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At the soundboard.
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The star fiddler was photographed during a 2001 appearance on
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At the soundboard.
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PHOTO BY BRIAN BLAUSER
With Carter Stanley, Ralph Stanley recorded as the Stanley Brothers from 1949 to 1952. He founded the Clinch Mountain Boys and was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.
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The Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter/instrumentalist tours as Rhonda Vincent and The Rage.
“Mountain Stage” is a live music broadcast that began more than 20 years ago in Charleston, W.Va. The show, which covers national international music, has featured performers including Alison Krauss, Phish, the Del McCoury Band, Joan Baez, Ralph Stanley, the Indigo Girls, R.E.M., Norah Jones and others. Today, the show is broadcast on more than 100 stations through West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Public Radio International. Here’s an interview with Larry Groce, who founded the show in the early 1980s and is still the voice of “Mountain Stage” today, as artistic director and host of the show.
And actually, this was a question that occurred to me just as I came in, but the building, I was wondering what this was before it was a radio station, and TV, and many other things?
It was a warehouse, and I think it’s had several uses, but when public broadcasting, West Virginia public broadcasting, moved over here, which was a pretty long time ago, it was in the 80s – they converted a warehouse. And finally they used all the floors – first it was the first and second floor and then the third was added, and the fourth, so I know there’s a lot of storage space up here, so it was some kind of a warehouse.
A lot of renovation, I mean, you’ve got a lot of technology and a lot of acoustics to deal with…
Yeah, there’s a whole lot of innovation, making offices and then making studios both, and they have on the fourth floor the television studio, and on the first floor are the radio studios.
Well, how did you end up with this dream job? …In my mind.
Well, I ended up with it because I started it. Andy Ridenhour and Francis Fisher, the engineer, Andy is the executive producer, and myself started Mountain Stage back in 1983 was our first regular broadcast. We actually did a pilot in 1981 and they tried to get some money and they couldn’t until ’83 to start a regular, at that time it was a once-a-month, show.
Were those just logistics, or was it a matter of selling it?
Oh, it’s always a matter of selling. Money is, has been and continues to be, a problem. Finding money for public broadcasting is difficult – finding it in West Virginia is very difficult.
How did you succeed then, finally?
Well, we convinced the right people to give us a shot at doing it, and then we got some national recognition quickly, which helped, in other words, we only did 26 shows before we went national, which… and we started from zero. We had no equipment, we had no experience, we had nothing. And so, that’s pretty good, I think, that in 26 shows we went on NPR and then later switched to what is now PRI.
What did you tell them, I mean, you needed to communicate to them that this was a valuable thing, that this had all kinds of potential. How did you do that?
In the end, I don’t think we had to. People – the state was doing this, was becoming a network, and they saw some value in doing a show produced at home for the state network. So it was only then a step up to, say, a national network would be useful, and once we started getting into a small groove and understanding what we were doing, our ambitions from the beginning were to have national acts, and we achieved that fairly soon, probably by about 1986 we started having – even ’85 we had a few, ’86 we had more, and by ’87, we had a whole – or were mostly, or 90 percent national acts, and then it went on from there.
Who was the first really big act that you had that you just felt like, ah, ok, we’ve finally gotten there.
Well, let me think. Uh… we had John Hartford, probably, was one of the very first. Norman Blake, before that, the guitar player, and, let’s see… those would probably be two of the earliest ones. They were here fairly early. And then it became – it was – it opened up quickly, and we had a lot of people after that.
And you still try to maintain a balance between the national act and the lesser-known, I mean, that’s a big part of what you do.
Well, we have, now it’s national and international, and people from West Virginia get a little extra edge, in other words, if there are 20 bands and they’re all good, and one of them’s from West Virginia, that’s the one that will get on the show. And then regional acts get a little edge, too, if there’s someone from Virginia or Pittsburgh or Kentucky or so forth, that would give them a little edge, Ohio, people within our listening range. But basically, it’s national show, international show, so it’s tough because that makes it very competitive, but if some local original act is good enough to get on, then they’re in good company and it’s a good thing for them. But for a long time now, since about ’87, ’88, it’s been that way.
There’s been so much of a focus on music of this region, and especially focused on southwest Virginia – they have the Crooked Road thing going on, and of course you have the “Walk the Line” that just came out, and various other mainstream kind of things. Do you ever feel like West Virginia musicians are overlooked, and how do you do characterize West Virginia music – I mean, there’s definitely a personality to each state, to each section of the mountains… ?
