Skip Navigation


Mountain Music Roundup

By John Lilly

Great music continues to flow from the Mountain State, and we’re pleased to bring you a sampling of new and recent releases featuring West Virginia old-time and early country music.

Topping the list is a wonderful and creative CD tribute to Randolph County fiddler and 1983 Vandalia Award recipient, Woody Simmons, titled Double Geared Lightning: The Story of Legendary West Virginia Fiddler Woody Simmons (PCC-012). Some readers might recall that, in 2005, we spoke highly of a related project, titled Woody Simmons: Live at WVMR (PCC-009), with a very similar cover and 29 tracks of Woody’s fiddling and banjo playing, recorded live at the WVMR radio studios in Frost, Pocahontas County, between 1982 and 2002. This new project from Pocahontas Communications continues the story of Woody, this time highlighting spoken-word accounts of Woody’s life and legacy, in addition to plenty of examples of his great music.

Woody, who passed away in 2004 at age 93, was truly one-of-a-kind and was widely recognized for his unique personality, sparkling dress, and outlandish tales as much as for his contest-winning music. Double Geared Lightning is an affectionate look back at this fine man, as told through his own words and those of people who knew him. Produced like a radio documentary, this 59-minute disk covers the high points of Woody’s life and musical career, from his early days on Becky’s Creek to his learning to play the banjo and fiddle, his experiences as a young musician, his family and home life with his wife and son, and his highly competitive and successful approach to fiddle contests. [See “Woody Simmons: Recollections of a Randolph County Fiddler,” by Michael Kline; July-September 1979, also in the book Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music from GOLDENSEAL; see page 68.]

It’s a pleasure to hear Woody’s voice again – he had a wonderful and unmistakable way of speaking – and to hear again some of the old stories he was fond of telling and retelling. Fiddlers Bobby Taylor, Dave Bing, Gerry Milnes, Buddy Griffin, and others add tremendously to the project with their recollections and tributes to Woody. Anyone who knew Woody will certainly want this CD as a keepsake; those who never met him owe it to themselves to get to know this irreplaceable and irrepressible West Virginia musician. This one is a gem.

Copies of Double Geared Lightning are available for $17, postpaid, from Pocahontas Communications Cooperative, Rt. 1 Box 139, Dunmore, WV 24934; phone 1-800-297-2346.

Two new collections focus on songs of the coalfields. Music of Coal: Mining Songs from the Appalachian Coalfields is a monumental release from the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Forty-eight songs, on two CD’s, are packaged in an innovative and attractive hard-cover book format. These recordings span nearly a century, from a 1908 cylinder recording of Otto Langley & the Edison Concert Band (“Down in a Coal Mine”) to Dale Jett’s 2007 recording of Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo.” Performances by musical luminaries, such as the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers, Jean Ritchie, and Dock Boggs are interspersed with field and local recordings of church groups, folk singers, and bluegrass bands from the region. While there is an emphasis on the music and musicians of Lee, Stone, and Wise counties in Virginia, there is ample West Virginia content here, as well. Mountain State artists and writers represented include Hazel Dickens, Nimrod Workman, Orville Jenks, Michael Kline, and others; many of the songs refer specifically to events, disasters, and mining locations in our state. Adding to this broad and eclectic set of music is a detailed and informative 69-page book, including complete songs lyrics, photographs, and essays on each song and artist. Music of Coal sells for $35, plus shipping, from Lonesome Pine Office on Youth, P.O. Box 568, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219; phone (276)523-5064 or on-line at

In our Summer 2006 issue, we published a fascinating interview with author and labor historian Bill Blizzard, author of When Miners March: The Story of Coal Miners in West Virginia. [See “Son of the Struggle: A Visit with William C. Blizzard,” by C. Belmont “Chuck” Keeney.] Later that year, Ross Ballard of, in Martinsburg, produced a successful seven-disk audio book of When Miners March, which included a bonus disk of mostly contemporary songs about mining and labor issues. Previously available only with the complete audio book set, Ross has now made the music CD available on its own. Titled When Miners March (The Battle of Blair Mountain): The Music Soundtrack, the disk features 16 tracks, including performances by Hazel Dickens, Elaine Purkey, Mike Morningstar, John Lilly, and others. The settings range from bluegrass and old-time country to contemporary folk music. The When Miners March soundtrack disk is available for $14.95, plus shipping, from; phone (304)267-4351.

