engineer, while Andy had the business acumen and knowledge of the public radio system.  They needed somebody to be the face and voice of Mountain Stage and decide on the talent, and they knew I’d had a hit song, had been on national radio, and had some valuable connections.  I was immediately interested.”

Groce pauses.

“I only had one condition; I wanted Mountain Stage to be a national show, not just statewide.  I know that sounded naïve at the time because we didn’t have any experience, we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t have any equipment, but I knew that if we didn’t think of it as a national show, it would never become a national show.”

 

“I only had one condition; I wanted Mountain Stage to be a national show, not just statewide.  I know that sounded naïve at the time because we didn’t have any experience, we didn’t have any money, and we didn’t have any equipment, but I knew that if we didn’t think of it as a national show, it would never become a national show.” – Larry Groce

 

The mindset was admirable, but few at the time thought a quirky radio show based in West Virginia could make it onto the national stage, especially on a Sunday afternoon.  Groce, Fisher and Ridenour pressed on, undeterred.

“We did our pilot in 1981, but we didn’t get any money until two years later.  We did one show a month from December 1983 until the end of 1984, experimenting with the format and learning from our mistakes.  The productions in those early days were very crude.  We had mostly local acts on the show – basically, anyone that we could get.  By 1985 we had a little more money, so we did this live show from the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, with a satellite uplink so that anybody in the United States could listen to it.  I believe this was the first time that NPR satellite uplink had ever been used, and it showed that we could appeal to a national audience.”

Spoleto brought Mountain Stage a legitimacy it needed to take the next step.

“We knew that Prairie Home Companion was already doing a live show in this way, which provided a roadmap, so we reached out to National Public Radio and pitched the idea of distributing our show.  After a while they agreed, but predicted that we’d never get more than twenty-five stations to pick us up. They also said that it would be difficult to do what we wanted to do while based in West Virginia. In other words, we couldn’t do a show like this from here. They may have been correct from their point of view, but their tone sounded condescending to us.  That’s when I began to realize, as all West Virginians already know, how many people from the outside see this place – and that was strong motivation.  We wanted to prove them wrong.”

Fueled by the sleights, the trio went about the business of growing their show.  There were moments of doubt, as there are with any startup, but these slowly receded with each passing month, and with every new show they produced.

“A funny thing became very clear to us; the higher-ups at NPR were absolutely wrong.  West Virginia was the perfect place to do the kind of show we wanted to do.  We had a low overhead that you couldn’t find in a big city.   Think about it; it would cost way too much money to do this in New York, and there would be constant pressure on you to please some critic, or to be hip and trendy.  You would be in a market with intense competition, and you would always be trying to come up with the next big thing.  But we didn’t have to do that in Charleston.  We’ve never had to do that.  What we’ve found is that the acts coming in here like that we’re on a lot of stations but it still feels like a small venue. They know we’re off the beaten path.  For some, it’s their first time receiving national exposure, and because we’re smaller and more intimate, it doesn’t feel as intimidating.  Most acts think of West Virginians as nice people, and this helps to make them feel more comfortable.  They forget about all the other stuff and lose their inhibitions.  Of course they get nervous sometimes, but we try to make them feel comfortable.  We’ll spend time with them in the green room before they go on, and help them to relax, tell them that the people out there will love them.  And you know what?  They do.”

While having quality acts and a nationwide audience is important, putting butts in seats is also key to the show’s survival.  Groce is quick to point out that many West Virginians have supported Mountain Stage from Day One.

“People outside the state seldom give West Virginians enough credit.  The audiences here are nice and polite, but they are also very smart.  They don’t fawn over someone just because they’re a musician from elsewhere.  They don’t cheer and scream just for showing up, but if you’re good, they respond.  That’s what I love about it.  It’s an honest thing.  We don’t have somebody stirring up the audience, which is what happens on a lot of other shows.  Everything that you hear on Mountain Stage is organic.  We do edit the show – we take out things and we fix things if we can, but we don’t redo a lot of stuff.  What you hear is pretty much how it happens.”

 

“People outside the state seldom give West Virginians enough credit.  The audiences here are nice and polite, but they are also very smart.  They don’t fawn over someone just because they’re a musician from elsewhere.  They don’t cheer and scream just for showing up, but if you’re good, they respond.  That’s what I love about it.  It’s an honest thing.  We don’t have somebody stirring up the audience, which is what happens on a lot of other shows.  Everything that you hear on Mountain Stage is organic.  We do edit the show – we take out things and we fix things if we can, but we don’t redo a lot of stuff.  What you hear is pretty much how it happens.” – Larry Groce

 

Before adopting taped broadcasts, Mountain Stage was truly an open microphone to anyone able to pick up the signal.

