The notion behind Mountain Stage’s name was simple: to embrace the people and inviting attitude of West Virginia. It is the Mountain State, after all. But even with a broadcast history that has now stretched on for nearly 33 years, the public radio live music program encounters audiences that take its title too literally.
“We have always felt like our show has the personality of West Virginia,” said Larry Groce, the host and artistic director of Mountain Stage, who will lead a remote live broadcast of the show Sunday from the Singletary Center for the Arts.
“Some people mistakenly think that our show is mountain music only, therefore it consists of fiddle, banjo, country and old time music all the time. We certainly have a healthy amount of that kind of music. But West Virginians have suffered from stereotypes for a long time, so we think the part that’s really West Virginian about Mountain Stage is our attitude, our lack of pretension, our warmth, our feeling toward the audience. That’s what we think is West Virginian about the show, and we’re happy about that.”
Since Groce, a veteran musician and songwriter, co-founded Mountain Stage, the program’s menu of live music guests have included a diversified lineup of rock, folk, jazz, Americana, Cajun, Latin, Celtic and world music artists. It is that broad stylistic range that has long moved Mountain Stage well beyond the mountains.
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“We don’t have a mission statement exactly,” Groce said. “But if we did, I think it would be to present great live music in as many styles as we think the audience wants and can deal with. It’s just a matter of getting different artists, getting good artists and getting artists we haven’t had before. We have some shows with five artists we’ve never featured and then we have shows, like this one in Lexington, where everyone has been on before.
The lineup performing at Mountain Stage at the Singletary will include the celebrated young folk stylist Sarah Jarosz, the popular Cincinnati folk duo Over the Rhine, veteran alt-country artist Robbie Fulks, longstanding folk/pop journeyman Steve Forbert, and the Knoxville-based Americana troupe The Black Lillies.
“I’ve played the show one time before and am a big fan,” Jarosz said. “I really respect Mountain Stage because they strike a great balance. They continue to keep it grounded and oftentimes rootsy, but also they’re not afraid to reach out and be really, really eclectic. I always appreciate anything that isn’t afraid to show people new and exciting things. So I’m totally honored to get to do it again.”
As with any new broadcast idea, it took Mountain Stage several years to become established enough to attract name artists as guests and forge a public radio audience devoted enough to keep the program on the air.
“It was very difficult in the beginning,” Groce said. “We had no money, we had no experience and we had no equipment. But that also put us in a good position because we had nothing to lose. So we just let it hang out and said, ‘We want do this’ and then we did it. We were just too stupid to know that we couldn’t do it.
“Really, all the time, it’s been about the music. It’s never been about making any of us famous. Our goal is to set it up so that the listeners have a great experience and the musicians have a great experience. You put those two things together and that’s really what Mountain Stage is.”
The Singletary engagement is one among a small few of the 26 live broadcasts that Mountain Stage presents every year outside its home base. But Groce said that regardless of where Mountain Stage sets up shop to send out its live music, it remains a faithful ambassador of the Mountain State.
“In the beginning, we were told by people who were syndicating us that they thought it would be a big challenge to do a show like this in Charleston, W.Va., because of access to artists. What we’ve found is that the way we do the show, Charleston, W.Va., is about the best place to do it. It’s away from the spotlight. People come, and even though they know, theoretically, when they walk onto our stage, they’re walking into 155 radio stations, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like West Virginia.
“We’ve done shows in big cities, and they’re harder to do. We’ve done shows in Boston and Philadelphia, New York and Washington, DC — a lot of places. Those are a little bit more challenging because there, the spotlight is always on. So I hope the feeling of the show we will do in Lexington, the personality of the show, reflects the kind of people that we know in West Virginia.”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com
If you go
Mountain Stage with scheduled performers: Sarah Jarosz, The Black Lillies, Steve Forbert, Over the Rhine and Robbie Fulks
When: 7 p.m. April 3
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.
Tickets: $25 advance, $30 day of show