The Hammons Legacy Team continues to document and preserve the music and heritage of the Hammons family of Pocahontas County. This talented family carried on ancient traditions of fiddling, banjo playing, ballad singing, and storytelling, in addition to the old-time ways of living, from their remote mountain homeplace. Fortunately, Maggie, Burl, Sherman, James, Ruie, Lee Hammons, and others were extensively recorded by researchers, folkorists, and younger musicians during the 1970's, and many of these field recordings are now being edited and released on a series of CD’s. A good place to start is with A Sampler from the Hammons Legacy: Volume One (YPC-H-003). It includes a generous 31 tracks, spanning a range of instrumentation, vocal styles, and tales from these family members, plus a few friends and neighbors. This is rustic, unvarnished stuff, best appreciated by those who cherish the most soulful and authentic examples of mountain music and culture. CD’s from the Hammons Legacy series are available on-line at; phone (304)799-4965. They sell for $15.

At the other end of the spectrum are a number of recent releases by non-native musicians, who have been inspired by West Virginia music, have studied it, and have traveled here extensively in pursuit of it. Fiddler Alan Jabbour, former director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, was among the early wave of young enthusiasts who made their way into the mountains in search of old-time music. He is most closely associated with the Hammons family and fiddler Henry Reed. Since retiring a few years ago, Alan has rededicated himself to performing and recording his own music and has recently put out some nice CD’s. His latest, Southern Summits: 21 Duets for Fiddle and Banjo, is a collaboration with New England banjo player Ken Perlman. Together, they offer energetic versions of mostly obscure instrumentals, more than half of them learned from Henry Reed. Southern Summits is available from Alan Jabbour via e-mail at; phone (202)333-1089.

Canadian fiddler Erynn Marshall has been mentioned in these pages recently, largely as a result of her fine book, Music in the Air Somewhere: The Shifting Borders of West Virginia’s Fiddle and Song Traditions. [See “New Books about Music,” by John Lilly; Winter 2006.] It should come as no surprise that she is also an accomplished fiddler. Two recent CD’s showcase Erynn’s rich fiddling and deep repertoire of West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky traditional music: Calico (MO4EM), released in 2005 by Merriweather Records; and Meet Me in the Music (HJ01MC), a 2007 release on Hickoryjack Recordings with banjo player Chris Coole. Erynn’s playing combines elements of her early classical violin training with years of immersion in the rustic fiddling styles of Melvin Wine, Lester McCumbers, Leland Hall, and others. In her hands, these tunes sound full and luxurious, while maintaining their distinct mountain character. They are also well-recorded and attractively packaged, with informative liner notes. Calico is available on-line at; phone (905)841-1879. Meet Me in the Music is available on-line at

Each summer, thousands of old-time music lovers flock to Fayette County’s Camp Washington Carver, near Clifftop, for the Appalachian String Band Music Festival, sponsored by the West Virginia Division of Cultural and History. [See “‘Clifftop’: Appalachian String Band Music Festival,” by Danny Williams; Summer 1999.] Massachusetts fiddler Mark Simos has been making the trek since the festival began, or thereabouts, and won first place in the fiddle contest at Clifftop in 2003. A talented songwriter and composer, Mark has found himself pulling new tunes out of the air at the festival and has recently released a CD of original fiddle tunes, composed entirely at the festival between 1995 and 2005. Clifftop Notes: Volume One (5SP-CD05005)features Mark Simos and friends playing 11 new tunes, all written in the old style and all capturing the magic and mystique of the Clifftop festival. Clifftop Notes is available on-line at