Kathy Mattea was never gunning for Larry Groce’s job.
Taking over as the permanent host for “Mountain Stage” never really crossed the country star’s mind.
Over the phone from her home in Nashville, Mattea said matter-of-factly when the question was posed to her by the radio show, “I wasn’t looking for this, but I’m going to say yes.”
Mattea is thoughtful about her career and life. She’s older (62) and doesn’t seem to mind that things have slowed down for her. Being on the road is fine, but she liked spending time at the lake house she and her husband bought last summer, cooking, spending time with friends and watching a nest of eagles raise their young.
“I want to spend a month there every summer,” she said.
The Kanawha County native also sees what she does differently from how she might have seen it a decade or two ago.
“I shifted from just performing to being of service,” she said.
Taking over hosting for “Mountain Stage” is being of service. It’s helping to keep something important moving, she said.
“I recognize what an important institution this is, how important it is to West Virginia culture,” Mattea said. “As someone who grew up in West Virginia, I can step back in because that culture is my culture.”
Mattea has been a guest of the show many times but then became part of a group of guest hosts a few years ago. In 2019, “Mountain Stage” approached her about taking over as the permanent host.
“Larry said, ‘I’m going to do 1,000 shows and then I’ll step out,’” she explained.
At the time, Groce, who co-founded the nearly 40-year-old radio program, had hosted somewhere around 950 shows.
“Mountain Stage” tapes approximately 25 shows per year. Groce would have finished up sometime in the latter part of 2021 or early 2022.
But then COVID happened. Live performances were suspended for most of the year. “Mountain Stage” only taped a couple of shows.
Groce told her, “At this rate, it’s going to be years. You can take over whenever you want.”
They agreed on September of this year.
Mattea hosts, but Groce retains his role as artistic director — which means he has final say on which acts go on the show. But Mattea said she’s been encouraged to speak up. The show wants her input.
“I’ve already made suggestions,” she said. “I live in Nashville. I live in a music community where we always have musicians bubbling up.”
Not only is she a possible conduit for new artists to find their way to “Mountain Stage,” Mattea sees herself as an ambassador for the show, maybe talking up “Mountain Stage” to people who haven’t heard about the program or how many radio stations across the country carry it.
This is only part of what she brings to her role as the host of “Mountain Stage.” She said the job has a lot of moving parts and the show is complex.
Hosting “Mountain Stage” will bring her to Charleston and West Virginia more, but she’s unlikely to move back to the mountain state. She still has her house and life in Nashville, not to mention her cozy lake cabin in Minnesota.
Mattea stays busy. Before the pandemic, she worked on the Ken Burns documentary miniseries “Country Music.” She also still regularly records, performs, and tours.
At the start of the pandemic, her longtime guitarist Bill Cooley retired. Mattea decided to reinvent how she toured. Cooley taught her the guitar parts to her own songs, and she went back out on the road with a smaller ensemble.
Lately, she and Suzy Bogguss have been working on plans to tour and perform together sometime next year.
“We harmonize great,” she said.
During the show, Mattea said they planned to do their Nanci Griffith songs. Bogguss had a hit in 1991 with Griffith’s “Outbound Plane.” Mattea’s first top 10 country single was “Love at the Five and Dime.”
Griffith died in August.
Mattea said while she and Griffith weren’t close friends, they lived in the same neighborhood and stayed loosely in touch.
“I knew she’d been ill,” she said.
They were connected by the song, which was Mattea’s first solid hit and the first song Griffith wrote that someone else made into a hit.
“She was incredibly talented and held her own in that Texas-based boys club songwriter fraternity.” Mattea said, “She had all their respect.”
Mattea said that she and Bogguss were working on a third Griffith song they could do together.
Even if she’s not exactly moving home to West Virginia, Mattea said she was looking forward to being able to spend more time here. She remembered camping in Pendleton County and visiting the Cranberry Glades in Pocahontas County.
“I spent a lot of time all over the state,” she said. “Doing that, you really get to know the place and it gets in you.”
Mattea added that she did all of that when she was a kid, before she left home at 17 for Morgantown and WVU.
She was excited about coming back and getting to know West Virginia all over again.
“Mountain Stage” returns to the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston tonight at 7 p.m.