“For the first 12 years, from 1983 to 1995, Mountain Stage was completely live.  Everything you heard went out statewide just the way it went down.  And then we went to a taped broadcast, which gave us many advantages that we didn’t have before.  For example, we can let everybody play a little longer; so, if you come to the show to see your favorite act, we don’t have to cut it off after 20 minutes because we need to get off the air. And performers aren’t afraid to tune up or tell a story that might be too long.

“Another advantage of going to taped broadcasts had to do with the Sunday, 3 o’clock show time when we were live.  Charleston isn’t the easiest or quickest place to get in and out of, especially on airplanes. It was hard to get acts who performed on Saturday night in here Sunday on time. And they sure didn’t want to be doing sound checks at 9am. So taping allowed us to start later in the day. We’ve started at 7pm ever since we went to tape. Live radio had an edge, but the downside was too much. Francis still wishes that we still did it live, but there are plenty of reasons why we don’t.”

~  ~  ~

So how did you get here under my skin
Swore that I’d never let you back in
Should’ve known better
Than trying to let you go
‘Cause we go go go again
– Norah Jones & Ray Charles.  Here We Go Again (Genius Loves Company)

~  ~  ~

Invention has its own algorithm – genius, obsession, serendipity, and epiphany in some unknowable combination – and no two fingerprints are the same.  Whether you’re talking Apple or Mercedes or Mountain Stage, every great success story has a certain DNA that sets it apart from everyone else.  For Larry Groce, Francis Fisher, and Andy Ridenour, Mountain Stage has leveraged six genius moves to creation a show unlike any other:

Genius Move #1:  The decision to mash genres.

Today it barely feels edgy, but back then it was a radical concept, something that many felt would crash Mountain Stage into the ground immediately after takeoff.

Mountain Stage is the first live show to mix genres the way that we do,” Groce says.  “There were radio stations that did something similar with recorded music, but we were the first live show to mix folk, acoustic, country, bluegrass, alt rock, you name it.  We didn’t know of anyone else doing it when we started.  There are others who do it today, but we were alone back then.  We were pioneers.”

Genius Move #2:  The decision to keep it real.

“Mixing genres in the same show means that we have mixed audiences that come to our shows.  In West Virginia, most people just aren’t that concerned about being hip.  That isn’t their first concern, whereas it’s very important in some other places.  That’s not what Mountain Stage is about.  If you like the music, great, if you don’t, great.  But if you think we’re trying to be the hippest thing in the world, think again.  That’s not us.  We’re not ever going to do that, at least not as long as I’m here.  We’re going to look for quality, we’re going to try to give you something that’s interesting, and we’re going to take chances.  Some acts may not work as well as others, or as well as we’d hoped, or you may not like them, but that’s okay.  You found out you didn’t like them, and now you don’t have to mess with them anymore.  We want to give you a wide sample, expose you to as many different artists and genres as possible, and then move on to the next show.

Genius Move #3:  The decision to cast a wide net.

“Opening the show up to a broader spectrum of music has been a key to our success.  We realized very early on the advantage of welcoming all kinds of music to Mountain Stage, from old-time fiddlers to African music, from jazz to singer-songwriters, to Americana, to Cajun, to blues, to bluegrass.  When you do all of these things, then you can aim for the best people in all of them.  If you specialize in just one – bluegrass, for example – you soon start to run out of quality acts.  That’s just the way it is.  You’ve got performers like Dale McCoury, The Earls of Leicester, Ricky Skaggs and some others at the top, but Mountain Stage does 26 shows annually.  The diversity in the music helps to ensure that we have quality performances.  That doesn’t mean we always get the very best, because life doesn’t work that way.

“Casting a wide net means that we don’t have to worry about putting someone on just to fit a certain format.  Our only criteria is that we put people on who we think are talented, and that we think have a chance to stay around.  We’re hoping that you’ll be listening to their music 10 or 20 years later.  We’re not geniuses, and we can’t pick them all right, but you’ll find some artists that have been on Mountain Stage ten times.  Robert Earl Keen was recently on the show.  His first appearance was back in 1989, so he’s been coming to Mountain Stage for 27 years.  Why?  Because he’s a high-quality guy.  He’s a great performer, he’s still good, and people like him.”

Genius Move #4:  The decisions to deliver an eclectic show.

