|Larry Groce Interviewed by West Virginia Songwriter, Todd Burge|
Interviewed by Todd Burge
Photos & Editing by John Bright
Larry Groce has been host, co-producer and artistic director of West
Virginia Public Radio's Mountain Stage since its inception in1983. The award-winning, internationally distributed live radio program is heard on over 100 stations in the USA and in Europe via the America One satellite.
Over twelve hundred artists have guested on the 475-plus programs produced to date. They come from all over the world and represent the widest variety of styles heard on any show-radio or television. Many star performers have met their first national audiences on Mountain Stage: Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Phish, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Counting Crows, Alison Krauss, Paula Cole, Crash Test Dummies, Ani DiFranco, John Hiatt, Loreena McKinnett and Barenaked Ladies for example. At the same time the show has featured legends at the roots of modern music such as Brownie McGhee, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Ronnie Gilbert, the Fairfield Four, Ralph Stanley, Charles Brown, Dewey Balfa, Pops Staples, Miriam Makeba, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Hadda Brooks.
Born and raised in Dallas, he wrote his first song at
thirteen, influenced by commercial folk music then by Bob Dylan, bluegrass, traditional folk, rock
He left Texas to earn a magna cum laude degree in English literature from Principia College in Illinois, spending
his summers traveling across America and Europe
singing wherever he could - on the streets, in clubs, anywhere.
Groce has made twenty-one albums for RCA, Warner Brothers, Disney and independent labels, as well as thirty-three other recordings-singles, EP's and collections. They have ranged in style from folk and bluegrass to gospel, children's music and pop.
His work for Disney records earned him a Grammy nomination along with one gold and four platinum albums. His hit song "Junk Food Junkie" brought him an avalanche of press coverage (New York Times, People, The Christian Science Monitor), and appearances on all major talk and music shows of the time: The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, American Bandstand, The Midnight Special and the Rich Little Show. He has also performed a concert on the Disney Channel and on the Nashville Network's "Nashville Now." Over the years he has sung in Mexico, Canada, Venezuela, France, Britain, Italy, Greece and Russia.
But Larry has done more than sing, write songs and produce a radio show. He has composed soundtracks for two documentary films, one of which was shown at the President's White House Conference on Children. He also sang, wrote songs and starred in a low budget feature film about life in a West Virginia trailer park called "Paradise Park." The film won awards at the Chicago and Houston film fests and is still available in video stores under the new title "Heroes of the Heart." Larry co-wrote the title song with cult hero Webb Wilder (who also appeared in the movie along with Porter Waggoner, Johnny Paycheck and wrestling star Dusty Rhodes).
Although he is no longer a full-time performer he does the occasional concert,
(Jan 20th 2000 @ Cultural Center of Fine Arts in Parkersburg WV) and he traveled to Moscow in 1996 and 1997 as a member of a rhythm and blues band put together by the Mountain Stage Band's lead guitarist Michael Lipton. He has been active in environmental causes, and is on the board of West Virginia's largest literacy organization.
TB: Did you have musicians in your family while growing up?
LG: My parents didn't play, but my Grandmother and Grandfather apparently used to play. I never saw her play, but I saw him play a couple times. My Grandmother played Hawaiian style guitar. But that was before me, so I kind of picked it up myself. I picked it up on the radio. I got into commercial Folk music first, then moved into the more esoteric variety.
TB: When you say commercial folk music?
LG: Well you know, the Kingston Trio, the usual that was popular on radio. That was when I was in the sixth grade. But fairly soon, by the time I was in the seventh grade I got a guitar and by the time I was in the eighth grade or so, I was into writing songs and more into Bob Dylan and that sort of thing. That was the first big influence on me.
TB: So Dylan was it for you?
LG: The main influence of singer/songwriters - Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, people like that. The usual group of singer-songwriters. But Dylan was always in the center of the thing. Dylan and the Band.
TB: When did you write your first song?
LG: Eighth grade.
TB: Eighth Grade! What was it called?
LG: "Now is the Time" is what it was called. Of course, that wasn't the time. (laughter) It was one of those "Come on People Now, Lets Get Together" songs.
