Listen Up! Live Mountain Music across Southern WVApril 26, 2015
There’s a ruckus coming from Southern West Virginia— the distinct, traditional sound of mountain music.
“People here are more firmly rooted in the traditions of their ancestors than anywhere in this country— it’s evident in the food, in people’s way of speaking, and particularly in folk music and dance,” said Ned Savage, an Americorps VISTA volunteer with the Mountain Music Trail, which runs along US 19 and dips into Southern West Virginia in Greenbrier and Monroe Counties.
"It's not unusual to hear musicians with electric guitars and drums playing traditional folk songs that are hundreds of years old."
The music scene across Southern West Virginia is definitely diverse. But it’s also connected by a common thread.
“For every regular old-time jam, there’s also a funk band or group of kids playing punk rock in their garage,” he said. “But here, even the punk-rock kids are aware of traditional music, and while some try to clearly distance themselves from those roots, a great many choose to pay homage to that musical heritage in some way. It’s not unusual to hear musicians with electric guitars and drums playing traditional folk songs that are hundreds of years old.”
Of course, the old-school influence of Appalachia has always left a deep mark on music in popular culture. Think of folk classic “In the Pines,” recorded by artists like The Four Pennies, Bill Monroe and Nirvana. Or murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” influencing works by Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie, and even softly cooed by Kevin Spacey’s character in the hit series “House of Cards.” They’re the old storytelling songs of a bygone era, kept alive only by being shared through generations.
“As our world is continually becoming more connected, older ways of living are fading away, including here. But here, it is taking a bit longer, and older folk arts are still very much a part of our cultural landscape, more so than just about anywhere in the USA,” Savage said. “Here, we retain a sense of our heritage which is highly unusual in today’s world. So to come visit really is, in a way, to take a glimpse into a world that, for most of us, has passed us by.”
The Southern WV Scene
A playlist of music from Americana band The Boatmen, compiled by Beckley Music, a great resource for beckley, WV-area bands and shows.
Perhaps no music venue better takes you back than the Tractor Bar. GQ named it “One of the weirdest, wackiest bars in America,” and it wears it well, with “I got plowed at the Tractor Bar” merch on display. The whole place is so perfectly put together in Farmer Joe fashion, it seems like it might just be a novelty. But no, it it’s the real, real deal. Its homage to agricultural heritage is actually just an (unavoidable) attempt to stay true to its roots. Owner Steve Brown was a farm equipment dealer, and converted the space to a bar 16 years ago.
“The bank was gonna foreclose on the place,” he said. “Sissy, when we got started, we didn’t have any idea what we’d do. We were just trying to keep the bank from taking it.”
Months behind on payments, he didn’t have much to start out with, so most of the parts in the bar now were salvaged from the farming equipment pieces. It came together a lot like an old-time barn raising— community and friends joining in to help get things squared away, even buying the first round of liquor when Brown and his wife couldn’t. They scrounged together old parts, and Brown dragged the 1919 Fordson steel wheeled tractor from the weeds in the back, and crafted it into a centerpiece. The stools were old pipe, adorned with tractor seats. The creative reuse gives the place a rustic vibe that gushes with mountain ingenuity, but it was mostly fueled out of necessity.
"To come visit [WV] really is, in a way, to take a glimpse into a world that, for most of us, has passed us by.”
Beyond its backwoods atmosphere, the Tractor Bar found its niche in local music, and prides itself on having had bands on stage every week for the entire 16 years it’s been open.
“A lot of bars are doing that karaoke business now,” Brown said. “I can’t argue with it. They’re doing well. But it’s not something I wanted to do.”
He said the idea for live music was really nothing more than his own preference, but it’s become a staple of his business.
“I have committed myself to it,” he said. “These guys work hard. Most have day jobs. They spend a lot of money on equipment. And they don’t make a lot. They’re not in it for the money. I like to support them. And it works better for me. We’ve established that that’s what we are. I’ve got something I think people like to come and see.”