“Another thing you learn about West Virginia, is the respect West Virginians have for older people,
Groce says.  “Is someone like the late, legendary bluegrass player Ralph Stanley bad because he’s old?  People here respect talent no matter what the age, and that’s the way it ought to be.  I love to put somebody who’s seventy-five on the show with somebody who’s twenty-two.  That’s one of my favorite things, because the performer who’s twenty-two has something to learn, and the performer who’s seventy-five has something to give.  We had a show down in Bristol, and on it we had two performers in their seventies – Odetta and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – and I thought that somebody should be making a documentary of these people talking, because, between them, there’s over a hundred years of things that they’ve done musically, with everyone from Woody Guthrie to Paul Robeson.”

Genius Move #5:  The decision to treat all acts equally.

“What we do is give the artists time, and all we ask in return is their help in honoring that time commitment.  We tell them that we’re looking for about twenty minutes if they’re slotted in the first hour; the second half of the show is a little longer, so we’re looking for about twenty-five minutes, unless it’s an act that we know is drawing a lot of people, and then we ask if they can do a little bit more.  Most acts are happy to play longer, but we also understand that we’re not paying them their regular fee, so if they only want to do the standard twenty-five minutes, that’s fine with us.  That’s all we are asking for contractually.”

Genius Move #6:  The decision to forge a public-private business relationship.

“Most of these acts wouldn’t come to West Virginia, because there’s no format for them to perform here, there’s not a suitable venue for a lot of them to play.  Charleston doesn’t have the clubs or smaller concert halls like you have in bigger cities or big college towns.  There are plenty of places for them to play in places like Charlottesville and Chicago.  If it weren’t for Mountain Stage, we wouldn’t get to see a lot of these acts here.  The state has been very supportive; having a permanent venue like the West Virginia Cultural Center has helped to keep it affordable.”

~  ~  ~

Keeping costs low while bringing in incredible talent can present a challenge.  It’s a tightrope that Groce & Co. walk daily, but everyone knows their role and trusts the process.

“We pay the acts who come to Mountain Stage.  We don’t pay them as much as they get for concerts elsewhere, but we pay them more than union scale.  You have to, otherwise it costs them to come on.  We give them free rooms and we feed them, so that stuff helps.  That’s why we do the show on Sunday.  Hopefully these acts have good paying jobs on Friday and Saturday.

“Andy Ridenour (who has now retired) and Adam Harris, who is the executive producer – were and are the bosses of the budget.  If I want a certain act and they say that we can’t afford it, we don’t go after that act.  It’s their world to figure out if it’s financially doable.  Paul Flaherty is our technical director, and he assesses the technical aspects of the shows.  If an act has twelve people, and he doesn’t think we can do it right, then we won’t put them on.  If I explain that it’s important for the mission of Mountain Stage he’ll probably find a way to do it, but otherwise I’m not going to tell him how to do his job.  I’m not the technical director.  When it comes to deciding who goes on the show, that’s my job.  I have to give credit to the State of West Virginia, and to every sponsor and every underwriter that we’ve ever had, because no one has ever forced an act on us or told us not to put someone on.”

Before you paint a mental picture of Larry Groce as a tyrannical control freak, think again.

“I have final approval of every act that goes on,” he says, “but I can’t know everything.  I get suggestions from many, many people – from within our organization, and from people on the outside.  There are a lot of ways we hear about new music.  If a stagehand has a suggestion about an act, I’ll listen to it.  We listen to stuff that people call or email in.  We hear about it through the normal channels, like agents, managers, publicists, record companies, and the artists themselves.

 

“I have final approval of every act that goes on, but I can’t know everything.  I get suggestions from many, many people – from within our organization, and from people on the outside.  There are a lot of ways we hear about new music.  If a stagehand has a suggestion about an act, I’ll listen to it.  We listen to stuff that people call or email in.  We hear about it through the normal channels, like agents, managers, publicists, record companies, and the artists themselves.” – Larry Groce

 

“Every day we get many requests to be on the show, or suggestions of acts that should be on the show.  Someone says, ‘I heard this great band, it should be on Mountain Stage.’  And you say, ‘Oh, really?  Tell me about it.’  And the response usually starts out with something like, ‘Well, I was at the Empty Glass (a local bar) last night, and it was about 1 o’clock the morning…’”

Groce smiles at the thought.

“What you find out is that they were drinking a little bit, and they were there with their girlfriend, and it sounded great because of the situation.  But I have to listen to that band in the harsh light of day and hear what it sounds like without the benefit of all the other influences.  Most times, it just doesn’t translate.  You’re not going to have that atmospheric experience on the radio.  With Mountain Stage, you’ve got to have somebody who can sing, who can play, and who has good songs.  That’s not always there when you wring out the clouded experience.  They may be beautiful, they may dance great, their costumes may be cool, and they may be very hip looking.  They can be sexy, fun, funny, whatever, but you can’t see most of that stuff on radio.  But most people never think about it in those terms, nor should they, because it’s not their job.  But that’s the way we have to do it.”