Some historical facts: His first singing job was in his native home of Dallas at the legendary (if you happen to be an ex-beatnik from Dallas) coffeehouse, The Rubaiyat. The band included Ray Wylie Hubbard who wrote "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers." Larry also went to high school with Ray, Michael Martin Murphey, who wrote "Wild Fire" and the late B.W. Stevenson.
TB: So taking you up to when you actually got signed. Did you methodically go through that process or did it just kind of happen for you?
LG: Well, it kind of happened. The reason being that nothing
methodically happened in my life or I think that a whole lot didn't happen for a lot of people my age in that way. I had no idea my senior year in college as to what I was going to do. I had been making money playing music since I was a senior in high school. I didn't think of that as what I was going to be doing, necessarily, but that's what I wanted to do the most. Not being driven as people seem to be now by some kind of desire to be financially successful quickly. The "E" world was not here yet. I just decided, well, I'll try this for a while.
I got married out of college and moved to New York City and got a job in a folk club. I was a regular. There were four regulars. One of the others was Melissa Manchester. Her husband, Larry Brezner, ran the club and has since become a big producer of movies. He was a teacher from the Bronx and ran this club called the Focus in New York with another guy. It was an organic restaurant downstairs and coffeehouse upstairs where you got paid by people passing the hat and usually we'd make some fairly
good money. You could make a couple hundred bucks back in 1970. That was pretty good back then. It's pretty good now if you play at the Empty Glass! (laughter)
TB: I know, I just did.
LG: So about thirty years ago it was pretty good. So, we'd have about a once-a-week gig there and then go out and play colleges and other coffeehouses and stuff like that and do try-outs, the usual try-out night at the Bitter End and Folk City and all…
TB: What took you to New York?
LG: My wife was getting her Ph.D. at New York University. So, we ended up living there for a while, then I moved to Los Angeles and that was because some guys I knew in college had an uncle who had an "in" with a new record company that was affiliated with RCA and they signed me. So, I went out there and made a record in 1970. Actually, I made my first record in 1969. It was an album of hymns for a church. Then in 1970 I made an album of my own music which was on Daybreak Records and distributed by RCA.
TB: How many records did you make for them?
LG: I made two for them, which basically did nothing except that I got a lot of reviews all over the place.
TB: The big hit (Junk Food Junkie) was on another label?
LG: It was on another label. After a year in LA and a year in New York... I didn't feel like I was going to be successful in (commercial music) because what I liked was not what was popular. I didn't have anything against it, I just realized that my taste didn't run to what was on the top forty.
TB: I know what that's like.
LG: And why fight it? I could try to change and I did. They wanted me to do other stuff. I tried to do some other things, but it didn't make sense. I was looking for something else. I got offered a job by the National Endowment for the Arts, which I had never heard of at that time. This was 1972. I didn't apply for the job, someone had suggested my name.
It was a new program called "Artists in the Community," and "Artists in the Schools" became a program later, but I was one of the first three musicians to be in it. They offered me this thing in West Virginia, which was a place I was unfamiliar with, but my wife and I decided that it would be a good change. What I had been doing before was playing music for college people and in clubs and things and now I had to learn how to go into schools and deal with children and go into communities and be of assistance. They had a little budget to buy people instruments and stuff. I was in three counties in West Virginia - Barbour, Tucker and Randolph.
TB: Where did you first live when you moved to West Virginia?
LG: Barbour County. I lived in Barbour County, around Phillipi from 1972 to 1997. I moved to Charleston in 1997. So, after a couple of years of doing that work, realized that if I wanted to stay in with the national music scene at all, I would have to start getting out again. So I went to LA in 1974 and met a guy and asked him to be my manager. He really wasn't a manager, but was willing to do it. He got me jobs and I had some other jobs already developed and I was making the kind of living that you make, like you do.
I lived pretty simply back here, so I could do that and I traveled around and then I wrote that song (Junk Food Junkie) which got a lot of good response everywhere, so we were shopping and trying to get me a deal. Nobody was interested so, for the hell of it, my manager and I decided that we would put out that song as a single, which we did, and it got a whole lot of airplay just by us sending it around. We hired a promo man to do some independent promo on it in a couple of different states and it started getting on charts. Basically, we used that momentum to propel it to a deal with Warner/Curb. Mike Curb signed me.
