Skip Navigation


Mountain Music Roundup

By John Lilly

The West Virginia State Folk Festival at Glenville has been a stalwart of traditional music and dance for nearly 60 years. Founded in 1950 by folklore and English professor Dr. Patrick W. Gainer, the State Folk Festival has presented some of the best and most respected folk music performers in the state, particularly those from Gilmer, Clay, Braxton, Calhoun, and other central West Virginia counties. [See “‘Let’s Keep It Traditional’: West Virginia State Folk Festival Turns 50,” by Bob Heyer; Summer 2000.]

Over the years, many of the festival’s afternoon contests and evening concerts have been captured on tape. A new CD release by the West Virginia State Folk Festival offers a collection of these vintage tunes, songs, and tales as presented at Glenville between 1962 and 1979. The list of performers will be familiar to many GOLDENSEAL readers and most fans of West Virginia traditional music: Frank George, Aunt Jennie Wilson, Glen Smith, Phoebe Parsons, Melvin Wine, Woody Simmons, Lee Triplett, Lefty Shafer, Wilson Douglas, Bonnie Collins, and many others. These live performances – 33 in all – represent the earliest known recordings of some of these artists, and some of the only known recordings of several others. The CD’s subtitle, “Rare Archival Recordings,” is appropriate.

While the technical quality and performance level here occasionally dip below today’s slick commercial standards, this CD represents West Virginia’s rural music and stories in a revered and natural setting. It also documents an important institution – the State Folk Festival – during what many feel was its heyday.

West Virginia State Folk Festival: Rare Archival Recordings is available for $15, plus tax and shipping, from West Virginia State Folk Festival, P.O. Box 362, Glenville, WV 26351.

In the spring of 2004, Charleston musician and writer Michael Lipton happened across a sign in Fayette County that read “Hot Dogs and Music.” That sign led to a fortuitous meeting with Marshalene Nichols and her daughters Lisa Spalding and Rita Estep, talented gospel music singers. Lipton was taken by the tight blend of voices, the sincerity of the singers, and the quality of Marshalene’s original songs. The songs were traditional in their melodies, harmonies, and message, yet entirely fresh and personal. Lipton soon began a recording project, which resulted in this 2008 CD release, dedicated to the memory of Marshalene Nichols, who passed away earlier that year.

A Cry From the Mountains, by the Nichols Family, features the unaccompanied trio singing 11 original songs, and one song by West Virginia songwriter Blind Alfred Reed. [See “The Blind Man’s Song: Recalling Alfred Reed,” by John Lilly; Winter 2008.] The three women alternate singing the melody and harmony parts, resulting in a pleasant variety of vocal arrangements. The lyrical content is consistent with the fundamentalist beliefs held at the Brownsville Holiness Church, where several of these recordings were made. Song titles include “I’m a Child of a King,” “Don’t Let a Drop of His Blood Be Wasted,” and “I Feel He’s Already Here.”

Released by the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in November 2008, A Cry From the Mountains was featured on National Public Radio in August 2009, resulting in widespread interest and sales in excess of $5,000 – unusual for an independent release of this kind, but not surprising considering the unique appeal of this recording.

Copies of A Cry From the Mountains are available from the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, on-line at; phone (304)342-4412.

Monongalia County fiddler Elmer Rich was featured in our Fall 2009 issue. [See “Hard Work and Music: Fiddler Elmer Rich,” by Mark Crabtree.] As that story indicates, Elmer was born near the town of Booth in 1919 and grew up in a musical household. As a youngster, Elmer played mandolin in a band that included his father, fiddler Harry “Pap” Rich; and Elmer’s uncle, fiddler Sanford Rich. In 1936, the group played for Eleanor Roosevelt at Arthurdale and were recorded for the Library of Congress.

Retired from the railroad since 1980, Elmer has collected many prizes and ribbons for his own excellent fiddling. A new CD release from Augusta Heritage Recordings takes us back to Elmer’s roots, as he recalls and plays two dozen tunes from his childhood. Tunes from Sanford and Pap (AHR 029) is a field recording, made in Elmer’s living room by Mark Crabtree over several visits during 2008 and 2009. Elmer makes a few comments about some of the tunes, then dips into his memory for some wonderful, almost-forgotten melodies. Except for a little unobtrusive guitar accompaniment on a few of the numbers, this CD features solo fiddle. Elmer’s command of the instrument is apparent, as he explores these old tunes in a relaxed and comfortable manner. Some are simple melodies, others are quite complex, and several use unusual timing. The CD concludes with four tracks from the famed 1936 Library of Congress session, including the popular “Colored Aristocracy” and an exciting “Lop-Eared Mule,” with live square dance calls.