Larry Groce understands that there are no guarantees – whether that’s the next act he chooses, or the next season being planned.  He knows that it could all disappear tomorrow, and that Mountain Stage – a show that has hosted thousands of acts – could simply drift away.

And he’s okay with that.

 

Larry Groce performs live on Mountain Stage.

Larry Groce performs live on Mountain Stage.

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“We’ve never had a guarantee that we would be here the next year, and if we’re no longer relevant, then it’s time to move on to something else.  I’m very grateful, because one thing that I understand very well, is that God didn’t declare that Mountain Stage had to be here.  We’re fortunate that we’re able to do this.  I’m thankful every time we do a show, because there’s no guarantee that this is something that will continue to be done.  This isn’t pop music – pop music pays for itself because it has a massive audience.  We don’t aim at that same audience, obviously.  We do have to connect with people, we do have to be popular, and we do have to be successful with the public, but we don’t have to be totally concentrated on the numbers.  We don’t have to worry about being cancelled because we’ve dropped one percent.  Commercial music has that pressure everywhere – on the radio, at concerts, with record sales, and everything else.  Our pressure is different.  We do understand that we could go away.  We are so fortunate to have the sponsors that we do, and to have major national underwriters like the Bailey & Glasser law firm, West Virginia Tourism and the local Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.  And there are other large statewide supporters. They are all very generous, and thank goodness they think that what we do is worthwhile. While the show does generate interest in tourism and helps create a positive image of the state, a law firm is unlikely to pick up additional business by supporting Mountain Stage.  They know that.  But they want to support it because they believe in it, and they think it’s a good thing for the city and the state.”

Ticket prices to a Mountain Stage performance remain incredibly low, given the entertainment value. Groce remains committed to the idea of keeping it this way, so that all West Virginians can enjoy a live performance if they so choose.

“We face constant pressure to raise ticket prices.  It’s a bargain at $20 in advance, especially for what you’re getting.  Most people can’t believe how affordable the tickets are, but we want to keep it so that it’s accessible to most people.  We’re able to do that partly because the Educational Broadcasting Authority of West Virginia owns Mountain Stage and helps support our mission.  The state owns the Mountain Stage trademark.  Every governor has supported it, and the legislatures have supported it.  It’s a public-private partnership; we get some from the state, and that helps us keep the shows reasonably priced.”

~  ~  ~

ACT FOUR:  AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE
(Truth can be stranger than fiction)

Oh life, it’s bigger
It’s bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up
  – R.E.M.  Losing My Religion

~  ~  ~

If you’re looking for the seminal moment in the distinguished history of Mountain Stage, that 1991 R.E.M. performance is easily it, and by a country mile.  It grabbed headlines, heightened the show’s mystique, and transformed it in ways that reverberate today.  Consider:  Like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, R.E.M. playing in Charleston was in locally iconic moment, indelible, and something that fans of the show still talk about all these years later.  R.E.M could have played anywhere.  In front of anyone.  It chose Charleston.  In West-by-God-Virginia.

How does a show like Mountain Stage land a world renowned, gazillion-record selling alt-rock band at the height of its powers?  How is that possible?  Whose soul do you have to sell?

“R.E.M. called us,” Groce says with a laugh.  “When you see big stars on the show, headline acts that are already established, you can be 99% sure that they have contacted us.  A good example of that is Martina McBride, who has been on the show twice.  There’s no reason for us to go after Martina McBride.  She doesn’t need to be on Mountain Stage.  I remember vividly when former executive director Andy Ridenour called me and said that Martina McBride wanted to perform on Mountain Stage.  I couldn’t understand why she sought us out.  She could buy Mountain Stage.  Why does she want to be on Mountain Stage?  Well, she wanted to be on Mountain Stage because she had released a record that she knew would not get played on country radio.  It didn’t fit the modern format – it was a collection old-style country songs.  The material spanned from Lefty Frizzell to Hank Williams to Kris Kristofferson.  She loved that music and she wanted to make a record – and she knew it wouldn’t get played on the radio. So her people called Mountain Stage and said, ‘You know, she would really like to be on your show.’  The same thing was true with R.E.M.”

 

“R.E.M. called us.  When you see big stars on the show, headline acts that are already established, you can be 99% sure that they have contacted us.  A good example of that is Martina McBride, who has been on the show twice.  There’s no reason for us to go after Martina McBride.  She doesn’t need to be on Mountain Stage.”

