40 Years Of Mountain Stage: Spreading Truth And Understanding Across America
Jerry Mikkelsen and fiancé Maureen Martin sat front row center for the taping of NPR’s “Mountain Stage” at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, West Virginia. It took 36 hours to get there from their home in Palm Springs, California – by plane via several airports – but they weren’t complaining.
Mikkelsen, a retired US Airways employee who discovered the live radio broadcast in San Diego when it aired after Prairie Home Companion, has made the trek to the capital of the Mountain State to sit in the audience every year since 2000.
“I heard the show and thought, ‘I really want to see this.’ I’ve been coming back once a year ever since,” Mikkelsen said. “You don’t get this anywhere else. It’s live. It’s all different acts. It’s just so original – you have to see it. I love it and it’s worth the trip.”
Like the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and Texas’ “Austin City Limits” television show, Mountain Stage has built a loyal following of dedicated listeners and industry supporters who regularly journey to West Virginia for Sunday night tapings of the program, which is carried by 290 public radio stations across the U.S.
Mountain Stage celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2023 and recently crossed the 1,000-show threshold. Backstage, there is a long row of printed poster boards with the names and dates of every artist who has made an appearance on Mountain Stage since the March 1981 pilot. Color-coded Post Its designate previous appearances and singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet had 10 strips of paper next to his name. To mark the occasion, Prophet was presented a signature Mountain Stage black jacket with Chuck embroidered in white thread.
“I’m so thrilled,” said Prophet, who first gained notoriety in the 1980s with his neo-psychedelic desert rock band Green on Red. “Musicians are all a little competitive – in a playful way. I knew that Ray Wylie Hubbard had a jacket and that’s when I started doing the math. The last time I was here, I figured out it was my eighth or ninth visit and I started thinking, ‘I’m on my way.’ Having a jacket is a badge of honor.”
Prophet got the coat after 10 appearances, but he typically returns to Mountain Stage for something else.
“I always meet cool bands,” Prophet said. “I’ve played here with bands from Africa, Ireland. All kinds of world music that is eye-opening and maybe I wouldn’t have crossed paths with them any other way. For me, it’s always been something to look forward to and something to return to because of my relationship with the people.”
Alt-leaning, New York-based sibling trio Bailen were making their first Mountain Stage appearance on March 5.
“We didn’t totally know what to expect when we showed up, but immediately everyone was sitting around a table having food and talking about music,” said singer/guitarist Julia Bailen.
“It fosters a sense of community for musicians in a world where touring can be isolating. That’s really a breath of fresh air to be somewhere where there are a ton of musicians all doing the same thing – intersecting in this moment of community – and that’s really beautiful.”
“The fact that it’s NPR is really special too,” added singer/bass-player Daniel Bailen. “We are NPR babies.”
The rest of the March 5 lineup stayed true to the show’s trademark aesthetic of presenting a variety of domestic and international performers crossing demographics and musical styles including New Zealand indie rock band The Beths, Toad The Wet Sprocket founder singer/songwriter Glen Phillips and lauded jazz and gospel vocalist Lizz Wright.
“When you walk in the door the first time, there’s this feeling of honoring the occasion because you know it is big,” Prophet explained. “But eventually, you come to understand they are booking you to be yourself and that’s pretty cool – and something I have some experience doing.”
Frank Riley of High Road Touring, which represents Bailen along with Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas Band, Wilco, James McMurtry, Tank and the Bangas and Amy Ray among others, has been booking artists on Mountain Stage since he launched the company in 2001.
“Virtually everybody on our roster — if it’s musically appropriate — has played at least once,” Riley said. “At a bare minimum, we’ve had 10 artists per year so it could be well over 200, and it might be twice that.”
Funded by state tourism dollars and private donors, Mountain Stage pays the bands, but the exposure to NPR’s music audience is invaluable.
“It’s important to support an organization that spreads truth and understanding around America,” Riley explained. “Mountain Stage is part of that tapestry and it’s an outlet for people to hear music that they wouldn’t necessarily get an opportunity to hear. It serves the purpose of promoting artists, promoting a wonderful organization and supporting the non-commercial radio world in one of the best ways possible.”
It costs about $1 million to record 24 live events over a season. A line-item in the state budget covers $450,000 and the rest is covered by fundraising and underwriting, including membership and ticket sales, which are $25 at the 460-seat Culture Center Theater, which opened in 1976 and is the show’s longtime home on the state capitol grounds.
“It’s so special,” said Crystal Myers, Wilco co-manager and a native of Charleston, West Virginia, where she grew up attending Mountain Stage. “I’m not a musician, but I feel like it gets to the core of what musicians want to do, which is to share music with a room and a broader listening audience of people who are curious and respectful, and because of that, magic happens on this show.”
“Mountain Stage takes very great care when they are booking their artists,” said Suraya Mohamed, senior manager at NPR Music. “There’s a lot of great music out there and a lot of people making great music, but when you put that storytelling element to go along with it, it just makes it that much more engaging and compelling for the audience. They do that really well.”
In addition to all the work that goes into producing a live show, whether it’s booking, logistics, engineering, editing, licensing, releases, scripts, scores and ticketing, Mountain Stage’s 26-person crew produces regular live sessions for the NPR social media channel and travels the show to other cities and concert halls, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
“One of the reasons why they’re able to stay relevant for literally decades is that they’re always pushing the boundaries and pushing themselves to do more and better things,” Mohamad said. “They are relentless in their pursuit of excellence in music curation and the concert experience.”
