CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Turn “Mountain Stage” executive producer Adam Harris loose in the show’s archives and the 30-year-old turns into a total fan.
He almost can’t stop pulling tape cases off the shelves or picking through boxes to look at things.
It’s kind of fascinating to watch.
In 2005, when Harris first joined “Mountain Stage” as an intern, one of his first tasks was to organize the cardboard boxes of tapes and assorted material the live stage and radio program accumulated over the years. Now, he’s trying to do that again.
Only this time, he wants to make sure the recordings, some 2,000 hours’ worth, are organized, cataloged and protected from the elements forever.
“Mountain Stage” recently received a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to act as seed money to support digitizing the entire library of shows into a comprehensive, searchable digital archive that will be accessible to all audiences through the web or by mobile application.
The grant is really just a start.
On May 17, a benefit for the “Mountain Stage” digital archive will be held at the Farmer, Cline & Campbell law offices at the Sunrise Mansion.
Tickets for the benefit cost $100, and include cocktails, dinner provided by Café Cimino, music by Bob Thompson, a performance by Tim O’Brien and a silent auction of memorabilia.
“This is our first call out to the public about this and a way we hope people will get involved,” said “Mountain Stage” associate producer Vasilia Scouras.
“The show triggers a lot of memories for people,” Scouras said. Some remember one special show because they went to see a particular artist on the program or they discovered someone else while they were there.
“I went to a lot of shows with my mom when I was a kid. She kind of she got me started in all of this, but what we’re doing here is trying to nurture a deeper connection to the history of the show.”
Scouras and Harris said their hopes for the benefit are modest — they’re aiming for “about 150 people” to show.
It’s their first event for the digital archive and really only represents a drop in the bucket for what they think will be needed to make the archive a reality.
“Ballpark figure? We’re thinking it’s going to take around $100,000 to do this, and we’re just guessing. We’ve never done anything like this,” Harris said.
He estimated with funding it would take three to five years to make the transition to digital.
“We want to make sure this is done right,” he said. “So, we’re not in a hurry.”
Yet, the clock is ticking.
“Mountain Stage” first recorded their shows on reel to reel, switched to digital audiotape in the 1990s, and then moved to CDS by the end of the decade.
For the past couple of years, they’ve been storing the shows on hard drives.
Almost all of that will degrade over time. Reel to reel was never meant to last indefinitely. Digital audiotape, formerly an industry standard, was later discovered to be unreliable.
“We’re hearing now that CDs might even degrade,” Harris added.
For the moment, everything in the library looks very safe. Tapes and CDs neatly line sturdy shelves in a climate-controlled room, locked away behind a heavy door at West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s offices on Capitol Street, but safe is a relative term.
So far, no one thinks they’ve lost any of those old broadcasts, but they aren’t sure. Some of the 800 shows probably haven’t been taken out of their boxes since broadcast.
It’s not just the music they want to save, though. There are posters, old tickets, behind-the-scenes photos, handwritten notes and a thousand other things that were just leftovers 20 and 30 years ago but have become artifacts.
“It’s history,” Harris said.
Each show is a snapshot, not only of where “Mountain Stage” was along its time line, but also where some of their guests were in their careers artistically.
Among these are longtime friends of the show like Kathy Mattea and Tim O’Brien, who’ve played “Mountain Stage” dozens of times, but there are also stars like Sheryl Crow or Brad Paisley, who only appeared on the show during the early days of their careers.
The show might also serve to preserve the work of some artists who’ve declined in popularity over the years but who’ve kept performing even though commercial radio has abandoned them.
“That’s one of the great things about this show,” Harris said. “No artist is held to just their hits. If they’re still making good music, we think they should be heard.”
That’s part of the vision of the show’s host, Larry Groce, he said.
Harris said for music fans, the “Mountain Stage” library is a treasure trove, a resource the show is really just starting to tap.
Last month, when rock fans were celebrating iconic grunge band Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and remembering the band’s front man Kurt Cobain, “Mountain Stage” pulled out a song from a 1992 show with Tori Amos.
The singer-songwriter covered Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” nearly a year after the song became a hit and two years before Cobain’s suicide.
The posting, Harris said, sent the Internet into a frenzy.
“That was awesome,” he said, and was really just a hint of what’s packed away among those 800 shows.
There’s a lot more they want to share with “Mountain Stage” fans, music fans and even music scholars.
They’ve come to this project a little late, Harris said.
Mostly, because nobody thought too much about the future in the early days of the radio show.
“Nobody thought we’d be here for 30 years. It just didn’t seem possible.”
The creators of the show and their predecessor, Andy Ridenour, were always so consumed with making sure the next show happened, making sure the next season happened, that they couldn’t put a lot of energy into looking backward.
Their commitment to the next show and new music hasn’t changed, but Harris said last year’s 30-year milestone gave them pause to think. While they were looking toward the future, they didn’t want the past to turn to so much dust and vague memories.
Harris said, finally, “As a music lover who has devoted my life to the music business, I’m excited to hear this stuff [the archive] as anyone. Sometimes the looming work can distract from the real goal, which is getting incredible, unique performances out to the world, but it’s exciting to work on getting out to the world.
“I can’t want to hear it.”
Want to go?
WHAT: Benefit for “Mountain Stage” digital archive project
WHERE: Sunrise Mansion
WHEN: 5 p.m. May 17
INFO: 800-594-8499 or www.mountainstage.org