“Only gold tooth hillbillies that live in those West Virginia hollers listen to bluegrass music.”
Yes, while many West Virginians would claim they have a soft spot for banjo pickin’, they are not backwoods folk who wash their jean overalls in the crick. Hey, we even wear shoes!
Actually, the “Mountain State” has made a great impact in regards to acoustic music. Bluegrass and folk have unique sounds, but they both stemmed from Appalachian melodies using the banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass. Appalachian music is defined by the English and Scotch-Irish traditions brought to the States from immigrants seeking to claim farmland in rural areas.
Because of the rolling hills and lack of communication and transportation, this unseen culture developed in the 1800s. As you can imagine, life in the hills of W.Va. was often challenging and lonely. So, music became a form of entertainment and expression. Coal mining and logging (both top industries in W.Va.), life, death, love and loss became the main topics for ballads and tunes. It was not until the 1920s that these songs were accepted into mainstream media due to the radio.
The Carters and Jimmy Rodgers paved the way for bluegrass and country and helped promote traditional values that the music represented. Evolution from Appalachian music to the new genres of music was due to the fact that artists were being influenced by radio companies and talent scouts. Even if Appalachian folk is not your go-to playlist on Spotify, you cannot deny that its sound is woven in throughout American history and still echoes across the mountainside today.
Thankfully, many players are trying to keep the tradition alive by mastering the music, but also taking it in new and different directions by adding their mark. Here are three West Virginia based musicians taking the genre to new heights.
- Johnny Staats and the Delivery Boys
Born and raised in Sandyville, Johnny became hooked on bluegrass from the start. He picked up the mandolin at age seven, and at age nine, he joined his first band, Bluegrass Heritage.
“I took matters into my own hands, and learned to play by ear from listening to records and 8 tracks of Bill Monroe, the Country Gentleman and many more. There were nights I listened to those guys all night long,” Johnny said.
Devoting countless hours to practice payed off, because Johnny is now a Vandalia Gathering Mandolin champion, Grand Ole Opry performer and a recording artist.
- Tim O’Brian
After seeing Doc Watson on T.V., this Wheeling boy became obsessed with bluegrass and old-time music. In the 70s, Tim moved to Colorado to further his career at the age of 19. Along with being named the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Entertainer of the Year 1990, releasing fourteen solo records of his sweet banjo melodies and winning a Grammy in a collaboration with the Earls of Leicester, Tim has produced recordings for many mid-west bands like the Infamous Stringdusters.
- Reno and Smiley
Don Reno and Red Smiley are one of the most famous duos in bluegrass history. They hit their first big break after playing on WWVA AM in Wheeling. In 1952, Reno and Smiley had their first recording deal with King Records. These country boys are known for their rhythm guitar, clean mandolin chops and signature runs. While the runs were not complex to play, they stood out among other artists, because all of Smiley’s vocals were in the D position.
Today, Reno’s son, Ronnie, carries on his father’s mandolin playing legacy. His band, Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition entertain audiences across the nation. Their new album, “Lessons Learned,” feature stories about Ronnie’s experiences throughout the years. One, “I Think of You” is a smooth ballad dedicated to his wife and the wonderful love they share.
Rebecca is a Mineral Wells native attending WVU Parkersburg. By studying public relations, she hopes to one day use her skills to benefit non-profit organizations in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Even though Rebecca loves the written word, she has a passion for history. You can find her digging through postcards at any antique store or giving tours at The Castle of Marietta.