Well, West Virginia in general is overlooked. You can say that about everything in West Virginia. I’m not a native West Virginian, but I’ve learned this from being here for 34 years and doing this show, a national show, out of here – we’ve had to swim against the tide often. That’s just – that’s life, and we’re used to it here in this state.
And the music is the same thing – we are – some of the, some of the most famous Appalachian musicians didn’t come from West Virginia. Some did. Just now, we’re putting together, for example – only now, as a matter of fact, the lead guitar player for Mountain Stage, Michael Lipton, has started the West Virginia Hall of Fame. Many places have this already. And that will help. Things like that help bring out who is from here and who started here, and there are a lot of great musicians that are and have been, in a variety of styles, obviously Appalachian and country and bluegrass, but then other styles, too. It’s hard to say – the state border lines are negligible, kind of, and when a lot of this was started, Virginia and West Virginia were the same thing anyway, so … that’s a tough one.
The West Virginia Hall of Fame, when, or music hall of fame, can you tell me a little more about that, or is that Michael’s gig?
It’s just beginning to have a board, a board of advisors, and they’re starting to raise money, and they had some exhibitions. The first exhibition they put on was Music from the Coalfields, featuring Blind Alfred Reed, who wrote the famous song, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” and other things. And that’s – that’s the kind of stuff you might identify with West Virginia, and it’s true, that there’s some of that kind of music, because there have been tough times here for a long time. But that’s the first thing, and it’ll move from there.
West Virginia being overlooked – is that a result of just, prejudices, social prejudices, that… you know, the West Virginia jokes that you hear by the dozen?
Who knows why? I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why – the history of this state, how it started, how it developed, the fact that much of the state is owned by people who live elsewhere – there’s a lot of things like that. But it’s a wonderful place – I mean, I like it, and Mountain Stage could not do what we do anywhere else but West Virginia.
It’s a strength for us, because, because you’re kind of overlooked in a sense, it takes the spotlight off you in a bad sense. You’d like to have the spotlight on you for promotion and publicity, but you don’t want it on you if it forces people to be performing for the spotlight. And here, artists can come, and they could be some of the most famous artists in the world – they come into here, and I detect a little shift in attitude. It’s not like they’re performing in New York or Boston, where they know the critical spotlight is on them and the media is watching – they know it’s not watching here so much. Even though it’s a national show, they know that it’s an international show, and we’re on XM, we’re on Voice of America, we’re on 110 stations and on television – we were on about 240 stations when we were producing shows – they know that. But, what they see and feel is West Virginia, and I think they give a different kind of performance because of that.
You’re a musician too – I guess that’s how you started. Can you tell me a little bit about that – and do you get to play much? I hear you sing on the air, but do you get to perform much yourself these days?
No, no, I started out – yes, I started out singing and I’ve done music all my life for a living, but the singing and songwriting part of it is very, very much on the very far back burner – I don’t do very much of that at all, just a little bit, I still like to do it, but it’s – you can’t do that and produce a show at the same time, and produce a festival, and so forth. So, it’s definitely backburnered, but that’s how I started, when I was a kid, I started singin’ in the 5th grade and I started writin’ songs in the 7th grade, and started makin’ money in music in about the 9th grade, and I never did anything else for a living.
Where did you grow up?
Quite a different music down there.
Yes and no. I mean, it’s – you know, Texas and the Virginias and the Carolinas are very related, ‘cause most everybody that fought in the Alamo was from Virginia, Tennessee, you know (laughing) - if you think about it, look back, Sam Houston’s from Tennessee, so it’s very similar in many ways.
So when I came to West Virginia I felt very much at home because on my grandparents’ level, all the people in my family on both sides were country people, and they grew up on farms and so forth. And even their accents – everything – was similar to a lot of things I heard here, so I felt very much at home in West Virginia. Still do.
Bill Monroe was on your show at one point.
Yes, Bill Monroe was on the show, and Ralph Stanley’s been on many times – we like to have people who really have been an important part of American musical history – that’s a part of Mountain Stage that’s important to us.
And it’s funny because we have both sides of the coin. We also like to have innovators, people who are pushing the envelope, people who are creators, songwriters, etcetera, but we also still honor the traditional… you know, we’ve had Honey Boy Edwards and Johnny Johnson and a lot of the old blues, a lot of older blues people – Hadda Brooks in the special I’m making now – she was 80 when she was on the show. We’ve had a lot of people that age. And Nimrod Workman was on the show when he was 90-something. But Bill was on, one of his last recorded live shows, and Ralph will continue to be on as long as he performs, and there are many others – Jean Richie, you know, a lot of people from various styles of music. Pine Top Perkins – the last when he was on, he was 88…
Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley – they’re kind of an older generation that’s disappearing, unfortunately. But what can you, what do you remember from those performances, and working with them, their personalities – what stands out?
