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Mountain Music Roundup

By John Lilly

Welcome to our annual review of West Virginia mountain music. A theme of “old meets new” recurs among this year’s recent releases. It’s natural, it’s inevitable, and it’s a good thing!

Blind Alfred Reed was a prolific songwriter from southern West Virginia, who made a series of landmark recordings for the Victor company in the late 1920's. A feature story about Reed appears on page 54 of this issue. [See “The Blind Man’s Song: Recalling Alfred Reed,” by John Lilly.]

When he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007, the Hall of Fame decided to produce a tribute album to Reed, highlighting modern Mountain State singers and musicians performing Alfred Reed’s songs. The resulting CD is called Always Lift Him Up: A Tribute to Blind Alfred Reed (Proper American PRPACD0006), and it includes performances by Little Jimmy Dickens, Kathy Mattea, Connie Smith, Tim & Mollie O’Brien, Ray Benson, Charlie McCoy, and many others, all with strong ties to West Virginia. Always Lift Him Up is as joyful as it is eclectic, clearly showing how Blind Alfred Reed’s original songs fit well in a variety of contemporary settings.

The Nashville approach works particularly well with Little Jimmy Dickens’ playful take on “Woman’s Been After Man Ever Since” and on Connie Smith’s heartrending version of “The Prayer of the Drunkard’s Little Girl.” Readers of GOLDENSEAL might especially appreciate the more traditional readings, especially “Walking In the Way With Jesus” by the Nichols Family, “You’ll Miss Me” from Tim & Mollie O’Brien, “There’ll Be No Distinction There” from Bare Bones, “Always Lift Him Up and Never Knock Him Down” from Dwight Diller & John Morris, and “Walking In the Way With Jesus” by Johnny Staats & Robert Shafer. My favorite moments on this fine CD are Nat Reese singing “Black and Blue Blues,” Larry Groce’s atmospheric “You Must Unload,” and Tim O’Brien’s rollicking finale – “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.”

Two minor quibbles: Several of Reed’s songs are humorous, and some of these artists are more successful at delivering this material than others. Also, it would have been nice to have included at least one of Blind Alfred Reed’s original versions here, since relatively few listeners have had the opportunity to hear those precious old recordings. Nevertheless, this is a satisfying collection and an important recognition of one of West Virginia’s true musical pioneers.

Always Lift Him Up is available from the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, on-line at or by calling (304)342-4412.

Born in West Virginia with coal-mining grandfathers on both sides, Kathy Mattea has recently returned to her roots with an excellent collection of old and new mining songs. Coal (Captain Potato Records 7653260-2) includes 10 songs and one brief instrumental, built around the theme of struggle and hard times in a world reliant on coal and the men and women who mine it. Produced in Nashville by country music star Marty Stuart, this 2008 recording is a glowing reminder of just how good country music can still sound, in the right hands.

At the center, however, are the songs. Two compositions from Kentucky’s Jean Ritchie and three from West Virginia native Billy Edd Wheeler make up half the collection, and they are all well-chosen and well-sung. Bruce “Utah” Phillips’ “Green Rolling Hills (of West Virginia)” and Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon” are fairly common songs in some circles, but they are welcome and are performed especially well here.

To record and release this CD was a fairly bold move for Mattea, I would think, considering her 20-year career as a mainstream country music singer. She is apparently at that stage where she can take such risks, though, and we are all the better for it. This album will appeal to Mattea’s worldwide legion of fans as well as to regional listeners of traditional music. We highly recommend it.

Coal is available from Captain Potato Records, 900 Division Street, Nashville, TN 37203; on-line at

Closer to home, several West Virginia old-time players and singers have released or re-released recordings of their music. Three of these emphasize instrumental music.

