Standing behind a large curtain at the Cultural Center Theater in the small Appalachian city of Charleston, West Virginia, Kathy Mattea readies herself to welcome another audience to NPR’s Mountain Stage.
“[Mountain Stage] has reinforced and magnified my long-held belief that music is really important,” Mattea, a Charleston native, tells Rolling Stone backstage. “Music and hospitality — that’s what it’s all about. And those two things? That’s West Virginia right there.”
With snowflakes falling onto the mountains cradling the state capitol on this particular January night, Mountain Stage listeners crowd into the theater for this evening’s lineup: Victoria Victoria (feat. Charlie Hunter), Cass McCombs, Scott Mulvahill, Julianna Riolino, and Steady Holiday.
“I have more faith in music right now than I have in years,” Mattea says when asked about the wide variety of acts presented on Mountain Stage. “After spending 40 years on my music, what do I want to say now? What am I doing to be able to shine a light on other [artists]?”
A popular two-hour radio program broadcasting around 24 shows a year on more than 280 NPR stations nationwide, Mountain Stage celebrates 40 years in 2023. Over its storied run, the show has featured a diverse parade of artists from the American music scene, leaning heavily on roots, folk, country, and bluegrass: Bill Monroe, Tyler Childers, Jason Isbell, John Prine, Wynonna Judd, Joan Baez, and Townes Van Zandt have all graced the stage. But the show has also made forays into rock, jam, and blues. Widespread Panic, Sheryl Crow, Phish, and Warren Zevon all performed; Tori Amos once even covered Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on its stage. R.E.M. played songs from their album Out of Time in 1991.
“Mountain Stage isn’t just an outlet for people’s music, it also captures that moment between a performer and the audience, and that little conversation that goes on [from both sides of the microphone],” Mattea says. “It’s all about that ‘live moment,’ and it just seems like there’s less and less opportunity to celebrate that.”
But 40 years is not only a milestone. It’s also a testament to the blood, sweat, and tears of building something from nothing — one listener and one station at a time.
“It started out because West Virginia Public Broadcasting was expanding,” says Larry Groce, the show’s artistic director and host from its inception in 1983 until 2021, when Mattea took over. “They had two towers, but knew someday they’d have many towers around the state. The general manager [of WVPB] wanted some kind of statewide show, a variety show of sorts.”
Groce — a touring singer-songwriter best known for the 1976 radio hit “Junk Food Junkie” — had called West Virginia home since the early 1970s. When he was approached by WVPB to launch and host Mountain Stage, Groce had to take a leap of faith but ultimately said yes. “At the beginning we had no money, no equipment, no experience,” he says, “and we got whoever we could get to be on the show.”
The pilot episode was staged in March 1981 with the Bob Thompson Jazz Trio and the Putnam County Pickers on the bill, but the regular radio showcase didn’t come until December 1983 with a return appearance by Thompson, along with Larry Parson’s Chorale and John Pierson.
“The whole thing is pretty surrealistic, just to think about all of the people that I’ve seen and worked with,” says Ron Sowell, a multi-instrumentalist and the longtime musical director for Mountain Stage, who also was a member of the Putnam County Pickers.
Sowell and the house band spend the days leading up to a broadcast working on melodies they plan to play with the guest acts. That gives the live versions a fluid quality that can take any musical shape.
“I rarely get [music] charts [from the visiting acts]. But I’ll sit down and chart out their songs myself,” Sowell says. “Then I will assign parts and distribute the charts to the [house] band. And we all do our own homework — we don’t get rehearsals.”
IN THE FINAL HOURS leading up to this night’s program, Adam Harris is running around the Cultural Center Theater, bouncing between dressing rooms and the side-stage production area. Initially landing at Mountain Stage an as intern in 2005, Harris has been the executive producer since 2012.
“It’s not easy to explain what Mountain Stage is,” he says. “We have no boundaries when it comes to the amount of music or the styles of music we have on this show.”
In the hallway between the dressing rooms is a massive list of everyone who has played Mountain Stage. Most are well-known and acclaimed artists, with many appearing on the program before they became household names. But 40 years in, up-and-coming groups remain the show’s bread and butter.
“I hope we’re an endorsement for [rising acts], especially when they get here and see all of the artists that have come before them,” Harris says. “I hope they see it as a continuation of all the artists that have been here already.”
“Early on, there weren’t a lot of shows like us, and there’s even fewer now,” Groce adds. “It doesn’t matter what small label you’re on, who’s promoting you, or how big you are on social media, this is one place that you can say, ‘I was there’ — it gives you a certain amount of credibility.”
One of those rising acts is the North Carolina neo-soul/indie-pop band Victoria Victoria, fronted by millennial singer-songwriter Tori Elliott. She says the show’s ability to introduce new artists is its gift. “With social media and how algorithms work, certain people will hear you and certain people won’t. But with the [singular] impact of radio,” she says, “it broadens and diversifies the audience in a way that’s meaningful.”
Victoria Victoria also includes renowned guitarist Charlie Hunter, a beloved veteran of Mountain Stage who’s played it six times. His first appearance was in 1990. “In this day and age, to have anything that’s been around for 40 years, that’s still growing, and it’s actual humans playing live music? That’s pretty special in itself,” Hunter says.
When Canadian singer-songwriter Julianna Riolino takes the stage with her snarling rock band, the evening’s broadcast kicks into high gear. The Toronto powerhouse roars throughout her appearance, especially during the song “Hark.”
“A lot of my heroes have played this stage — The Band, Joan Baez — so that means a lot to me,” says Riolino, who drove more than five hours with her band to play just 18 minutes on the broadcast. She’d happily do it again. “Mountain Stage, Tiny Desk, Austin City Limits, Grand Ole Opry — these are the shows where you really can kind of measure your growth,” she says.
THE CULMINATION OF EACH Mountain Stage is a ceremonial collaboration between Mattea, the house band, and all of the guests, with one final tune performed to signal the night’s end. Moments later, the parking lot of the Cultural Center Theater empties out and the spaces in front of the Empty Glass a few blocks away fill up.
A cherished dive bar where countless marquee Appalachian acts landed some of their first gigs, the Empty Glass is a beacon for many artists, including hometown Americana/folk sensation Sierra Ferrell. It’s a long-held tradition for Mountain Stage acts to perform a song or two after the show at the Empty Glass.
Ted Harrison, bassist for the Carpenter Ants, the bar’s house band, has jammed with many of the Mountain Stage acts who found themselves at the Empty Glass in the midnight hour.
“We’ve been a band since 1987. Around 1995 we started hosting the Mountain Stage post-jam,” Harrison says. “We’ve seen a lot of people in here. Jason Isbell sat in with us one time, so did Taj Mahal. Heck, Gov’t Mule came in and ended up playing a full set. There are so many precious memories.”
Following a couple rounds of drinks, Julianna Riolino and her bandmates take the stage, still riding their Mountain Stage high. The rock group borrows some instruments from the Carpenter Ants and launches into a cover of Fairport Convention’s “Come All Ye.”
As Riolino howls, the melody echoes out the front door and into the mountains surrounding the city: “Come all ye rolling minstrels, and together we will try, to rouse the spirit of the earth, and move the rolling sky.”