Well, they both have that kind of, ease that comes from having been on the stage for 50 or 60 years. And they never left the country – they were country to the end – Bill to the end, Ralph’s not the end yet, but they – you – can get no more country than they are, no more rooted in the American soil, but at the same time, I wouldn’t call ‘em necessarily sophisticated, but they’re certainly professional – they knew how to perform, they knew how to reach an audience, they knew their material and they were obviously very talented, both as writers and performers, but they had that extra thing, which is professionalism. They knew how to use it on stage – they didn’t waste time. And Ralph today, he knows what he’s doin’, and it’s great to see that. And it’s great for young people to see that, and when we do shows like that – we did Ralph recently, and we had some younger people on the show too, and it was - they were like in awe of being on the show with Ralph Stanley.
But there’s something about that music, you know, that I’ve seen and commented on before, is that there’s an accessibility to the – to all of the generations of performers, and it’s – I don’t think it’s that way when you get into pop music, and rock music, and other genres, even classical to an extent.
Well, classical is still open, but the deal about pop music and whether it’s pop/country, pop/rock, pop/pop, pop/rap, whatever, is that when you reach the age of 30 years old, you’re basically finished. And if you haven’t started by then, you’re… you’re finished. You don’t start. Because nowadays, what you look like is extremely important, uh, because of videos and so forth, and how you’re sold and so forth is very important and it’s all about trends, it’s all about the mode, it’s all about fashion. It’s – it’s not so much about the music. Every now and then, something stands out that becomes about the music, and about the music doing more than simply letting you get up and shake your bootie, which is – you know, nothin’ wrong with that, that’s fine – and pop music has always been to dance to and to romance to, and that’s fine, all that’s fine.
But music can do – even pop music can do – more than that, and that’s what we look at on Mountain Stage, is music that does that, but more, too, hopefully, and music that might be around 50 years, when even the most popular things of today that sold five million records, you know, 50 years from now, people couldn’t care less. However, there may be things today that don’t sell so much, that 50 years from now people still know because they have some substance and they have some staying power, and that’s what we look for.
What are you hearing come across your desk? What kinds of trends, what kind of musical experiments, I guess?
Well, we’ve been goin’ now, I guess – this is our 23rd year. And during that time, there have been things that have come up and down. The styles of music, I mean. You had – for a while, blues was a little more popular. It often comes with some social phenomena, or some entertainment phenomena – if you have “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” suddenly you hear more of the roots and bluegrass and old-time music. It doesn’t ever enter the mainstream of American pop – they didn’t play it on country radio – it sold a lot of copies, and people came to the concerts, the “Down From the Mountain” concerts, but those artists, uh, didn’t suddenly become country music stars. Any more than the blues artists suddenly become pop stars. But you do see that, you’ll see, I mean, there’s times when the punkier stuff is on the rise, and the rootsier stuff is on the rise – it always moves around. Lately, the big changes have been because of the changes in the music industry and because of the big record companies first of all losing power – they’re losing sales, and they’re consolidating, there’re fewer of them, and they’re concentrating on many more – fewer, bigger artists, and that’s all, and so they’re dropping a lot of who they consider lesser artists, which many times are artists of integrity, so now you have smaller labels becoming more important and you have no labels becoming more important, because people can go right to their audience via the internet.
So it’s a big deal, it’s a big change. And there’s a lot of niches out there, and Mountain Stage has never been a niche show. And that’s one of strengths and one of our weaknesses. I think artistically it’s a strength. If you’re a smart person, Mountain Stage will give you a sample of a lot of things. If you’re the kind of person that says, “I only like – and fill in the blank – music,” you won’t like Mountain Stage, because it changes week to week, and sometimes artist to artist on the show. And if you’re a person that doesn’t like anything but bluegrass, you’ll be disappointed 80 percent of the time, because we have 20 percent bluegrass – or something like that, I don’t know what the exact figures are. But that’s the way we like it, and we’re still trying to be a generalist in a very niche-oriented society, but there are people out there that like this.
Is it still financially a struggle?