TB: That's similar to the Loretta Lynn story. In the early days of her career she would run around with her husband from radio station to radio station and personally hand them the record.
LG: Yes, it's very similar to that, and I think that those days are pretty much gone. I can't imagine anything like that having happened in the last ten years.
TB: I often wonder what would happen if you approached it in that way today. It would have to make some noise but I can't imagine it catapulting you into a major record deal.
LG: I don't know. I've been out of it so long in the sense of the commercial steps to get a hit. The way that my song got a hit was because it was an odd song and DJs had some freedom. People like John Boy & Billy used my song as a big springboard. That's how it got going, by these "personality jocks". They latched onto it and it began to get massive phone calls. People would call and say, "what the hell was that?"
TB: So you wrote this novelty song and it became a big hit. Was it hard to get the industry and your listeners interested in your more serious work?
LG: Yeah, of course. That may have been a mistake. On the other hand, I don't know if I would have ever made any headway with the other stuff, because my songs were too folky. The days of James Taylor were waning quickly, and John Denver. I really didn't want to go in that direction either, and be that wholesome. It would have been fine to be a John Prine but I wasn't that talented and I wasn't that acerbic or whatever.
(trivia) Some weird facts: Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five sang "Junk Food Junkie" on their long-gone TV show which is must viewing for lovers of the culturally
bizarre. Judy Collins sang it on a PBS special accompanied by a symphony,
Roy Clark did it on the Mac Davis Show, and Marilyn McCoo and Bill Davis used it in their Vegas act. Oh yes, Dinah Shore also did a version on her talk show.
TB: One other question about Texas. My wife and I spent some time in Austin three years ago while she was finishing school. I noticed a big difference in state pride when you compare Texas and West Virginia. What are your thoughts on this?
LG: I often tell people that Texas and West Virginia are like two sides of a coin. They don't understand that. But there's a reason for it, I think. It's because originally most people from Texas, the ones who didn't land on the coast, from Europe, came from the Virginia's, Tennessee, Kentucky to Texas. So people who fought (these places). The same kinds of people settled there and I think there are a lot of the same characteristics, except the ones who left tended to be more brash - the ones who wanted to get out and get away. Some of the people in WV have that same spirit. Because they stayed here, they were isolated anyway. They wanted to get away from other people. They wanted to be on a frontier of sorts and they weren't comfortable with the big settlements.
And Texas has some other things mixed in to it. The guy who founded Dallas was from Kentucky and he was an entrepreneur, he was a salesman. There's no reason for there to be a Dallas, except for he came back and stole lots and that's how the whole thing was built, and Dallas is still that way.
TB: You say this guy was from Kentucky?
LG: Yeah, John Neely Bryan. He then came back to Kentucky to sell lots and he did that. Dallas started for no particular reason. It wasn't on a river. He convinced the railroad to come through there. He was a hustler. And Dallas is full of hustlers, to this day. It's a very funny city, it's an unusual place, but I think that the "both sides of the coin," what I mean by that is, Texas is overbearing sometimes in it's chauvinism - "we're the best, we're the greatest." West Virginia kind of has the opposite thing. I think there's a little much of the "we're not very much here." You know the inferiority complex and the superiority complex, but they both involve "us"."
TB: It's funny, West Virginian's have a lot of pride but they keep it in the closet.
TB: I have a couple songs where WV is mentioned in the hook and when you sing them in a club to a bunch of drinkers they'll all hoot and holler. They aren't ashamed of it, you know what I mean?
TB: But you don't see many bands from West Virginia waving the state flag behind them when they play. I can't think of one anyway. But you do see a lot of Texas bands waving their state's flag.
LG: And part of that too is the Lone Star symbol is a national thing. It's an international thing, because of the Alamo and other things. It's become an international symbol of independence and of being the "lone star."
And plus, don't forget, Texas is bigger than most countries population wise, so if you're popular in Texas you really don't have to leave. You can make a good living there. I mean Ray (Ray Wiley Hubbard), he just started leaving recently. He played in Texas for twenty years without leaving a whole lot. You can make a living here, but you can't make a great living. I don't care if you're great, there just aren't enough venues here. It's a small place. A million and a half people ain't like, you know 15, 20, 25-million, whatever it is there. Plus, it's just smaller geographically, so it's just tough. There are a lot of bands there. They don't care if they ever leave Texas.
