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Radio's Hip `Mountain Stage'

`MOUNTAIN Stage" is in the business of showcasing good music. But that doesn't necessarily mean music that's popular.

"Sometimes things are very popular that are on the show, sometimes they've never been heard of. But that isn't our concern, and fortunately we have the luxury of not having to worry about whether they're ultra-popular or not," says Larry Groce, host and artistic director of "Mountain Stage," distributed nationwide by American Public Radio.

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Welcoming and informal, the radio show is recorded live each week before an audience in the West Virginia Cultural Center Theatre in Charleston. Each two-hour show features regular house musicians - Mr. Groce, the Fabulous Twister Sisters, and the Mountain Stage Band - as well as three to five guest acts.

With a home base in West Virginia, the eight-year-old program has had to fend off the stereotype of playing only fiddle and banjo music. While the emphasis is on acoustic music, "Mountain Stage" has featured blues, alternative, international, and ethnic music, as well as folk, bluegrass, and country.

The identity and appeal of "Mountain Stage" is largely hooked into its no-frills philosophy; pretentious it's not. No one is out to please a record company or agent. The program also follows a unique format, in which the house performers play in between guest acts, serving as continuity and transition; or as Groce puts it, a cleansing of the palate.

The atmosphere is reflective of West Virginia in that it's down-to-earth and honest, says Groce in a backstage interview during a special taping of the show in Boston. Although Groce stresses that the show is not based on his personality, he certainly serves it well. The laid-back, bearded host delivers bits of dry humor and sets a tone of mild self-deprecation.

This night's show, presented in part by Boston public radio station WBUR, featured singer-songwriters: the McGarrigle Sisters, Steve Forbert, Al Stewart and Peter White, and Bill Morrissey. Other guests on "Mountain Stage" have included Lyle Lovett, Warren Zevon, Nanci Griffith, Richard Thompson, Dr. John, Youssou N'Dour, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Cockburn, the Turtle Island String Quartet, and many more.

Last year, rock band R.E.M. asked to come on the show and played a set that included the mandolin-inspired "Losing My Religion."

"It's important that we showcase a lot of people," says Groce. "We have everything but the mainstream pop music, everything else in the world. And we try to get the very best stuff that represents the strongest-flavored music in the world...."

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In the past few years, "Mountain Stage" has opened up to alternative music. "Not only do we want to spin horizontally and laterally in the kinds of music styles, we want to spin young and old," says Groce. "One of the things I like to do is mix things, mix people who were famous in the '60s with people who are famous now in college, because there's a relationship and not everybody sees that."

The audience of "Mountain Stage" is generally younger than overall public radio listeners. "It's hip enough to be interesting to some college students who aren't totally myopic in their own tastes," says Groce, a singer-songwriter who had a top-10 hit himself ("Junk Food Junkie" went to No. 9 in Billboard's Hot 100 in 1976) and who has performed everything from songs for Disney recordings to hymns.

The majority of the program's funding comes from stations paying for the show. Program directors speak highly of it.

"It gets a good response from our listeners. The music is always high quality, so is the recording," says Peter Williams, program director for KAZU in Pacific Grove, Calif. It also allows the station to bring to listeners artists that might not get out to California, he adds.

Groce points out that not all radio stations are "adventurous enough" to carry "Mountain Stage." "Our show takes a lot of chances. We don't follow the rules of radio. We allow people much more of a free reign that come on our show, much more artistic freedom." When artists come on the show, for example, they are not told what to sing; they choose whatever they want, whether it's a hit or not. "We feel that's important, and some people in radio feel that's real dangerous," Groce explains.

Although the extent of a public radio show's popularity is difficult to measure, the demand for honest, live music is evident, says Groce: "We're finding out about it a lot more now because we're putting out these records, 'The Best of Mountain Stage.' A lot of commercial stations are playing the records. They like the whole idea of having the live music, and we get some cool recordings." The third volume is due out in June (Blue Plate Music, Los Angeles) and a fourth is expected in August.

Groce adds that "besides radio shows, there are too few things that are like this, where people kind of do it because they care about it, for the good of everybody. Nobody's getting rich on this show, nobody's getting famous.

"We really enjoy it and certainly we have a great time," Groce says, speaking of himself and his co-workers, whom he regards highly. He likens "Mountain Stage" to an informal gathering, where he, the Twister Sisters, and the band introduce musicians to listeners: "It'd be like introducing people in your home."

Musicians who perform on "Mountain Stage" usually share its philosophy. Groce points out, "We don't do our show in New York where everybody's going to go through New York sometime anyway. If they come to us, they come to do our show - they're not passing through," he says.

At the end of every "Mountain Stage" program, all the artists are invited on stage to perform a song together to bring the show full circle.

In Boston they performed the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," coincidentally appropriate around the time of the Los Angeles riots.

"We try to pick something that's meaningful, that nobody on the show knows, so everybody's in the same boat," says Groce. "Sometimes it has to do with what's going on in the world that week, without saying it."

For more information, write 'Mountain Stage,' West Virginia Public Radio, 600 Capitol Street, Charleston, WV 25301.

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