With a week to go before Christmas, the Capitol Street offices of “Mountain Stage” in Charleston were quiet. The 2019 season for West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s renowned concert series was over, and the annual holiday shows had been produced the week before.
The man most associated with “Mountain Stage” was nowhere to be found.
Larry Groce doesn’t always keep predictable hours, especially when there isn’t a show on the horizon.
“But he could walk in any minute,” associate producer Vasilia Scouras said.
More than 37 years ago, Groce helped found “Mountain Stage,” described as “West Virginia’s musical crown jewel” by the West Virginia Division of Tourism. The radio show is heard on more than 200 radio stations across the country and around the world, and by countless listeners online.
But “Mountain Stage” is only part of what Groce has done in West Virginia. He was the first director of Charleston’s FestivALL, and led the annual summer event for more than a decade.
He starred in West Virginia director Danny Boyd’s film “Paradise Park,” and co-wrote the musical version that’s been performed at the Theatre of West Virginia and is on the Charleston’s Light Opera Guild’s schedule this coming summer. He’s being inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in April for his many, many contributions to the West Virginia cultural scene.
For those reasons and more, Larry Groce — 72-year-old singer-songwriter, radio host, festival producer and to many, the voice of West Virginia — is the 2019 Sunday Gazette-Mail West Virginian of the Year.
It’s not a job, but a life
Groce breezes in and out of “Mountain Stage” as he needs to, shows up when the recording of the radio show is being edited and stops in to meet with show producers or with West Virginia Public Broadcasting executives.
In recent weeks, he’s been busy with other projects — a series of holiday shows around the state with “America’s Got Talent” winner (and 2011 West Virginian of the Year) Landau Eugene Murphy Jr.
For those shows, Groce was accompanied by his teenage daughter, Virginia. She’s a violist, like her mother, Sandra.
“She’s kind of getting both barrels of the touring musician experience,” laughed Adam Harris, executive producer of “Mountain Stage.” “But Larry wanted to take her out with him, so she could see what it was like and do it the right way.”
Groce has seen the wrong way. His brush with national fame more than four decades ago gave him more than income. It gave him insight.
A career made in the Mountain State
Larry Groce is so much a part of West Virginia, it’s surprising to some that he isn’t from the state.
Originally from Texas, the singer-songwriter was already touring and performing, and had already lived in New York and Los Angeles, when he arrived in West Virginia in 1972.
“I was offered a nine-month job sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in three counties of West Virginia [Barbour, Tucker and Randolph],” Groce told the Charleston Gazette in a 2011 interview. “I helped kids write songs. I brought in Billy Edd Wheeler, Jean Ritchie and other people to do concerts. I helped people in the community interested in trying to do music. They wanted me to stay and do another nine months, so I did that.”
His wife, Sandra, a violist for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, said her husband fell in love with the state. “It was south, but not too south,” she said.
While working for the NEA, Groce continued to write and record songs, including the novelty hit “Junk Food Junkie.” The tale of a health food nut who can’t break his late-night addiction to Twinkies and Moon Pies reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976. The chorus goes:
In the daytime I’m Mr. Natural
Just as healthy as I can be
But at night I’m a junk food junkie
Good Lord have pity on me
The song’s success earned Groce appearances on “The Tonight Show,” “American Bandstand” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” among others.
The hit also got him more work. He toured and opened for better-known acts, including soft-rock superstars The Captain and Tennille.
“That wasn’t very good,” Groce said in the 2011 interview. “My favorite opening jobs were with comedians rather than singers. People who liked comedians liked ‘Junk Food Junkie.’ I was opening for people like Martin Mull and Robert Klein.”
Lessons learned from the road
After “Junk Food Junkie,” Groce released several records, but didn’t chart any more singles. Instead, he moved into recording music for children through Disney.
“That’s a funny thing,” Harris said. “Larry crossed paths with people in ways you’d just never expect.”
Harris said Groce tends to be hesitant about children diving into the world of professional entertainment. Groce told him that he’d seen things about it that he didn’t like.
“He was at a Mickey Mouse Club show and said that a woman came up to him and told him her son was a huge fan of his,” Harris said. On command, a small boy sang “Junk Food Junkie,” which might have been flattering, but made Groce wary.
“There was just something off about the whole thing,” Groce told Harris.
The producer said what made the story eerie to him was when he heard it repeated by actor/musician Corey Feldman, whose sister had been a “Mouseketeer” in the 1970s.
In a radio interview, Feldman, a 1990s poster child for the perils of childhood stardom, said his mother made him learn “Junk Food Junkie” because she thought it was a funny song for a fat kid to sing.
On tour, Groce saw the good, the bad and the ugly of the entertainment world. Sometimes, he was treated well. Other times, he wasn’t. He watched how others were treated, too — and he remembered everything.
“Larry’s experiences really influenced and informed how we do the things we do at ‘Mountain Stage,’” Harris said. “Larry knew what it was like to be the opening act. He knew what it was like when the host didn’t know who you were.”
Associate producer Jeff Shirley said Groce always checks in with each guest. “He has a way to make you feel at ease,” Shirley said.
By the time many of the guests make it to the show, they’ve already come across people who’ve booked them strictly based on business recommendations, trends or buzz, and don’t really know what their music is about.
Groce takes the musical guests seriously. He’s knowledgeable about their work. Letting each guest know that they’ve been booked because the host believes in what they do helps break the ice and make the artists feel more welcome.