TB: Whose idea or vision was it to take Mountain Stage to the national level. It was originally a state-wide program, right?
LG: It was originally. Andy Ridenour (co-producer for Mountain Stage) wanted to do something in public radio that was a live show. Because he knew the network was growing, he knew it was going to have several stations. When he did it, there were like three stations. He wanted to start something. He was a radio guy and in college he had helped to program concerts, so he wasn't unfamiliar with music and programming music.
But he knew that he didn't have, really, the expertise. He had the radio expertise, but he didn't have the expertise to be in a talent coordinator or an artistic director kind of position. He wanted somebody else. He needed an engineer too, so Francis Fisher was at Public Radio and he went to Francis first, and said, "hey, what do you think about doing this?" And Francis had done a lot of live stuff, both when he was with NBC and when he was in Elkins.
TB: I just read that write up on Francis in the Graffiti.
(Larry is co-owner of West Virginia's oldest arts/entertainment alternative newspaper, Graffiti.)
LG: His background was more rich than most people know. He ended up as Chief Night Engineer at NBC and then he decided to go back to the land and get out of New York.
He was one of the first people I met here, so when Andy talked to him about this idea, Francis thought of me. So they called me in before they started and said, "we want to do this state-wide show." I said, "I'm not interested in doing a state-wide show" because I'd already had a national career and it just wasn't a big enough forum. Plus, I didn't want to think that way. I wanted to think bigger, because I found in life that even if you can't do it immediately, if you don't think "we're going to do this," then you'll never do it. So I said we have to have in mind that this will be a national show. That was our goal and it happened fairly quickly. We'd only made twenty six shows before we went national.
TB: Would that have been 1984?
LG: We did our pilot in 1981 and it took two more years before they got any money at all to make any more shows. So then we did the first inaugural one, which was at that time a once-a-month show, in December of 1983. And in 84 we did twelve shows. In 1985 we did sixteen shows and in '86 we went national and we used those shows that were already in the can. Our first national broadcast was in '85. It was a single broadcast recorded at a festival in Charleston to whoever wanted it. A few stations picked it up as a special.
TB: Who was on?
LG: Tim O'Brien's group, Hot Rise and Red Knuckles. They did two different sets even though it was the same people. Then an English traditional duo, John Roberts and Tony Barrand, had a group from down there called the Moving Star Singers.
TB: Was Stark Raven (a Charleston-area band with Ron Sowell, John Kessler, Ammed Soloman, Julie Adams and Deni Bonet who all later became the Mountain Stage Band), or the Mountain Stage Band, on the very first show?
LG: No. Julie (guitar and vocals) and Deni (violin and vocals) were on the first show and I asked them to be regulars. The Fabulous Twister Sisters, the two of them, were on since the beginning. We had a piano player and a bass player, but no drummer. The next people we added we switched bass players to John Kessler, then we added Ammed for drums. A couple of years later we added Ron on guitar and we had various piano players. We've had three. Bob Thompson (international touring Jazz pianist and composer) has been with us the longest.
TB: Name some of well known songwriters who have played on Mountain Stage that you used to perform with, or share bills with, back when you where touring and on a major label. Did you play with Chris Smither?
LG: I met him a long time ago when I was on the folk circuit at Club Passim in Boston and I met a lot of people doing that.
TB: Did you ever play gigs with Loudon Wainwright?
LG: Yeah, and I played gigs with John Hartford, and various
songwriter types from Don Mclean to when I had a hit song I played with a lot of commercial people - some bizarre pairings. The most pleasant were when I was on tour with comedians. That was much better. I did a lot of shows with Martin Mull.
TB: He's a musician too.
LG: He's a comic-musician. He's a good guitar player! Good painter too, actually. His first love is his painting.
TB: If you could throw together a "dream" Mountain Stage, who would the lineup be?