I think it always will be. If we lived in a place where there were 42 heads of corporations, you know, then maybe we would be able to get some more money from that direction. But we live in a state where there are no corporations of any size located here. And if you live in New York, or Minneapolis, or wherever, you – Los Angeles – you, you are able to walk into an office somewhere that’s the head of the worldwide corporation, and say “hey, how ‘bout, you know, how ‘bout helpin’ out the show here that’s in town?” And we can’t do that. So I think it will always be a struggle because also, we are not a commercial show. If we were, we’d have different talent on the show. So, if – we – we know how to – we know what you need to do to reach a mass audience – that’s not what we’re interested in doing.
There’s nothing wrong with Britney Spears and Mariah Carey, but they won’t come on this show. And we don’t want ‘em on this show – it’s not, you know, not interesting to us. There are some people that are on the charts that would be interesting to have on – and we’ve done it – we’ve had ‘em, before…
Well, like REM was on this show. And I would like to – U2 would be good to have on this show, because they do things that I think do more than just make pop music. They can make great pop music, but they do things that are more than that, and that’s what we’re looking for.
Occasionally you’ll have a performer say no. Why?
Well, performers say no for a lot of reasons…
I mean, beyond, like, scheduling conflicts…
Well, because they don’t see it in their interests. If they or their management or agent don’t think they need the exposure that we give them, you know, then the money will not get them here. This is a show for exposure, it’s not a paying job (laughs) – it’s a job that’s promotional. So if they don’t see our audience as big enough, or the right audience for them, then it would be easy to say no to us, because it just, their basic attitude is “We don’t need you. We’re more famous than you are already.”
Now we have many artists, you know, who are more famous than we are – they still do the show. In other words, more people know about them than know about Mountain Stage, but they still wanna do the show, for a lot of reasons. They like the show, they respect it, or they think that there’s still some usefulness to promote them.
So none of the performers are paid, I mean, they’re put up and that kind of thing?
Oh, they’re paid, and they’re paid various degrees. We have to pay because – we pay at least union scale for everybody, and we also give ‘em a place to stay. With some we pay more, because don’t forget, if you have an artist that’s of a stature that … with a name, and a band, and a bus – it may be costing them as much as 10, 20 thousand dollars a day to be on the road. Now we don’t pay them that much. But we do pay them a little bit, because we’re trying to offset some of their expenses. This may be a day off for their tour, and they decide to do Mountain Stage because instead of having nothing, they have a little bit of income, and a place to stay, and, and promotion at the same time, so we’re always looking opportunistically for people who are on the road, and, you know, tryin’ to tell ‘em, hey, it’d be easy to stop here.
And many times they approach us too – we have it both ways. We have people who we’re surprised they approach us, but they do.
Most recently, Martina MacBride called us, and she could play this coliseum here, and put 10,000 people in it, but she has a new album that’s of vintage country music, and she understands that Mountain Stage has respect for that kind of music… So I hope it works out, that we’re trying to find a date that she can do Mountain Stage and it will be different for her, because it would be a smaller venue and so forth.
Any performers that have passed on that you would have loved to have had on the show, that you can’t now… and any that you’d love to have on the show that you still have a chance for and you hope to eventually?
Yeah, right now, off the top of my head, there are plenty of people who have passed on… I can’t think of one just at the moment, but there are plenty who we would like to have on. It’s funny, because I heard Terry LaCona of Austin City Limits on a piece the other day, say, it’s funny, the same thing as us – Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, um, and we’ve approached these people before for Mountain Stage – they know who we are, and they know what we do, and obviously they’ll do what they please because they can. And if they see some reason to do us, for any reason, then great! We’ll do a show if they wanna do it at midnight on Sunda
y. We’ll do it whenever they wanna do it. And there are others, too – Van Morrison – there’s a lot of people that I would love to have on the show – Neil Young, you know, who, who uh, represent kind of the very best of what they do – songwriting, and singing, an amalgamation of different kinds of styles and so forth, and there are many more. The list is – that’s just top of my head, there’s, there’s 25 at least people like that that we’d like to have on, that we’ve approached before. And some of ‘em we end up getting on, and then others that we haven’t yet, so it gives us somethin’ to shoot at.
What do you have coming up this – I know, uh, Rhonda Vincent’s going to be on, in January, I believe?
Who else do you have coming up this year?
Well, shows that we have already booked right now, we have, we’ve got, the show that’s coming up very soon is in Morganton, down at West Virginia University – we have a relationship there where it’s kind of a home away from home. First show we’re doing up there this year features Betty Levette, soul singer; Derek Trucks, a great guitar player, along with three other acts that are lesser known, uh – Susie Sue is singer/songwriter, and a group from Pittsburgh called Good Brother Earl, and an Englishman named James Hunter, who’s kind of a soul-flavored, uh, speakin’ of Van Morrison, he’s a little like that. And then we got Rhonda Vincent, who’s been here before, several times, who’s one of the great bluegrass performers, and on that same show right now the Biscuit Burners and Sean Camp are on, we’re workin’ on a couple more acts – there’ll be five acts on every show.