 

Pump the brakes.

R.E.M., arguably the greatest alt-rock band in history, and one of the most popular bands on the planet at the time, calls and asks to perform on Mountain Stage?

“Peter Buck, was on the show with a guy named Kevin Kinney as a duo back in 1989, when we did the show in the downtown Capitol Theatre.  It was a terrific performance.  Everyone knew he was the Peter Buck who was in R.E.M., and yet he acted like a regular guy, very nice and unpretentious, even though R.E.M., at that time, were about as famous as you could get, arguably on the same level as U2 is now.  When he left, he said that he was going to tell the band that R.E.M. needed to play Mountain Stage.  I said that we’d love to have them come and play, but all I could think was:  Yeah, right.  But then one day Andy called me, just like he did later with Martina.  He said that we’d gotten a call from R.E.M., and he wanted to know if we’d like to have them on the show.  Of course I did – I wanted them on the show anytime day or night, on any day of the week.  We’ll make the show happen however they want it to happen.  So Andy makes the call, and then he calls me back.  He says, ‘No, they don’t want any special treatment.  They want to do it at the regular time.  But they have one request – they want to do it in the old location that Peter Buck played in.’”

 

Watershed moment: R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage, October 24, 2016.

Watershed moment: R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage, October 24, 2016.

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“By then we had already moved to our new home at the Cultural Center, so we rented the Capitol Theatre for that one performance.  It turned out great.  I asked them what they wanted – we offered them the whole last hour, and they said, ‘No, we’ll do just what you always do.’  We did seek their input on the acts that performed with them, and we ended up only having four acts instead of the usual five.  They wanted to have Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock, two English singers, and for us it was a resounding, ‘Hell, yeah!’ because wanted to have them on the show anyway.  The other act was Gregson & Collister – R.E.M. had never heard of them, but they ended up loving their music.”

Charleston was buzzing.

R.E.M. had come to play here, on its locally-produced, state-owned, semi-underground performance show, at a time when the band was powerful enough to speed dial the Pope.

“R.E.M. had just put out a record titled Out of Time, which was a big, big record for them.  The hit song on it was Losing My Religion, and there was all of this excitement about the band.  They didn’t tour and Warner Bros. went crazy, which is understandable, because that’s how you sell records.  I think the band had recently signed a big contract with them, and they knew the band could go on the road and easily sell out large stadiums, but that was R.E.M..  It wasn’t totally about the money.  Instead, they said, ‘We’re going to do three shows.  We’re going to do Saturday Night Live, we’re going to do MTV Unplugged, and we’re going to do Mountain Stage.’  We couldn’t believe our luck.  R.E.M.’s decision to play in Charleston put us on a world stage.  It’s still surreal to think about, because Charleston is so small compared to New York and Los Angeles, and yet we had the biggest audience of any of those three shows.  SNL probably held 250 maybe less in studio, and Unplugged was even smaller, and we had probably 1,000 or so people in our audience.  It was a big deal; there were about 50 reporters from all over the world who came to Charleston, just to cover R.E.M.’s performance on Mountain Stage.   The Today Show even came and did a story about it.  It was crazy.  People lined up around the block just to try to get the good seats, because it was still general admission and there were no reserved seats.  Robyn Hitchcock surprised everyone by going out on the street with his guitar and busking for the people waiting to get inside.”

Surreal is right:  The band with the hit Radio Free Europe was available, free for the listening, on West Virginia airwaves.

 

R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage.

R.E.M. performs live on Mountain Stage.

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“Back then the show was live on the radio.  There was no chance to screen or filter anything – whatever was said or done went out to the immediate listening area.  We would always wait a week before we put it on satellite for the national audience, but in West Virginia it was live.  R.E.M. played a little bit more than normal, and then at the end of the two hour show they offered to play some more.  We kept the radio feed on, because we knew people were going to love this.  R.E.M. asked Billy and Robyn to get up on the stage with them, and they did stuff I don’t think they’d never done before.  It was great fun.”

Even 25 years later, the significance of that R.E.M. Mountain Stage performance is not lost on Groce.  He remains keenly aware – and deeply appreciative – of the strong power of loose connections.

“That one show was a game-changer for us, and we’ve been able to keep in touch with them through the years.  We’ve had Robyn Hitchcock back on Mountain Stage five times, and would really like to have him back again because he’s such a smart and very talented performer.  Billy Bragg has also continued to do the show and will be back again this year. Michael Stipe wrote to me regularly for a while after that performance, offering suggestions of people to put on the show.  As a matter fact, that’s how I found out about Vic Chesnutt, the great singer-songwriter from Athens, Georgia.  Vic had been in a terrible car accident that left him mostly paralyzed, and he used a wheelchair and only had partial use of his hands.  Such an interesting person, I really liked talking to him when he came to perform on Mountain Stage.  Sadly, he ended his own life about six or seven years ago.  He was a sweet man, and very talented.  I loved his music and his songs.  Stipe produced at least one of his records, and he thought Vic would be great for the show.  That’s how we found him.”