Ron Mullennex, originally from Randolph County and now living in Bluefield, has been an important part of West Virginia’s traditional music community for many years, best known for his clear banjo playing, mandolin, and singing. A member of the string band Gandydancer since the late 1990's, Ron put out a cassette of his own in 1997, featuring musicians who would later join him in that band, including Gerry Milnes, Dave Bing, and Mark Payne. The tape, titled Sugar In My Coffee, was re-released on CD last year by Roane Records (Roane 127) and includes more than a dozen fine old-time tunes and a few songs. Ron’s banjo playing is the focus of this CD, playing solo and in various combinations with guitar, fiddle, and voice. The ensemble tracks, such as “Bonaparte Crossing the Alps” and “Yew Piney Mountain” are exciting and reminiscent of the Gandydancer band, for obvious reasons. A highlight for me is Ron’s solo performance of “Lonesome Rambler,” featuring his soulful singing and skillful banjo. Also included are a couple of original tunes from Ron, based on older melodies. Sugar In My Coffee is available by writing to Roane Records, 904 Walnut Street, Glenville, WV 26351.

Band mate Dave Bing has lately been touring and performing with his brother Tim. Both Dave and Tim Bing are tremendous musicians, each winning first-place ribbons at the Vandalia Gathering numerous times. With Tim on the clawhammer banjo and Dave switching between the fiddle and the guitar, they make a lot of music. A new CD from Tim & Dave, titled Burnin’ It Down (jMp 206), shows the pair burning their way through 20 instrumentals. The tunes are old and interesting and the playing is fast and precise, sometimes to a fault. In most cases, however, this is old-time fiddle-and-banjo music as it is heard today at festivals and concerts across West Virginia, presented by two of the finest. Burnin’ It Down is available by writing to Jim Martin Productions, P.O. Box 152, St. Albans, WV 25177.

Fiddler Chance McCoy, of Greenville, Monroe County, is fast becoming one of the most respected young musicians in the state. Winner of the 2007 Vandalia Gathering fiddling contest, Chance has recently been on the road with Everett Lilly and the Lilly Mountaineers. His recording debut is a new CD called Chance McCoy and the Appalachian String Band. Like the Ron Mullennex title mentioned above, this recording contains a mix of settings and textures. The band tracks – about half the collection – are spontaneous and peppy, including occasional whoops and hollers and, in one case, some flatfoot dancing. This is reminiscent of the sound younger musicians often achieve at modern fiddlers conventions, such as Clifftop (WV), Mt. Airy (NC), or elsewhere. The remainder of the selections show a more sparse and reflective side to Chance’s music. On “Little Birdie,” he plays a deep-sounding banjo and sings several verses, as he does on “Little Pink.” Both of these selections reveal Chance as an effective solo performer with an engaging vocal style and a sound that is simultaneously archaic and contemporary.

Chance McCoy and the Appalachian String Band is available on-line at

Three new CD’s highlight our region’s vocal traditions, each with a modern twist.

Bare Bones, an unaccompanied vocal trio from Charleston, perform a mix of traditional gospel songs and doo-wop. Formerly known as Soup Kitchen (or the Missing Person Soup Kitchen Gospel Quartet), Bare Bones has been performing for more than 25 years. Their new CD, titled Put Your Loving Arms All Around Me, features Bill and Becky Kimmons and Mark Davis. Highlights include gospel favorites “Do Lord (Do You Remember Me?),” “Blind Bartemus,” and “I’ll Meet You In the Morning,” the latter featuring former Soup Kitchen member Dock Cutlip. The CD is available on-line at

Kate Long of Charleston is an award-winning songwriter who draws on traditional mountain music for much of her inspiration. She has lately been performing with champion flatpick guitarist Robin Kessinger. Kate Long and Robin Kessinger have released a new live CD, titled What We Do: A Live Recording, featuring Kate’s original material, several traditional songs, and Robin’s fine guitar work. It is available on-line at

Frequent GOLDENSEAL contributor Michael Kline and his wife, Carrie, from Elkins, are dedicated musicians and singers. The latest CD from Michael and Carrie Kline is called Patchwork, and, as the name implies, it features a range of music from traditional to modern folk. A generous collection of 20 titles, Patchwork includes old-time instrumentals, traditional ballads, and some contemporary folk songs – most notably, four fine selections from Maryland songwriter David Norris. On these numbers, the Klines are joined by singer Hanna Thurman, who completes a smooth vocal trio. This pleasant, homegrown recording is available by writing to Talking Across the Lines, 114 Boundary Avenue, Elkins, WV 26241; on-line at