“That’s particularly important if it’s the first time,” Shirley said. He added that some of the bands grew up listening to “Mountain Stage.” They’re fans and getting to play the show is on their musical bucket list.
“It’s a big deal for them to be there,” Shirley said.
From guest to host
Groce, along with Francis Fisher and Andy Ridenour, helped found “Mountain Stage” in 1983.
The idea was developed by Ridenour at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, as a sort of West Virginia answer to the popular “A Prairie Home Companion” from Minnesota, a variety show with musical guests, skits and comedy.
Ridenour and Groce had met while Ridenour worked at the radio station WCIR in Beckley.
“Larry was out promoting ‘Junk Food Junkie’ and came by the station,” Ridenour said.
After Ridenour left WCIR for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and began developing the idea for “Mountain Stage,” he was talking to WVPB sound engineer Francis Fisher about finding a host.
“Francis and Larry were friends,” Ridenour said. “Francis suggested Larry, but I didn’t think he’d want to do it.”
Ridenour said they all learned to do the show “by the seat of our pants,” but that Groce was a natural as host.
“He’d already been on shows like this before — and we all just got better,” he said.
Eventually, “Mountain Stage” dropped the skits and the comedians and focused on the music (although humorist Bil Lepp has been featured over the last couple of years).
The program flourished, going from a live, statewide radio show to a beloved, recorded live performance program heard around the world.
“Probably, Larry’s greatest contribution to the show was as artistic director,” said Ridenour, who retired from Mountain Stage in 2011.
A who’s who of prominent and up and coming musicians have been on the “Mountain Stage” over the past 37 years — everyone from R.E.M., Townes Van Zandt and Levon Helm to Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass and Tyler Childers.
A FestivALL that’s still growing
In 2005, Groce helped the city of Charleston launch FestivALL, a three-day summer arts and music festival. He helped shepherd the arts and music festival through its awkward, early years, tirelessly promoted it and helped build it into one of the best-known festivals in the state.
Groce envisioned the event growing into a weeklong or nine-day citywide event. FestivALL is now a 15-day festival that also has a shorter version in the fall. The organization also helps produce and promote other city celebrations and festivals, including the GoodNight shows that take place on New Year’s Eve.
Groce served as director or co-director of FestivALL for more than a decade, eventually turning over the reins to Brittany Javins, who stepped down from the post last summer and turned it over to Maria Belcher.
Sandra Groce said while her husband didn’t start FestivALL — the idea of an arts festival came from members of city government like Vic Grigoraci — he was the one who helped give it shape.
She said Groce had seen the Spoleto Festival and the Piccolo Spoleto Festivals in Charleston, South Carolina, and imagined that Charleston, West Virginia, could sort of combine the ideas of the two.
“But without the money,” she laughed.
‘You hate to disappoint him’
Among the tight-knit “Mountain Stage” crew, Groce is revered. He’s Larry to many of them, and L.G. to some of those closest to him.
“You hate to disappoint him, because that’s kind of like disappointing your dad,” Scouras said. “You want to do a good job and make him proud.”
Scouras came to “Mountain Stage” through FestivALL, where she met Groce when she was an art student at West Virginia State University.
“They needed some extra hands and I was interested in exploring the public art side,” Scouras said. “I’d already spent a couple of years painting with my friends until two in the morning.”
What she remembered best about working with Groce during FestivALL was his generosity and openness to other ideas. He had all the experience and the authority, but listened to people.
“He’s approachable,” she said. “He was willing to talk things out with you and I was just a college kid, but I really felt like I had a seat at the table.”
Shirley said, “He’s one of the smartest people I know. And also one of the nicest and one of the most genuine. People say that all the time, but that’s who he is.”
Groce is also eminently quotable, Shirley said: “He’ll say little brilliant things all day long.”
Shirley’s favorite was, “A talking dog doesn’t need to give a good speech.”
In the entertainment world, he said, that applies to a lot of situations. Why would a talking dog need to give a good speech? Something that’s novel and original doesn’t necessarily have to be more than just that.
“We used to have that on the wall,” Shirley said.
Groce has gradually stepped back from some of his responsibilities. The first to go was FestivALL, which was partly out of necessity, Sandra Groce said.
“When you get Larry in a project, you get vision, which can be nebulous, but you get someone to help deal with the programming and the promotion,” she said.
Groce threw himself into the minutia of FestivALL and was all but devoured by it, which Sandra said led to her husband’s heart attack in 2011.
She said her husband has been cutting back and spending a little more time doing leisure activities. He’s taken up fishing, and sends his wife pictures of the fish he catches. His grin in those pictures is wide and triumphant.
“He still enjoys everything he does,” she said.
For years, Groce was the only host for “Mountain Stage,” but that’s not the case any more. Country music star and Cross Lanes native Kathy Mattea has become a regular guest host.
“Larry still maintains being artistic director. He still helps with booking acts, with selecting acts,” Harris said.
Harris said Groce would be hard to replace, and not just because of his skills or knowledge.
“Larry grew into this role as ambassador and he’s just so good at it,” Harris said.
Throughout Groce’s career, he’s shown a kindly, friendly face to the world — on stage, in front of an audience, on the radio with thousands listening at home, but also backstage with the guests who’ve traveled to play the “Mountain Stage.”
For many of them, Groce has been the face and voice of West Virginia. He jokes about hillbilly “culture” sometimes, but his deep affection for the state and its people is impossible to miss.
“He’s helped me realize,” Harris said, “how much there is to love about West Virginia.”