~  ~  ~

Mountain Stage continues to evolve.  Has it really been 33 years?  Groce was 35-years-old when the show started way back in 1983.  He’s 68 today.

“We’ve brought in some young people over the past five years or so, which will hopefully help Mountain Stage to carry on,” he says.  “Francis is still there, and he’s older than me.   Andy retired a few years ago.  Before he did, he trained a young man from Greenbrier County who came to Mountain Stage after going to Radford College, where he studied music business.  He interned at Mountain Stage, and he never left, even after his internship ended and we didn’t have any money to pay him.  He just kept working for nothing, so we found a way to pay him a little something, and then we found a way to pay him a little more.  Finally, we were able to bring him on with a state job.  He’s been here ten years.  Andy took him under his wing and trained him, and in those ten years he’s gone from intern to executive director.  He’s talented, he’s a native West Virginian, he’s smart, he’s responsible, he’s got the values that we want.”

Evolving as the times change, while maintaining the culture that makes Mountain Stage such a beloved show, can be a tricky proposition.  Integrating fresh faces and entertaining new ideas without straying too far from the mission is something that the core group has navigated with aplomb.

“When we bring someone onboard, we try to install our vision and our values about Mountain Stage.  We have one young woman who works for us – Joni Deutsch – who is 24 and who is bringing a lot of acts to my attention now.  She’s grown up with music I’m less familiar with. She has a world of music that she likes, and she has a show of her own called A Change of Tune so she’s always on the lookout for new, young, talent.  That’s what we need, because as soon as you stop evolving then it’s over.  You’re done.

“It’s fun to work with people of all ages on Mountain Stage.  We all get along, and we have a lot of fun together.  The people in the band tend to be closer to my age.  In the office, they are much younger than me.  The tech people are of varying ages.  We all respect each other.  There’s a lot of trust.  We don’t question each other’s judgment, we’re not afraid to ask each other for help, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions.  It’s a true team environment.”

With all of the incredible moments over the past 30-plus years, Groce recognizes the civic duty to preserve these amazing performances.  Archiving it all promises to be a daunting task.

“We are trying to do that, although we haven’t gotten as far as we’d hoped by now.  We’ve been working on dubbing all of the shows into a digital database.  It’s going to be a process, because we’ve got more than 860 shows to archive, and each show is at least two hours long.  Our ultimate goal is to allow anyone to go online and listen to anything that’s ever been on Mountain Stage, and to be able to sort and filter by show, artist, set, and song.  That’s going to take money we don’t currently have, but we hope to someday to be able to do it.

“It’s an important part of our mission to make that accessible, because the Mountain Stage archives are a gold mine.  There is wonderful music from a lot of wonderful, talented people.  You have everything from Malian singer and multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Touré to Melvin Wine, the old fiddler from Braxton County, to singer-songwriters like Randy Newman and Warren Zevon.  We’ve had Counting Crows on Mountain Stage.  We’ve had Indigo Girls, Bruce Hornsby, Sarah McLachlan, Norah Jones, Crash Test Dummies, Barenaked Ladies, and a lot of these acts were on Mountain Stage before anybody knew about them.  Most people don’t know that Phish has been on the show.  As a matter fact, they told us one time that they wanted to come back, but that they wanted to do the whole two hours.  We told them that we don’t do that.  That’s just not us.”

There was also a stretch when Mountain Stage appeared on television.  Today, the push has been into the digital space.

“We’ve done television in a couple of different ways – Mountain Stage itself got some outside people to film some shows, because WV Public Broadcasting didn’t want to do it for TV because of the costs.  We did three years worth of shows back in the early 2000s working with the private company.  Lately, we’ve been streaming shows online.  It costs a lot of money to do television, a whole lot more than radio, so it’s tough for the State of West Virginia to take on that additional burden.  Nowadays, there aren’t many music-related shows on TV.  Austin City Limits is still around, but I’m not sure how many new shows they make each year, and MTV doesn’t have much music on it anymore.  The new frontier is podcasting, streaming, and things like that, which is what we’re doing more of.”

~  ~  ~

CLOSING ACT:  WHEN THE MIST CLEARS AWAY
(A purpose driven life)

Larry Groce is home.