Tunes from Sanford and Pap is an excellent source for fiddlers searching for obscure tunes and a fine sampling of Elmer Rich’s soulful and accomplished fiddling. It is available for $15, plus tax and shipping, from the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College, on-line at; phone (304)637-1209.

Bobby Taylor is a largely unsung hero of West Virginia’s traditional music scene. A fourth-generation fiddler with roots in the Kanawha Valley and Roane County, Bobby is also contest coordinator for both the Vandalia Gathering and the Appalachian String Band Music Festival. [See “Open Arms at Clifftop: 20th Appalachian String Band Music Festival,” by John Lilly; Summer 2009.] Though he is one of West Virginia’s most respected musicians, Bobby has an acknowledged aversion to recording studios. It is a treat, therefore, that Missouri’s Vigortone Records has released a new collection featuring Bobby’s fine fiddling.

Bobby Taylor Plays Ragged Shirt and Other Favorite Fiddle Tunes from West Virginia (VT-2005) includes 22 instrumentals, with Bobby Taylor on fiddle and St. Louis musicians Jim Nelson on guitar and Jeff Miller on banjo. In the informative liner notes, Bobby cites his sources and influences, including Clark Kessinger, Mike Humphries, and Curley Herdman, from whom he learned his smooth, rolling style. Fans of Bobby’s music will probably miss his usual accompanists and the fire in his fiddle on his most popular, show-stopping numbers, but few can find fault in this enjoyable CD of one of West Virginia’s hidden masters.

For more information, write to Vigortone Records, 6130 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63111; or visit

Sweetheart of the Smoke Hole, a new CD from Loris Shreve, offers an unusual combination of unaccompanied mountain songs and western-style yodeling. Loris and her husband, Lon, own and operate Shreve’s Store, about 10 miles below Upper Tract, Pendleton County, located near Smoke Hole Caverns. They host an informal musical gathering there each Memorial Day and Labor Day, where Loris and her singing are always a popular attraction. Born in 1935, Loris and her sister grew up harmonizing and yodeling, accompanied by nothing but the natural sounds of their country home. Her sister is now deceased, so Loris sings by herself, as she does on this 2007 CD, recorded and produced by Michael and Carrie Kline.

Sweetheart of the Smoke Hole comprises nine songs and a brief oral history from Loris, unaccompanied, except for the sounds of birds singing softly in the trees and some guitar back-up from Michael Kline on one song. The combination of a capella yodeling and mountain songs and hymns might be unexpected, but it is enjoyable and shows off Loris’ singing and her unique influences. The CD is available from, or e-mail

A new record label from Springfield, Ohio, is taking on the task of reissuing classic West Virginia recordings on CD. Bee Balm Records, the work of old-time musicians Doug Smith, Barb Kuhns, and Tom Duffee, is cooperating closely with Ken Davidson, founder and former owner of Kanawha Records and Tri-Agle-Far Records. Three new releases from Bee Balm bring back some excellent West Virginia fiddling, some of it long out of print.

Curley Herdman’s Fancy Fiddle (Bee Balm 309) highlights one of the best fiddlers ever to pull a bow across the strings. Born in Jackson County in 1918, Curley traveled far and wide with his music, including stints at Nashville’s WSM radio, Kentucky’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance, and elsewhere. This recording was made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1967, and it features Curley on fiddle, Troy Herdman on guitar, Bob Tanner on mandolin, and Joe Tanner on banjo. The music is top-notch, with smooth, powerful fiddling, snappy mandolin work, and equally strong banjo and guitar playing. Fiddler Bobby Taylor considers this one of his favorite recordings of all time.

Mountain State Fiddler by Glen Smith (Bee Balm 310) features Glen and his Mountain State Pickers tearing their way though 14 familiar dance tunes. [See “‘I’ve Always Loved Music’: Champion Fiddler Glen Smith,” by Jacqueline G. Goodwin; Summer 1990.]

Clark Kessinger is an iconic fiddler, and Bee Balm has reissued a selection of his earliest 78-r.p.m. recordings with nephew Luches Kessinger on guitar. The Kessinger Brothers: Original Fiddle Classics, 1928-1930 (Bee Balm 307) includes eight of Kessinger’s most popular dance numbers – one with calls – along with four waltzes. [See “Clark Kessinger: Pure Fiddling,” by Charles Wolfe; Fall 1997.]

For more information on these or other Bee Balm releases, visit, or write to Bee Balm Music, 4825 Lower Valley Pike, Springfield, OH 45506.