Over the course of four decades, Mountain Stage has gone from just a little radio show to the little radio show that could (and still does). Founded in 1983 and airing from the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, West Virginia, the live performance show has been a must-stop for countless musicians in the American roots music scene and beyond, including Bill Monroe, Chris Stapleton, Doc Watson, Alison Krauss, Jason Isbell, John Prine, and many more. Now hosted by the country and bluegrass singer—and Charleston native—Kathy Mattea, Mountain Stage broadcasts twenty-four shows a year heard on more than 280 NPR stations nationwide.
Larry Groce, one of the show’s cofounders, its artistic director, and the host up until 2021, says the key to its success is the leeway given to each guest. “We’ve never told any artist what to play or what not to play on the show for forty years,” he says. “We just give them time; they do their thing, and we don’t care what it is.”
In honor of the show’s anniversary, we asked Groce to pick a handful of his favorite moments from Mountain Stage’s forty-year run, and he came up with some great ones, including appearances by Stapleton, Tyler Childers, Pops Staples, and a seminal performance from R.E.M.
Listen to the tracks below. A special thanks to Mountain Stage for digging into its archives to share these gems.
April 28, 1991
“Losing My Religion”
“End of the World as We Know It”
In 1991 R.E.M. released Out of Time and was on its way to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. But the group decided not to tour, playing only a handful of promotional shows, including Mountain Stage. The appearance jumpstarted the show’s national reputation. “We had people come from all over the world for it,” Groce says. “I’m standing outside talking to twenty-five different reporters. The band played for another forty-five minutes after we stopped taping. It’s the most important show we’ve done.”
April 17, 2015
Next to Bob Dylan, the idiosyncratic Newman is Groce’s favorite songwriter, a wordsmith who can craft an entire story in two minutes, usually with a sharp humorous edge. “Dixie Flyer” is an autobiographical song about Newman’s time in New Orleans as a young boy. “Newman is so funny,” Groce says. “He was playing with the crowd that night doing imitations of Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, and Linda Ronstadt, artists he has collaborated with through the years.”
June 18, 2015
“Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”
Stapleton has appeared on Mountain Stage three different times, first as a member of his bluegrass band the Steeldrivers. Groce was impressed with him more and more each time. “He came on with his wife, and they have that non-showbiz family air just like we do,” he says. “It’s hard enough to be a great performer, but it’s really hard to be a great performer who has great material. And Chris has both.”
December 1, 2019
“Nose on the Grindstone”
Childers grew up in Eastern Kentucky, which is basically the show’s backyard. Groce caught wind of him and booked Childers very early on in the singer’s career, and Childers didn’t forget it. “He played a festival in Charleston, and afterward I said, ‘Come meet me in the bar. I’m going to put you on Mountain Stage.’ And he said, ‘Oh my god, this is a huge deal,’” Groce recalls. “Nobody had ever heard of him. Then we put him on again, and still, nobody had heard of him. But he did us a favor the last time out because everybody had heard of him by then.”
February 11, 2018
“People Have the Power”
Groce snagged the legendary singer-songwriter/activist when Smith came to West Virginia to accept an award for her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, a founding member of rock icons the MC5 and a West Virginia native. “She was very quiet and came with her kids. Of course, we sold out in a minute,” Groce says. “But she turned into someone else onstage, and when she yelled ‘West Virginia People Have the Power,’ everybody went crazy.”
February 9, 1992
“Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)”
The soul and gospel legend—and patriarch of the Staple Singers—moved the audience to tears with his performance of “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” in 1992. In the ’60s, Pops and the Staple Singers traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., performing at his rallies. “Before Pops sang, he tells this story that the day before Dr. King was killed, he asked Pops to sing ‘Why? (Am I Treated So Bad),’” Groce says. “King told Pops that he wanted him to ‘sing it good.’ And then Pops starts singing, and man, that destroyed us.”