“I like this place.  Charleston continues to grow and evolve – there’s art, music, theater, dance.  My two girls love it here.  Both of them are in the Charleston Ballet’s school, and they recently performed in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  They’re also both in the Charleston Youth Symphony Orchestra.  I was one of the originators of FestivAll, of which I’m very proud, because my kids are growing up here and I want them to look at their city and say, ‘There’s some good stuff here.’

“My girls go to public school in the city because we believe in public education.  I don’t know where they’re going to college, but it’s still early for those decisions.  They may live here the rest of their lives or they may move away, but that’s their business, that’s their lives.  But wherever they go, I think they will always love Charleston, West Virginia.  Even if they are living on the other side of the world, they will say that it’s a great place.

Turns out, Groce isn’t the only musician in the family.

“My wife is a member of the West Virginia Symphony.  She was the principal viola player for several years, but it was a demanding job, especially with children, so she resigned as principal because she didn’t have time to do all of the things that the first chair has to do.  She is now a member of the section and she still plays.  It’s also great for our girls, because it gives them something else that they can experience.  They get to go to Mountain Stage, they can see the Symphony, they can experience the Charleston Light Opera Guild, they can go to FestivAll.”

Family plays a big part in Groce’s latest project, Live Forever.  The CD packs a punch, with a combination of inspired song choices and self-written material that cut to the essence of the man – a gifted singer-songwriter who possesses a keen sense of what makes a great record, and an artist who is still comfortable in front of a microphone with a guitar in his hands.  When you live life, really live it and breathe it in, what comes out is as authentic and as easily identifiable as a fingerprint.

Surprisingly, Live Forever almost didn’t get made, but the drumbeat to make another record had gotten steadily louder in recent years, and harder to ignore.

“I enjoyed being a singer-songwriter, but there was a transition period for me,” he says.  “Somewhere between 1985 and 1990 I transformed from singer-songwriter to producer-host.  More than 25 years later, several of my friends, including close friend Michael Lipton, who is one of the lead guitarists on Mountain Stage and has a band called the Carpenter Ants, started urging me to make a record.  I initially resisted, telling Michael that nobody wants to hear a record from me, and that I didn’t want to waste everybody’s time and my money.

“The next person who approached me about the project was Don Dixon.  Don is also a friend and a producer.  He produced the first two R.E.M. records.  He’s very talented – he’s a great songwriter, plays bass for Mary Chapin Carpenter, and he knows everybody in the business.  He’s produced 100 records or so, everyone from R.E.M. to James McMurtry to the Smithereens to Red Clay Ramblers.  He’s done old-time music, pop rock, alt rock, you name it.  He’s very smart, and a wonderful man and great friend.  So he approached me and said, ‘Why don’t you make a record?’  And my immediate reaction was, ‘Now you’re starting in on me too?’”

By this point, Groce was on the fence and giving a new record serious thought.

“My wife was really the turning point in my decision to record again.  She had always played in the symphony, and had never really had a chance to play pop music.  She’s not the kind of person who does anything by ear – she has to make it up, write it down, and then read it, which is very structured and very different from just going on stage and jamming.  Well, she wanted to try to play some pop music, so we started playing together, and the next thing you know we were going out and playing some gigs.  She had never done that before.  It was fun for her to play this kind of music.  And that’s when she suggested making a record together.  That’s when it became a little bit more convincing, because it was her wanting to do it, and then she commented on how our girls really needed a record of their mom and dad playing together.  That’s what changed my mind.

“My first thought was to just go in the studio, open the microphone, and play some songs for the girls to have.  And then I thought about Michael and Don, and their willingness to get involved, and suddenly I felt like I could not only make a record that sounds professionally produced, that I could do it without a big fuss and huge cost.  We know people who can lay it out and do all of the stuff that needs done, we have access to some great musicians who would lend their talents to a record like this.  And if it doesn’t sell a lot of copies, so what?

“The thought of taking the next step and marketing it like a commercial release did cross my mind, but I quickly thought better of it.  I know publicists, and I know people who push records to radio stations, and some thought they could get me airplay, but it was going to cost time and money and I was really not looking for a new career as a singer.  That’s when I decided that I’m just going to make the record and perform some locally. I got a nice interview in the Charleston Gazette, and we’re selling a few copies here and there, and I’m happy with the quality of the work.  The girls have their picture on the CD, and this is really about them and for them, so I’m happy with how it’s worked out.”

 

Larry Groce poses for his latest CD, 'Live Forever'.

Larry Groce poses for his latest CD, ‘Live Forever’.

.

