After 38 years and more than 950 shows, Larry Groce is stepping down as the host of Mountain Stage.
Groce, 73, will be replaced by country music star and West Virginia native Kathy Mattea. Her first turn behind the microphone will be Sunday, when Mountain Stage returns to the Clay Center for a 7 p.m. show.
“We’ve been working toward it for a while,” Groce said. “I thought, generally, it was time for me to step aside.”
Groce originally intended to leave as host after taping his 1,000th episode of the recorded-live radio program, but COVID-19 shut down most live performances for nearly a year.
Mountain Stage was able to record only a couple of shows near the end of 2020, and is set to record fewer shows in 2021 than normal.
“We’ve done 972 shows, and I’ve hosted 952 of them,” he said.
Mountain Stage was founded in 1983 by Groce, producer Andy Ridenour and engineer Francis Fisher. The show grew from a live variety program, with music and comedy bits broadcast statewide, into an eclectic music program with broad tastes and a host who wasn’t above occasionally cracking wise.
“We’ve never been political,” Groce said, “but that didn’t mean some of our guests weren’t.”
Groce said he, Fisher and Ridenour began talking about the future of the show and their part in it years ago.
“As we got older, we started thinking, ‘What’s going to happen if we can’t show up?’” he said.
Mountain Stage had been very lucky, Groce said. They’d all managed to stay generally healthy and trouble free through much of the show’s run, but they knew that streak couldn’t last forever.
“We were lucky to have so many years when neither Francis or me missed a show,” Groce said.
Ridenour retired in 2014 and was succeeded by intern-turned-associate producer Adam Harris, who assumed the role of executive producer.
Fisher, who died of cancer in the spring, played a central role behind the scenes as the show’s broadcast engineer. His position was filled by longtime Mountain Stage recording engineer Patrick Stephens, who had been helping Groce edit the shows for broadcast for years.
Harris said Fisher had been working with Stephens up until just a few days before he became unable to continue.
“We were very fortunate, and Patrick has done amazingly well,” Harris said.
The search for Groce’s replacement dates back nearly a decade, when the show began welcoming occasional guest hosts in 2014. Grammy winner Tim O’Brien, West Virginia singer/songwriter Todd Burge and storyteller and television host Bil Lepp were among those who tried their hand at hosting Mountain Stage.
“To varying degrees of success,” Groce said.
Groce said that foremost in their deliberations was that they wanted someone with a strong connection to the state.
“Nobody has a stronger connection to West Virginia than Kathy,” he said. “Once it became clear that Kathy was willing to do it, it seemed like it was time to pull the trigger.”
Mattea, a frequent Mountain Stage guest, said, “I recognize what an important institution this is, how important it is to West Virginia culture.”
She hadn’t been looking for that kind of job, but when the show asked, she said, “I’m going to say yes.”
Harris said Mattea’s love of songs makes her a perfect fit for the role.
“That’s what we’re about, the songs,” he said. “She’s also an artist and understands the artistic side, knows that artists need support and appreciation.”
Her ability to relate to the show’s guests also is a plus.
“You get that she’s a real person right away,” Harris said. “She’s been successful on her terms. She never gave up her artistic integrity.”
Groce will not be giving up all of his roles at Mountain Stage. He will remain the artistic director for the show, at least for now.
“We realized that it would be unlikely to get anyone to do all of the things I do,” he said.
As artistic director, Groce will still control the show’s musical direction, handle promotional elements, edit the program and create specials.
Giving up hosting duties, he said, reduces his public tasks and frees him from being backstage during tapings.
“I can still go,” he said, “but I’ll stay out of the way. I don’t want any confusion. The host needs to be in charge.”
While he’ll still be around quite a bit, Groce said he expects he’ll spend most of his time in the recording booth, helping to mix the show.
With Groce at the forefront, Mountain Stage has grown from an obscure music show available only within West Virginia to a celebrated program heard on more than 250 stations around the world.
Groce is proud of what they’ve achieved.
“I don’t have any real regrets,” he said. “The show has survived and thrived. I think that’s a bit of a feat.
“We tried to capture some of the spirit of West Virginia, and I think we did some of that. Nobody can capture all of it.”
Groce said he plans to spend his newfound extra time with his family, although he acknowledged that everyone in his household has their own plans. He has a daughter in college and a daughter in high school.
“And my wife has her own career,” he said.
Groce said he plans to perform some, but he can be picky. A few weeks ago, he went to Slovakia with The Carpenter Ants, a local band he sometimes sits in with.
“I might do something like that again,” he said. “I can play in places I want to go.”
He also hopes to get in some fishing. It’s become a latter-day passion for Groce, who said he gets to the water often. A few years ago, he bought a house near the river. It’s quiet.
“I go there to fish,” he said. “But I also just go there to be there.”