And February the 5th, we’re just getting that together now – John Jorgenson will be here, the great guitar player, and on the 12th of February, that show is booked, and it’s gonna be a lot of definitely more contemporary things – Soul Live is on that show, the far out jazz group The Bad Plus is on that show, um, there’s, there’s – that flavor will definitely be contemporary. And coming up in the future that we already have booked that I already know about, uh, we’re talkin’ with the Chieftains, we may have them, we’re talkin’ with Chris Difford from Squeeze, I think that’s booked; Bela Fleck will probably be back, and just, you know, on and on.
What music do you feel most at home with, either playing or listening? Is it bluegrass, or…?
Well, playing, playing I like kinda the country/folk music, um, that… my favorite group of all time is The Band. And they’ve been on the show before, without Robbie, after they separated from Robbie Robertson, and that’s probably my favorite kind of music that there is – Bob Dylan, The Band… so, I like that. And I very much like old-time and bluegrass music, um, but I - I like a lot of kind of music – I like world music a lot, I like music from other countries a great deal, personally, is what I’m talkin’ about now. So my tastes are very, very wide, and that’s one of the reasons why Mountain Stage has such a wide variety of things ‘cause I’m the artistic director. But we all like that – I mean, everybody on the show, from the band to the other producers – it isn’t just my tastes. We like a very wide range of styles.
You’ve been credited with discovering Alison Krauss, Phish and some other groups, I was reading, and … where do you see potential for greatness? Have you seen any groups, any performers come across your stage or coming across your stage that you think, they could be the next Alison Krauss, Phish, Sarah McLachlan?
Yeah, I have to think about that for a minute, and probably open my book and look at it, because there have been several people lately that I thought wow, these people are really great, even though they’re very young. But you’re right, we – I – we don’t really discover people, exactly, but we often have been the first people to uh, put, put ‘em out there in America. I mean, there are – the list is interesting, actually. The other day I was thinkin’ about it, most people don’t realize it – the first American, national media appearance by Bare Naked Ladies was on Mountain Stage. Sarah McLachlan’s another on. Alison Krauss is another one – she’s very young. She’s been on the Grand Old Opry but that wasn’t a national show then, and we were, and – Kathy Mattea, Lyle Lovett, I mean, there’s a lot of folks that, uh… and folks that you wouldn’t necessarily think of. Ani DiFranco first appeared here when no one ever heard of her – I heard her first album, I thought, wow, that’s pretty interesting… Counting Crows… I mean there’s, you know, a lot of, a lot of peo- …Sheryl Crow, for that matter, you know.
I didn’t realize.
There’s a lot. A lot of them that we had on that they were the first national appearance was here. I’m trying to think of – the harder question is who – ‘cause there have been some people recently that I thought, wow, I’d be surprised if uh, if nothing happened with this person, but I’d hafta… hafta look at my notes, ‘cause there’s a lot of names in my head swimming around and I can’t think of – I know, though, in the last six months I’ve heard a couple people I’ve thought wow, these people – if they don’t get famous I don’t really understand why not. But then, sometimes it doesn’t happen.
Have you ever been – well, I’m sure you have been – what have you been surprised at, either one way or the other, either a group that didn’t make it that you thought would, or a group that made it huge that you wouldn’t have expected necessarily, that level?
I don’t know. Once again, I’m gonna have to… I’d have to look back at some notes. I’ll do that, if you want, in a minute, and take a look, ‘cause it’s just too – there are too many names in my head to, this many people. But rhere have been, sure, there have been, both of those would probably work, but I can open up my book here and, and… ‘cause there, I’m tryin’ to think if there was, there was, recently there have been some people on… who… wait a minute… (starts flipping pages) See how high tech I am… it’s just the way that I work. It’s just the way that I work here.
… Well, I mean… people that, uh… There are people that I think should be more popular, but I understand why they’re not. And mostly it’s because their flavor is too strong. The way our culture works, whether it be food or music or whatever, strong flavors often influence everything, but they themselves have only a cult following. Someone like Jimmy Dale Gilmore, who we’ve known for years, had been on the show many times, is somebody I think is brilliant, but his voice is either something that you really like, or you can’t deal with it. And that’s the same with Iris de Menthe. There are certain things that – their flavor is so strong that I love ‘em.