LG: The people that we would want to get are pretty much the same people that any of the other radio shows or Austin City Limits would like to get. Like Dylan, like Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt. People who have made a substantial contribution over a number of years. Not necessarily the people who are the most popular right now, although that doesn't hurt if they're the right people. People like Neil Young, who have been pioneers and have been around for a while. It would be great to get Johnny Lee Hooker.
Joni Mitchell would be another one I'd like to have. Paul Simon would be another one for that matter.
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But those are some of the people, because I believe that they represent some of the very best of their genre who have also become famous. There are other people who are just as, or nearly as, talented who never became famous for various reasons who we've already had.People like Richard Thompson and Randy Newman.
But you know, Dylan is a unique thing. He would be my number one. We've talked to him before and actually have come pretty close to getting him on, but that doesn't make any difference because he didn't come on. (laughter)
Springsteen would be someone else because he could do various different things. He's rooted and so forth and we've talked to his people too. We tried to get him when he was out doing his club tour.
TB: Do you put a lot of effort into getting these type of acts.
LG: Well, we put a little in to it and at one time we put more in it. But it was kind of like beating your head against the wall too long. Unless you have another reason to go to them, they already know who you are. If they want to do it, they'll call you. And that's how we got REM. They called us. The way you usually get big big acts is that they usually have some interest in you.
For the 500th show, we are going to revisit some people who have been on first. And we're going to also get some new people. And if we come up with two or three, we'll be lucky, because... if we had big, big numbers or big money, it wouldn't be a problem, but we don't have either one. We have substantial numbers, but they are not the kind of numbers that are compelling. And we certainly don't have the cache of big time fame surrounding us. That's not what we are. So it's not like we are going to "glitz" them into it.
TB: On Mountain Stage you have performed so many different types of songs through the years, but the songs that seem to fit your voice the best are the old country standards like "Hey Good Looking" or "I Still Miss Someone". Do you feel more at home with those types of songs?
LG: Yeah, what I'm at home singing, is probably, country/folk music, old-time country music, Dylan kind of songs, all the way back to traditional, obviously. I'm not by any means a great rock n' roll singer or blues singer, but I can also sing jazz ballads and things like that. It's because I've done a lot of semi-legitimate singing, not classical singing, but singing of hymns and things like that, where annunciation and stuff is more important.
But I am more comfortable in a country-folk style, which is what I still play when I go out and play by myself. I do a few of my tunes and then I sing a lot of tunes that people on the show have written, so I have something to talk about. Because I know the people at this point and plus their tunes, I think, are really great. So I mix a small helping of my own tunes in with a larger helping of standard tunes.
TB: From listening to Mountain Stage it seems that you are a big fan of poetry. Have you written much poetry?
LG: No. I've written a little, but not very much. I am a big fan of poetry and that is what I studied in school was English literature.
TB: Did you finish school?
LG: I've got a BA in English literature and I'm glad I did. My heart is still in all the arts. I've been involved in several of the arts. I've been involved in several kinds of performing arts. I used to own the Morgantown School of Ballet. I'm interested in performance. I've been interested in theater and ballet and music - all the Arts in general. I'm interested in visual arts as well.
TB: When it comes to visual arts, do you paint?
LG: No, I used to take photographs and I had a darkroom. I never had the facility for drawing or painting. I don't think I do. I never tried. I just don't think that that is something I could do. But I'm interested visually, so the way I did it was photographs.
TB: Well, that's about all I have, unless there is something you wanted to add.
LG: I'm surprised you didn't ask me how come more West Virginians weren't on Mountain Stage.
TB: (Laughter) No, that may be a little self serving. Well, I can't complain, I've been on there.
LG: You know I don't mind that question ever. It's not a problem since one hundred and fifty of them have been on.
TB: The first time I was on was around 1991 and around that same time I was playing a few bar gigs with John Kessler and Ammed Soloman (bass player and percussionist for Mountain Stage) around the region and that question was always coming up. Fans and musicians would come up to John and complain about there being so few West Virginia musicians on Mountain Stage and I heard John talk about it many times, so I guess I already know the scoop on that.
LG: The funny thing is, if you look at Mountain Stage, the fact that you've been on twice, well, you've been on more than most people have been on. And, you'll be on again. So, if you've been on three times in ten years, you've been on much more than most people who are extremely well known. And that's not because we couldn't have gotten them.