They’ve brought in bands from other states, some blues, and they feature a horn band and other genres sometimes. But what people have come to expect— to love, and even ask for— is the country and Southern rock from around West Virginia. And most importantly, country and Southern rock they can dance to.
“It’s what people want to hear,” he said. “Our crowd is diverse. It includes young and old, so I think it’s what appeals to them all.”
Brown said the bar scene in Southern WV has gotten tougher. But the music helps keep Tractor Bar thriving. Not only do they haul in the crowds, their phone’s always ringing with bands hoping to play. So Brown is focusing more on the music. He just put in new lighting and a new sound system, to help make it easier for the bands to set up.
Mixing Up the Music
Option 22, an eclectic Americana band with worldwide influences from Princeton, WV. Many of the musicians are also active in bringing music to Southern WV with projects like CultureFest, The RiffRaff Arts Collective and All Together Arts Week.
In another county, a newer venue is also making music a focus, but not just with the signature Southern sound. Skyline Resort is mixing things up, bringing in a variety of acts every Friday and Saturday.
“The regulars mostly like classic rock and country. It’s what they ask for,” said Kristen Mann, marketing and events coordinator for the resort. “But I like to throw in some punk bands and some rockabilly. I like to mix it up. That way, people get to hear bands they wouldn’t have a chance to otherwise.”
At least 1 of the 2 performances during the week is always a local band, though. She aims to both support local music, and bring more notable acts from around the country to this part of the state. A lot of the area’s music was restricted to the bar scene, she said. But Skyline offers a unique setting, with its deck overlooking the lake.
"Here you will almost always have opportunities to engage actively with the music— to join in the circle of pickers, to dance, to sing along..."
“It’s a serene, nice environment,” she said. “Unless we’re rocking it that day. Then we make it a party.”
But the biggest thing she wanted to contribute to the local music scene was regularity. She said schedules at other venues were often sporadic. Her goal is to make music a staple at Skyline, so people can count on it every weekend.
“I grew up in Princeton, so I know how limited it is,” she said. “I love promoting the local music. People get excited, even if it’s not their kind of music. They’re still happy we’re doing something. I’ve had people tell me they’ve become regulars at Skyline just because they know the music is going to be there.”
More than just the weekly shows, Mann wanted to bring in something big. She helped ignite the Rescue Party Festival, which was set to feature 12 bands this past February. It was snowed out one of the 2 days it was planned for, but that hasn’t deterred her. She’s in talks to try again in the fall, and already planning a later revival of the Rescue Party Festival next March.
It’s just the start of big plans.
“We’re just at the 1 year mark now,” she said. “If we can do this much only being open a year, imagine what we can do. I definitely have plans of bringing in bigger bands. As we grow, the bands will grow.”
Skyline’s additions are folding right into the community, perhaps because music is already such a vital part of our heritage and identity. And like anything in Southern West Virginia culture, it is an intimate, personal experience.
“Old-time music is traditionally not a performance art,” Savage said. “It is played for the enjoyment of playing, or else for folks to dance to. While there are plenty of chances to sit and enjoy a concert, here and anywhere else, here you will almost always have opportunities to engage actively with the music— to join in the circle of pickers, to dance, to sing along, to talk with the musicians about their backgrounds, where they learned these songs.
“…just be warned, most folks will be happy to tell you more than you probably wanted to know!”
Listen to some SWV music:
- The Tractor Bar (Mount Nebo, WV)
- Skyline Resort (Ghent, WV)
- Beckley Music (Beckley, WV)
- Carnegie Music Hall (Lewisburg, WV)
- Rendezvous River Lodge (Lansing, WV)
- American Heritage Music Hall (Ronceverte, WV)
Festivals & events:
- CultureFest 2015 (September)
- Annual Appalachian String Band Festival (July)
- Appalachian Festival (August)
- Poor Farm Fest (July)
- Mountain Music Festival (June)
Check the Visit Southern WV calendar for more.
A playlist of local favorites from Beckley Music:
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