Some people might consider Bob Dylan that way, but somehow he managed it…
Well, Dylan is different, because Dylan has still not become incredibly – he’s become successful, but he never was incredibly popular as a performer. He’s certainly very successful, but he’s never been a superstar performer that would draw, that would immediately draw, 20, 50,000 people – I mean, he has at festivals, but he still tours now, and his crowd are three to five, eight thousand, whatever, whereas other people go out – you know, U2 goes out and draws 50,000 or whatever, or Elton John, or wherever you wanna know – Billy Joel – and it’s a different deal. It’s slightly different; however, Bob Dylan’s songs are such that he’s made a mark on American popular music that will last, basically, forever.
Um, let me look here…
I think of people who would have a popular kind of appeal.
Now, here’s a woman – Brandy Carlisle – that was on the show, and she well, she may well become a popular singer. She’s also good, and when I say that I don’t mean to be perjorative towards popular stuff, but the way I look at it, a lot of popular stuff is not great, it’s simply very competent, very good and put together very well and has the right kind of um, formula, or whatever you want to call it, to appeal to a lot of people. And I think Brandy might be able to do that, but I think she’s more substantial as a songwriter. She’s a woman that was one recently, since you’re asking for that…
Liz Wright is another. And you may have heard of Liz Wright – she’s already started to move a little bit, and it may be that she’s too jazzy. On the other hand, she could easily move over into more pop mainstream and become a big name. She’s a singer and she writes songs but she also covers other people’s songs, and does her own arrangements, and she’s – she’s known as a kinda jazzy pop singer, not exactly straight jazz, but def – like Cassandra Wilson, who’s been on Mountain Stage too, similar to that, and she could easily – Liz Wright could go several ways, either become a big name that way or not.
Norah Jones was another who was on Mountain Stage very early, and I heard her record and thought wow, this woman’s really good. I didn’t – now there’s one that I was surprised that she got as popular. I thought – I thought of her like Liz Wright, very good, could possibly, you know, be around for a long time, have a good career ‘cause she’s substantial and has a nice thing going for her. I didn’t think she would sell 10 million records the first year. Glad she did. Because that’s a perfect example of somebody who we have on, who I would like to have on again. We haven’t yet, but we may well.
(flips pages) See if I can find anyone else here…
Oh, here’s somebody. This is a guy from Australia named Jed Hughes. He’s, he’s – I think, once again, that he has a chance to be very popular. He’s like Keith Urban, who’s very popular now. Keith’s been on Mountain Stage, while ago, too. And Jed is one – the only trouble is, you know, he’s like Keith Urban, he’s not really country, but then again he’s not really anything else either. He’s from Australia and he’s not that concerned about the genre. But somebody will be, because he’s got talent. He’s a great guitar player, he played guitar with Patty Loveless on the show the first time I heard him, and then he came back and did his own thing, and he’s got a sound that could easily break through either as country or pop or both. He’s somebody that’s possible.
There are plenty of others – I’m just lookin’ – these are just in the last few, the last few shows that we did.
Raul Meden has already started too – he’s an interesting guy that’s kinda jazzy – he’s been influenced by Stevie Wonder and he’s been out with – he’s been opening with, for some bigger artists, Jason Razz and others, and he’s like them. He could break through sometime. He’s got that kind of a Stevie Wonder thing going for him, ‘cept he plays guitar. Um…
Some great names on there.
Yeah. Yeah, some great stuff.
Just seein’ if there’s any uh..
You know, there are, there are others that perhaps – R. E. Hest is someone that could become a pop star. Kerry Noble’s a woman that could become a pop star. Jessie Alexander could easily become a country star – she’s a little more alt country, or country/pop, but she could easily become… that’s just, you know, people that I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. That’s what I’m saying. (flipping pages) Anyway, that’s enough of that. Just gives you an example.
Yeah. Thank you – I appreciate that. So, there’s a notebook for every season?
There’s a notebook for every year. That’s what I do – I keep the, the possibilities on pages and look and… we’re trying to put together shows. The way we do it is, we have dates we would like to have shows, but if we can’t get the artists we just drop the date and look for another date. We’re very artist-driven in the sense that if we can get an artist we want we’ll try to have a show that week. And if it’s a big, big artist we’ll have it on a different day than we usually have, if we think we can get a crowd into the place so it sounds good. But that’s the way we work, and we don’t often – right now, it’s only – we’re less than a month out from February the 5th, and we only have one act booked on February the 5th. But we’re working on a bunch of others, and some will come through, um, but that’s the way we often work. Sometimes we have acts booked as long as three or four months ahead – that’s very unusual, but sometimes we do, especially if they’re from other countries or if they’re big names and we wanna make sure get them, we do that, but uh, many times we wait ‘cause we wanna see what’s out there and get the best deal and try to get a good routing, you know, and keep things open ‘cause something may come available at the last minute, and you like to be able to put it on if it does.