But there is just so many people, and the way it works out schedule wise... There are a few people in West Virginia who I want to get. One I have been trying to get for years is Brad Paisley. Now he's a big star. As a matter of fact I just got a letter from a woman who asked me why we didn't have Brad on. What they don't understand is, we tried to get him on long before he was famous and his management wasn't interested. The public is naïve about that - about how it works. And Brad is such a nice guy. I'm sure he'd want to do it. Well Brad may never hear the offer. I don't know Brad personally. I can't call him up. His management is who we have to deal with and they don't want to deal with us.
But you know, we've helped people like Johnny Staats. That's where he got discovered basically. There might be no Johnny Staats phenomenon without his appearance on our show. We've had pretty much everybody I've wanted to have who have some connection with the state or who live here.
LG: We tell people that we don't see a place at this time for them and we might ask them to send us some material later. There are very few people who I would say, "you're no good and you're never going to be good." A lot of people are pretty good and things change, and maybe we change, so I'm not lying to them when I say, "why don't you send me your next thing and there may be a spot here somewhere." Especially if someone is from West Virginia, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and I've done that on many occasions.
And then there are people (West Virginia artists) who won't come back on the show. Like
Mike Morningstar, he did it once and then he won't do it again. I'm not sure what the reason is.
TB: I'll tell you what I remember him telling me. He said that when he was asked to be on Mountain Stage that he was very excited. But the pressure from a high profile gig like that, combined with the wait, was just too crazy for him. (I forgot to mention to Larry that Mike told me once that he would go on if he found out about it at the last minute, like if some artist cancelled the day before for whatever reason and they needed a filler. Mike was fantastic on Mountain Stage!)
LG: I'm sorry about that because I think that he is one of the most
talented singer-songwriters in the state - both as a performer and as a songwriter. I would like to have him back on. We've asked him on twice after that first time.
TB: I just played a bill with him yesterday (Earth Stock 2000 - Vienna, WV) and he was just fantastic, as always.
LG: You and Mike are the best singer-songwriters in the state, I mean, that's been pretty consistent for a long time.
TB: Well shucks, I'm honored to be in a class with him.
LG: Well, you're very different stylistically, he's more roots-traditionally oriented. You come more out of a pop thing, so that makes it interesting because you're not at all in competition with each other stylistically. But I think that quality wise, unless you can name me somebody else, there's nobody else in this state that is in the category with you guys.
TB: If I knew of somebody, I wouldn't tell you. (laughter)
LG: But I think I've heard pretty much everybody. There are two (West Virginia) acts right now that I'll probably put on the show. (The Argument from Morgantown, WV was featured on the Dec. 3rd 2000 Mountain Stage) I need to figure a show that they'll work on.
Another problem is that I'll go see a band in a bar and somebody will say, "isn't this great?" And I'll say, "yeah, it's a great band." Then they'll say, "aren't you gonna put them on the show?" And I don't say anything, because if you take them out of this bar atmosphere they aren't the same. But they're good at that format. And so, certain things are "horses for courses" and I think it would be doing some people a disservice by putting them on, because they would not look good.
TB: Yeah, you know, it's hard to take a really good bar band and give them twenty minutes and expect them to pull off what they do in a bar.
LG: Exactly. Give them twenty minutes on a stage in front of a bunch of sober people and a microphone that's going to capture exactly what they sound like without any alteration and no warm up, and you're right. Some bar bands take an hour to wind up, and then they get pretty good.
At this point I was coming up with a couple more questions (For example: "You owned the Morgantown Ballet?") and although Larry's laid back and friendly demeanor made me feel like the end of the conversation was completely my call, I knew that he had a Mountain Stage show to get to that evening, so I said "so long".
TB: Hey Larry, thanks a lot for talking with me! It's been great.
LG: You're welcome. Anytime.
See http://www.toddburge.com for an extensive list of West Virginia Music links!
|Larry & Francis Fisher Photo by John Bright|
|Todd Burge sound check for Mountain Stage Feb 2001 photo by John Bright|
|Larry Groce on the Mountain Stage Photo by John Bright|
|Mr. Robert Zimmerman (aka Dylan)|