The record itself is full of gems.  Pancho and Lefty, a Townes Van Zandt song that became widely known when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard rode it to the top of the country charts in 1983, is a brilliant selection and splendidly done.

“There are twelve songs on Live Forever, and four of them are my songs.  It’s always tough when you put your own songs in with classic songs, because those songs are so much better than yours.  However, they fit the theme.  I worked with Don to pick out the songs, and I picked out songs that I think are strong songs, and songs that I want my girls to know.  I’ve always believed that the best songs are like hymns, and the best hymns are something wonderful.  It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not.  I always joke that, if you are on your deathbed, nobody wants to hear a sermon, but they’ll hear a hymn.  And there’s a reason for that.  Hymns are powerful.  Songs are very powerful.  You listen to the Townes Van Zandt song Pancho and Lefty, which I chose for this record…man, what a song.  What an experience that song is.  You can like my version, or you can not like my version, but if you don’t like the song then you are just wrong because it’s a great song.  Townes Van Zandt was on Mountain Stage three times.  Just to meet Townes was very moving, because he was a man who had serious problems. He was an alcoholic and helpless in some ways…but man, what a visionary, and what a poet.”

There are plenty of tips of the cap when it comes to Mountain Stage, culminating with the closing track Simple Song (Mountain Stage Theme), the uplifting signature song performed by Groce at the kickoff of each show.  Unsurprisingly, Live Forever consistently strikes the right chords.

“One of the songs that I perform on the record, In the Wilderness, is a song that I wrote and then sang on Mountain Stage back in the ‘90s.  Bette Midler called the show, because she heard it in New York, and she wanted to know who wrote it.  I told her that I did, and it was exciting to know that she liked my music.  I talked to Bette about it for awhile, and she asked me to send a copy to her, which I did.  She never did record it, but it was nice to know that she liked it.

“There are other songs on the record that I’ve heard on the show, like Live Forever, the one that I sing with Ray Wylie Hubbard.  It was co-written by the great Billy Joe Shaver and his son, Eddy.  Billy Joe and Eddy sang it on Mountain Stage, and the next year his son died tragically from a heroin overdose. The song lives on and is so powerful that I had to include it on the record.

“Lyle Lovett came on the show in 1987, and he sang If I Had A Boat.  I like that song.  It’s funny, but it has a lot to it.  And then there’s the George Jones song, Choices.  What powerful lyrics.  ‘I’ve had choices since the day that I was born…’  All of the songs on Live Forever are songs about life, about the choices we make, and how sometimes we don’t have a choice, like the lines at the end of Pancho and Lefty: ‘Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true, but save a few for Lefty too, he only did what he had to do, and now he’s growin’ old.’

~  ~  ~

As we prepare to close, I ask Larry Groce about the legacy of Mountain Stage, and my mind again turns to the late Blind Willie Johnson.  I wonder what Blind Willie would make of his record being one of those chosen to represent all of humanity, and how he would feel about his song exiting our solar system, headed for points unknown, along with legendary composers like Beethoven and Mozart.  Would he be proud?  Astounded?  Happy? Humbled?

Probably.

But something tells me that, if Blind Willie had his druthers, he would rather have his music performed live, on Mountain Stage, by a down and dirty bluesman handpicked by Larry Groce, the audience held rapt.

That’s where my song belongs, I can hear Blind Willie say.

And he would be absolutely right.

“Mountain Stage has always been about a vision of songs and their power.  A song is a very special and powerful entity.  It’s a work of art unlike any other, and it has an effect that nothing else does.  In four minutes or less it can literally stop people in their tracks.  It can inspire people when they are desperate.   It can change someone’s mood, and sometimes even change their mind.  It can change feelings.  That’s unbelievable.  Having that effect on people is just astounding.”

I ask Groce if he’s contemplated that moment when it comes time to let go.  I can’t fathom Mountain Stage without him, and I’m sure thousands of others feel the same, some of them some of the biggest names in the music business.

“I don’t know what it’s going to feel like when I finally step aside,” he says thoughtfully.  “The people that are there now, they understand what it’s all about.  They will change the show over time if it continues, as they have to, and it will become theirs, but I think they will hold on to the true spirit of Mountain Stage.

“I hope that Mountain Stage continues long after I leave.  I don’t know if it will or not, but I’ve not known that it will keep going each year for the past thirty-three.  Nothing is guaranteed.  And really and truly, I don’t want a guarantee.  I’d rather have it that way.  If it doesn’t work, let’s get rid of it.  I just pray that’s not the case.  There have been a lot of special moments on Mountain Stage and I’m grateful to have been a part of that. I hope they’ve reflected what’s good about West Virginia.”