Dallas native Larry Groce, host of NPR’s Mountain Stage, will return to his hometown for the first time in 25 years to perform with The Carpenter Ants at the AllGood Café in Deep Ellum this Friday, March 16. In a Q & A with the Junk Food Junkie himself, we learn why he chose to come play in Dallas after so many years as well as his experience with the hit NPR show, Mountain Stage, and its relationship with the changing music landscape.
What made you decide to do this show?
Well, the Carpenter Ants are a band with whom I have played in the past. I’m not really a member of the group, but I was some years ago before I was married and had children. I have two other full-time jobs, so playing in a band is not easy. I enjoy playing with them, though. When they made their new record, I sang on a little bit of it. And when they got the opportunity to go to SXSW, I saw the possibility of going down and visiting my family–my mother and father who still live outside of Dallas. They wanted to set up some jobs on the way to and from SXSW, and so this job came up on Friday night, which was nice. I haven’t sung in Dallas for many years, and I think it will be a fun thing. The Carpenter Ants are a fun band, and they’re great guys.
Will you be performing, “Junk Food Junkie”?
No, no–this will not be a Larry Groce concert. I’ll just be singing along with them. Sometimes I’ll sing the lead, most of the time I’ll sing harmony, and sometimes I won’t sing at all because as I said, I’m not a member of the band anymore, so they have a lot of material I’m not real familiar with. But, I’ll sing on a lot of their tunes.
Why do you think “Junk Food Junkie” was such a huge hit?
Well, it was a hit because many people identified with it, and also because it poked at me, who wrote it. It’s easy to laugh when someone’s laughing at themselves and they’re laughing at you, too. It was not a finger-pointing kind of thing. It was like, “Hey, this is the way we all are,” and sure enough, a lot of people were that way. And so I think that’s why it caught on, and it was a fun song for announcers and disc jockeys of the time. Radio was different then–there was a lot more freedom. Now, you would probably only hear it on a morning show where people have freedom to talk.
Does it still have relevance today?
Oh sure, that song really hasn’t changed. Even the food has hardly changed; although, I guess Hostess is going out of business… It seems strange this many years later that it would even be relevant. But really not much has changed except for some of the products. Sadly, this population is fatter, so it’s probably even more relevant now.
Having grown up in Oak Cliff, you’re no stranger to the Dallas folk scene. Can you tell us about The Raggedy Sometime Band?
The band started when I was in high school and Ray Hubbard was in college, and so were the other two members of the band. It was a typical acoustic jug band of the day. We had a washtub bass, and we sang a mixture of country music, old-time blues, bluegrass, rags, and funny novelty songs, and all those things put together. We were regulars at the Rubaiyat. We would be the first band up, and then other people would be the headliners. Sometimes we would be the headliner, but often it would be, you know, Jerry Jeff Walker or whoever was playing at that time. It was a fun band to be in. We worked six nights a week, but that was for a very short period of time because then I went off to college. Ray started out on his own, and he has done very well. I ended up doing some music of my own, and then I got into Mountain Stage, where I’ve been for the last 28 years as the host of the show. When that started, I couldn’t really be a singer anymore; I had to be more of a producer and host.
How did Mountain Stage start, and how has it evolved?
Some folks at West Virginia Public Radio started it. They wanted a statewide show, but they didn’t have a host or an artistic director. They were both friends of mine. One of them was my oldest friend in West Virginia. I met the fellow when I first came here. He was an engineer, and he ended up working for public radio here, and he’s still the person who mixes Mountain Stage. And so we started off very small and very humbly in the state. But our goal from the beginning was to be a national show, and we achieved that goal after 25 shows. We kind of learned as we went along. We had no money and we had no equipment, so we got those things as we went along. By 1985, we were a nationally syndicated show by NPR. We’ve been on national broadcast now for 27 years, and we’re in our 29th year of broadcast totally. It’s a two-hour live show, and we’re on about 125 stations around the country. We feature five different acts that cover a wide range of music–everything from old-time fiddle to African bands to alt rock each week. The common denominator is that they’re good bands and they play live in front of an audience. At this point we’ve had almost 2,000 different guests.
How do you select the musical acts? What do you look for?
I’m looking for quality music that will last for a while, not just the latest “hip” thing. We do have things that fall into that category, but they also fall into what I think are real talent. I look for songs and singers, and obviously bands, that seem to have a real personality, and they have their own flavor. We look for originality and unique qualities, not for somebody that’s imitating somebody else. It opens it up to a wide range. When you say you can have almost any kind of music except for mainstream pop, then you have a large field to choose from. Then it comes down to who is available for a show and what I think might go together. We don’t do shows that have themes. We seldom have a show that’s all blues, or all bluegrass, but we try to do things where they all fit together in a certain way. That’s been the goal from the beginning. We try to get some established people on each show so that the audience will have somebody they know, but on the other hand, we hope to introduce them to two or three different acts they haven’t heard of yet. Some of those may be newcomers; some of them might be acts from genres that just aren’t going to get popular because that’s not what pop music is. And it seems to work pretty well because our typical email response from people is that they tuned in to hear one act, but they’ve been introduced to one or two others, and they’re thanking us for that.
What trends or new developments in music do you find exciting?
The thing that’s been the most exciting over the last decade obviously has been the change in music, which has hurt the big record labels, but it’s been exciting for individuals because now a band or an individual can forge his or her own path in music by going to the internet and trying to reach an audience directly. You could do that before, but it was a tough road to hoe. You had to really travel around and pick up people one at a time. Now, you can do it a little better than that. That whole trend has been of interest. It certainly splintered the industry, but it’s made for some interesting diversity, and it’s allowed some people who may not have been able to “break-through” to get through. I think we’ve been around long enough now to see circular, you know, things coming back around again. It’s interesting how many young bands–people in their early twenties–are influenced by sixties music and by, you know, the Beatles, Dylan, and sometimes much more obscure acts. And I ask them, “How do you know about this stuff?” and it’s usually their parents’ or their grandparents’ record collection, or internet things, or things they’ve been led to because a lot of it isn’t played on radio. That’s pretty fascinating.
Do you think you’ll be back to North Texas any time soon?
Oh, I’ll be back, but I doubt if I’ll be playing music because I really don’t play a lot myself. I started playing a little bit with my wife; she’s a viola player in the symphony, and she likes to play. She’s never done this kind of thing; it’s novel to her, so we play a few dates a year, but not very many. But I do Mountain Stage. We do 26 new shows a year, and that’s a lot of work. We go on the road a lot, and then we have to mix the show, promote it, and book it. I’m also executive director of a festival here in Charleston: a ten-day festival that has dance, music, art, all kinds of stuff. So, put those two things together and it really doesn’t leave me much time to do anything else. I have two kids that are 9 and 6. I’m having my own grandchildren! I started late here. So, that makes it kind of fun, too because I spend a lot of time with them. So yeah, I don’t think I’ll be back singing very much. It’s possible that if my wife and I begin to play a little bit we might go and try to play some places, but right now I don’t see it. I just took advantage of this opportunity in Dallas. I think it’s kind of a fun lark to go back and play, and I really love the Carpenter Ants; they’re great guys. Their new album, Ants & Uncles, is really a good record, and it’s a fun record. It’s always great to be on the road with them.