And a lot of musicians that you’re talking about… let me start over. Music not being pigeonholed so much anymore, and that’s what makes a lot of these folks unique, is that they’re not classifying themselves as one thing or another, and you’re seeing that a lot. I mean Tony Rice, he does jazz and he does bluegrass and he kind of does both, and of course the whole newgrass and all of its various forms… do you think, I mean sometimes audiences are alienated, sometimes they’re more intrigued. Do you think that that crossover and that innovation is a threat to music, or, or a strength, or where do you stand on all that?
Well, any – it’s like any art. If art is real, it’s a real art, then it doesn’t imitate itself. It continues to move, grow, evolve, and the artists, it’s the same way. You can find one of the characteristics of what I consider an uninteresting popular artist is one that does the same thing all the time, therefore guaranteeing the audience the record company loves them, etcetera and so forth, but basically, they never do move.
Now sometimes – that doesn’t mean you can’t stay in the same tradition. You can stay in the same tradition but just continue to get better at what you do, and you’d be evolving. Some people feel like that they need to not only get better at what they’re doing, more competent at what they’re doing, but they need to do other things, because they’ve reached the limits. And as you say, bluegrass is a perfect example – people like Bela Fleck and David Grisman and Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor, and so on and so on, they’ve reached like what they feel like is an edge and they want to do more because they see other interesting things going on.
Musicians – the best musicians that I know of, and that includes most all the ones on Mountain Stage, are not particularly interested in what category they play – that doesn’t interest them. That interests salesmen. Salespeople are interested in categories. And I understand why. And radio stations, commercial ones, are basically salespeople – that’s what they are – they’re selling commercials, so they’re interested in categories because they’re trying to reach a certain kind of person, a demographic. We’re not. We’re interested – we’re lucky enough to be interested more in what we think is artistic and substance than you know … that doesn’t mean that we’re trying to alienate people, or that we don’t want to have as many listeners as we can – of course, we do! But on the other hand, we’re not driven solely by numbers. And commercial radio is driven by numbers – I mean, that, that’s their business – they should be. It’s like corporations are driven by giving profits to their shareholders, and that sometimes leads to problems in our society, you know, but that’s the way it should be – that’s the way it’s set up. So, we’re not, and therefore, we’re looking for something else, and I think that in artists, musical artists, uh, if they are very talented and creative, they just don’ really care that much. I mean, if you’re Picasso, and you, you’re painting in one color, and then you wanna make all colors, and then you don’t want to paint anymore, you want to sculpt, and then you wanna do, you know, make pottery, you do what you want. I mean, that’s because you’re Picasso and you’re gonna – and just as soon as you finish your – everybody likes your blue period, then suddenly you’re into another period, and that’s not your problem. You don’t care what they like – you’re, you know, you’re doin’ your thing.
The festival, too, I wanted to touch on that too. You all had – tell me a little bit. It’s a new festival, it happened this past year…
Yes, it is. It’s a new thing in Charleston – it’s called FestivALL, with a capita – it’s f e s t i v capital A capital L capital L. FestivALL. Obviously named because we’re trying to feature all of the arts, or as many of the arts as we can – performing arts, and other arts, that is, visual arts too. And last year we had our first one and it featured uh, gosh – about 150 different things that went on over a three-day period. This year it’s gonna be a three-day period too, with a preview, so it’ll be three days plus the night before. And it will feature music, with some major concerts, it will feature, uh, incorporate what was already a successful wine and All That Jazz show that brings in – that goes on all day, outside, and there’s a blues night, at the same place. There’ll be major concerts at the new Clay Center here, and Mountain Stage will probably be at the Clay Center, it’ll be part of the FestivALL, and there’ll be a lot of free stages around town and we have a big art fair that goes right down the middle of town.
So it’s a good time to come to Charleston for a couple of days, ‘cause Charleson is a very livable city – the size of the city is great. If you can walk at all, you can stay in a hotel here and just walk around this whole thing and get a lot of free entertainment, a lot of good food, you know, that’s available at restaurants – we don’t have a lot of food on the streets, but we have guides to show you where to eat right around in downtown Charleston. And the theme this year is All of the Arts, All Over Town, because it stretches the limits – we show off all of our venues. We have a lot of good venues in this town now – it’s changed over the last 10 years since the Clay Center’s been built. We have the Cultural Center, we have the Clay Center, we have the Capital Center downtown and various other venues and stages and so forth that are really close to each other. And then we have outdoor venues that are great, so we felt like this was a good thing for the city.