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
West Virginia Public Broadcasting had two radio stations in 1980 when Mountain Stage executive producer Andy Ridenour, who was then public affairs producer and news director, was asked to create a radio program for the expanding network of radio stations in the state. Ridenour drew up a plan that was similar to the current format. He took the idea to chief engineer Frances Fisher, who had worked at NBC Radio Network in New York.
“I asked him if it could be done and of course he said ‘Yes!’ He was lying, but that’s how these things work,” chuckled Ridenour, who retired in 2011. Fisher cobbled together three eight-channel field recorders to come up with 24 channels and enough microphones to cover the stage. He went on to mix 960 episodes of the show before he died in 2021.
It took from 1981 to 1983 to raise enough money to do a regular series once a month, and another three years before the show had adequate equipment and was added to the NPR schedule.
Early appearances by Wheeling, West Virginia, native Tim O’Brien and Hot Rize and later with R.E.M. in 1991 helped to establish the show as an Appalachian oasis for the creative community. Among the many artists who appeared on Mountain Stage before they were famous or whose first national exposure was on the program extends from Sarah McLachlan, Norah Jones, Crash Test Dummies and Barenaked Ladies, to Ben Harper, Paula Cole, Nickel Creek, Cassandra Wilson, Counting Crows and Phish.
The R.E.M. appearance was the band’s only ticketed event in the U.S. to support the release of Out of Time and the hit single, “Losing My Religion.” “I asked if I could charge an exorbitant ticket price to raise money for the show,” Ridenour recalled, adding that the sell-out was a boon for the show. “I went big time and asked for $20 a ticket. Our ticket price at that time was $5 for a family to get in.”
PLAY WHAT YOU WANT
Rounding out the trio of Mountain Stage founders is Larry Groce, 74, host and creative director. Groce had a Top 10 hit in 1976 with “Junk Food Junkie,” followed by a four-volume series of platinum-selling recordings of classic children’s songs for Walt Disney Records. Groce lived in West Virginia and was the first artist in residence for the National Endowment for the Arts.
When Fisher and Ridenour asked him to join the team, Groce recalled, “I said to them, partially because I had the hit song and had been on TV, ‘This is great, but can we just say it’s going to be a national show? I mean, why not? We have no expertise. We have no equipment. We have no money. Let’s shoot for the stars since we aren’t likely to hit anything.”
Groce brought more than humor and lofty aspirations to the table. His experience as a musician set the standard for the artist experience today.
“Number one, I decided that on Mountain Stage we would never tell anybody what they were supposed to play,” he explained. “That’s a typical thing you do on radio and TV. You are on there and you are going to play your hit and shut up. We have never done that. Since the beginning, we give people an amount of time and they fill it in. Number two, because I was an opener for a lot of people, we tried to treat everybody as equally as we could.”
Each act is given at least three songs to perform or the time to do three songs of their choosing. The strategy creates an environment where artistic freedom thrives and mistakes are quickly forgotten.
Groce recalled a performance by four-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year Martina McBride: “We probably should have this on the wall, but she stopped during her performance and said, ‘This is a radio show like no other. They want you to play the music that you love,” Groce recalled. “She got it 100%.”
Groce’s eclectic musical taste and artistic sensibility continue to have a profound impact on booking talent.
“We have five acts in two hours; if one of them isn’t your favorite, just wait 15 minutes and there will be another one,” explained Groce, who stopped hosting in 2022 and will step down as artistic director in June.
Groce handed the reins to West Virginia native and two-time Grammy-award winner Kathy Mattea, a frequent guest on Mountain Stage during her chart-topping country career.
“Mountain Stage started in 1983, and that’s the year I signed my record deal in Nashville,” said Mattea, who has logged more appearances on the broadcast than any other female artist. “So, my career arc has kind of paralleled the show. I got to see them grow and they got to see me grow.”
Mattea considers hosting to be “an incredible honor and some days kinda’ terrifying.”
“I don’t think I appreciated it until I got to see the inner workings and how intentional those decisions are that I really understood the heart of how the show sees its own mission,” she said. “What they’ve done is so profound. I feel so lucky to be here.” Her goal is to present every artist as authentically as possible.
“It’s a special culture,” Mattea said. “We don’t censor anybody, we don’t tell people what to play; you get to be yourself. That’s what the show is about and what it’s built on. We are a public forum for live performance and whatever you bring to that.”
The new sherpa of Mountain Stage personally greets each performer. Show day is 11 hours long, working on scripts, recording promos and social media posts, tweaking the finale and chasing down the details. Mattea said, “Because I’m a person who had my name mispronounced on my very first appearance on ‘The Tonight Show.’ I’m really sensitive to that.”
“She’s good as an artist. She’s good as an on-air host. And, good behind the scenes,” said executive producer Adam Harris. “It’s important as a host to make sure the artists feel appreciated and seen. She’s good in ways I didn’t even expect.”
Harris was a teenager when he attended his first Mountain Stage show with his college-age sister in 1999 to see rock band Rusted Root. He was a music business major at Radford University when he took an unpaid internship at Mountain Stage in 2005. He’s been associated with the show ever since.
“I always thought I had to leave West Virginia to be in the music business, but it turns out I’m not leaving unless I have to,” Harris said, laughing.
Reaching radio listeners where they live, the show travels several times a year. including tapings at West Virginia University in Morgantown and Ohio University in Athens and markets where there is an affiliate NPR station.
“We like to go where we’re invited,” Harris said. “It can be difficult because not every venue is conducive to what we try to do. It’s different from any concert because we record for radio and we have to have that isolation for a broadcast mix. That’s often the biggest challenge no matter where we go is how we fit the broadcast into this.”
What stays the same is their authentic approach to presenting roots music through a mountain lens. “We don’t polish anything beyond what it is meant to be,” Harris said.