In the early 1970s, a young singer-songwriter named Larry Groce was launching his career in the music business. He had grown up in Texas, moved to Los Angeles, started recording albums, and in 1976 had a Top Ten hit with the novelty song "Junk Food Junkie."
After that song came out, Dick Clark invited Groce onto his American Bandstand show. You can see a clip from that below—and down at the very bottom of this item, a different clip of Groce singing the "Junk Food" song. But what Clark mainly asks about in this clip is Groce's recent role as a "musician in residence," sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, in rural areas of West Virginia.
After that first, half-accidental exposure to West Virginia when he was in his early 20s, Groce decided to stay. Last month, my wife Deb and I spent time with him in Charleston, where he has continued his recording career (he has now done 23 albums, including some very successful children's albums for Disney) and where he and his wife Sandra Armstrong, also a musician, have become major cultural and civic figures. For the past decade Groce has been the founding executive director of FestivALL, an annual ten-day arts festival in Charleston. In the 1980s he owned and ran a ballet school in Morgantown. And for the past 30 years he has been host of (and performer on) the National Public Radio music show Mountain Stage.
We got to see a live Mountain Stage performance at the Civic Center in downtown Charleston, before an enthusiastic and youngish full-house crowd, with tickets arranged through Bob and Susanne Coffield of Charleston. It was two hours of music by a range of established and rising artists. James McMurtry—a singer-songwriter, whom I first met when he was a teenager hanging around in his father Larry's bookstore in Washington—ended the show. Before him came the acoustic rock/folk/jazz band The Devil Makes Three, based in California; and the "progressive bluegrass" group Yonder Mountain String Band, from Colorado. And opening the evening, for a bewitching 20+ minutes, were two teenaged sisters from Indiana, Lily and Madeleine. You can get an idea of their approach from the look of their site and this studio video of one of the songs they performed:
We had gone to see Groce at his house a few days later because we enjoyed his show, but also because his name frequently came up when we asked people in Charleston, Who makes this town go? West Virginia in general and the Kanawha Valley region around Charleston are, of course, places where not enough has gone right for quite a long time. The coal industry inevitably shrinks; the big processing works that once gave the area the name "Chemical Valley" are mainly gone; other corporate headquarters have left; and the leading employers in the Charleston area are now the hospitals.