The mayor is behind this, Mayor Jones is very much involved in this, in fundraising – he’s all for the arts here, which is great. He’s a mayor, a politician, who understands the new tide of development, as many people know, is tied with creativity and artists, and he understands that. Mayor Jones has been in the business of restaurants and so forth, and he understands that to get people to come to your place, whether it’s a city or a restaurant, you need to do something. You just can’t open the door and hope they come. It’s not just advertising – it’s actually doing something there that’s interesting, and so that they will come.
But that’s rare, relatively rare, for a community. I mean, there’s – I hear all over the place that artists and art organizations struggle to be recognized for the value that they provide, even in terms of economic development and tourism, of course, which is kind of what you’re touching on there. Why does it work in Charleston, and do you think that’s improving elsewhere?
Well, I think it is a trend nationally that the research, the latest research is that economic development in the past was let’s see if we can attract a big corporation to come and put a big plant here so it’ll have 500 jobs. And that is slowly or quickly becoming a thing of the past, because a lot of those kind of plants are not located in the United States anymore, anyway, and secondly, if they are, then you’ll be competing against every other place that wants to get that plant. There’s one plant that goes and 22 states would like to have it, so they’re all throwing great packages at it, trying to… so if you live in a place that has less money to throw at it, you got a rougher time.
However, the trend is, if you can attract the right kind of people to your place, people who are creative, people who are entrepreneurial, they will create jobs. Maybe not 500 at a time, but five at a time, 12 at a time. They’ll start companies.
And, nowadays, as we all know, for many, many jobs you can be located anywhere. You can be located in Charleston and be working for somebody that’s headquartered in San Francisco or New York, because of the internet. So many of the kind of companies that are going to be software innovators and other things – if you could get those things started, people who start them are interested in quality of life, arts, recreation, education, and if you have that in your community, it makes no difference where you are, then if everything else looks good, if it’s a nice place to live, if the property is inexpensive and so forth – we feel like Charleston is a great place, and the size is great.
I don’t want Charleston – personally, I don’t want Charleston to turn into Charlotte – I’m not interested – I came from Dallas, I lived in Los Angeles, I lived in New York City – I know what it’s like to live in a city. I’m not interested in living in a big city. I like to visit big cities, but I don’t want to live in a big city for a lot of reasons. Many people do, and that’s great. I don’t. And I think there are other people like me who don’t. So, for those kinda people, if they come here, once, it’s like West Virginia in general – when I said before we swim against the tide, part of it is, it’s not that people have negative opinion of West Virginia. They have no opinion. They don’t think about it. It doesn’t occur to them. So – and if you say West Virginia, usually the only time you hear about it is like we’ve heard this last week, with the mine disaster. And that’s sad, but that’s the big part of the state – it’s nothing you can’t turn your back on.
Now, however, it’s a great place to live, and for many reasons. For the people, for the culture – it’s very surprising. And if you can get people to come here – over and over we’ve seen at Mountain Stage when people come that have never been here before, they’re doubly delighted. Number one, they had no expectations. And number two, what is here, even if you had expectations, it’s very good, and people react to that. It’s really – it’s nice. And the people are great, and it’s the right size. When FestivALL it was great, because you can come to Charleston, and downtown Charleston is, is, almost like – uh – cities and towns used to be. It looks like a downtown, and it’s – it’s nice, it’s small, there’s a lot of things there, but it’s not overwhelming. You know, you can park, you can get around easily. That’s what we want to show off.
Your next live taping is this week?
This Sunday we have one, and we have one on the 29th and we have one on the 5th, the 12th, the 19th, it goes on and on.
What’s your favorite part of the show?
Uh – well, my favorite part of the show, I guess, is the show itself, to listen to things happen, because no matter how much you work and plan, no matter how much we think we know, it always has a life of its own. Every show has a life of its own, and there’s always unexpected, delightful things that happen on the show that are interesting to me. And I like strong flavors, and we encourage that – we get strong flavors from people, the performers on the show, and many times they’re, they’re so much better than even – I think they’re good, I wouldn’t put ‘em on the show, but sometimes they’re so much better than that it’s just wonderful – you listen, you think, wow, what a great song, what a great performer, what a great talent.