West Virginia roads meander. They wind and twist and rise and fall. They take you to unexpected places, sometimes sweetly delightful, sometimes disconcertingly archaic, sometimes surprisingly refined, but always diverse. Our roads can lead us back to the sweet nostalgia of our roots, or may further the journey as they take us through the milestones that represent our growth and purpose, but they can always, always can take us back home. So it is with our roundabout infrastructure, as it is with the incredibly diverse music of West Virginia. And nothing illustrates this more than the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
Principal founder Michael Lipton has always been an amazing music historian, writer, publisher, and one of the best musicians I’ve ever had the privilege to perform with. A one-man envoy/ambassador to sing the praises of many, many mountain state musicians, both well-known and relatively obscure, Lipton has done wonders to increase awareness of just what musical passageways have grown out of our beloved state.
Each year, this being the fifth, several diverse and remarkably influential members are inducted into the Hall. This year’s inductees are Tim O’Brien, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Peter Marshall, Wayne Moss, Eleanor Steber, The Swan Silvertones, and Melvin and Ray Goins, all of whom were honored in a promotional concert recently held at Tamarack.
Entertaining, as well as informative, the evening brought to light a myriad of musical styles, which is part of what “our” music here is all about. With the distinctly rollicking style of the Carpenter Ants backing everyone up, there was fun to be had! With members Michael Lipton, Ted Harrison, Jupie Little, and Charlie Tee, they made us all sound good!
For the tribute to Wheeling native Tim O’Brien, John Lilly was on board with “Nellie Kane” and “Walk the Way the Wind Blows”. Bluegrass and progressive folk icon O’Brien is a co-founder of the group Hot Rize and their alter-egos Red Knuckles and the Trail-blazers, but the classic swing albums of the Ophelia Swing Band are not to be forgotten. ( I loved their version of “A Chicken Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Bird”.) He won a Grammy in 2005 for his album “Fiddler’s Green”, but I have a huge devotion to his album of Dylan tunes called “Red on Blonde”, one of the most pitch-perfect and interpretive collections of all time.
Next up on the inductee list was Peter Marshall (yes, the one from Hollywood Squares), who was in many Broadway musicals (42nd Street and Bye-Bye-Birdie, for starters) and had numerous television roles. At 89, he still croons! He released an album a few years ago called “Boy Singer”, a collection of standards with a 35-piece orchestra. WV singer/songwriter Mark Bates performed “The Race is On” in Marshall ’s honor.
Going on into the deep multiplicity of styles, the lovely and talented 20-year old Emily Hopkins seemingly effortlessly sailed through two arias (accompanied by pianist Dr. Jacob Womack)in her tribute to opera singer Eleanor Steber, whose operatic accomplishments are absolutely mind-boggling. Considered one of the most important U.S. sopranos of the 20th century, her versatility is without comparison. She traveled the world. She was a true star among stars when opera was king, and she performed everywhere from the world’s great halls to New York ’s infamous Continental Baths. Her obituary in “Opera News” says it all, describing her as “a musician so in touch with music’s essence and so aware of its varies expressions that to bring them alive was only a matter of opening the mouth and giving utterance.” Wow. Just, wow.
And next it was me, Susanna Robinson-Kenga taking the stage to channel Ada “Bricktop” Smith. This incredible woman, this consummate entertainer, was born in Alderson, WV, just 15 minutes from where I live. She was half-black, half-Irish, and had a wild crop of red hair to go with her wild streak. She eventually wound as the toast of Paris, where she ran a cabaret called “Chez Bricktop”, catering to the elite of the elite. John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fred Astaire, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were frequent patrons. Langston Hughes was her busboy! She entertained at Cole Porter’s parties. Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grapelli wrote a song for her. Wearing a 1920’s feathered headpiece and a velvet shawl, in her honor, I sang “Miss Otis Regrets”, a song written specifically for her to perform, a nice little murder ballad. We followed it up with a sultry arrangement of “Am I Blue?”, made extraordinarily more beautiful by the accompaniment of Jacob Womack (teacher classical, jazz, and group piano at Beckley’s School of Harmony) tickling the ivories just the way Bricktop would have wanted it.
Another inductee is someone you have heard, whether or not you recognize the name. South Charleston native Wayne Moss is a legend among Nashville studio musicians. He was in hundreds of recording sessions, but I think the most famous is the lick at the beginning of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”, instantly recognizable to anyone and everyone. The band did a great version of it at the concert, along with Mark Bates, and then went into a Dylan classic, “Rainy Day Women” (aka “Everybody Must Get Stoned”), and the audience sang along.
Melvin and Ray Goins were next in the line-up of honorees. Hailing from the little coal-mining community of Goodwill in Mercer County , these two were definitely bluegrass pioneers, having played in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, the Stanley Brothers, and their own Goins Brothers Band. Melvin was the first bluegrass musician to be featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine. At 80, he will still entertain you. Everett Allen Lilly and family performed some of the Goins’ favorite tunes, including “Little Birdie” and a great medley of hymns including “Church in the Wildwood” and “Over in the Glory Land”, featuring a little ole’ gal of just 14 as the lead singer.
And last but absolutely not least in any respect were the Ants in their homage to the gospel quartet, The Swan Silvertones. Founded in McDowell County in 1938 by Claude Jeter, their style was principal in the styles picked up by Sam Cooke and Al Green. A line from “Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep” intrigued and inspired Paul Simon to write “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, and he paid Jeter $1000 for the inspiration.
You can listen to WV Public Radio’s feature about the concert on wvpubcast.org/radio. Click on the radio link, local programs (WV Morning) , and find the audio from August 19th, WV Music Hall of Fame. (Thank you to Dave Mistich for the feature.)
The Hall of Fame link is wvmusichalloffame.com. They have a great Hall of fame link with ideas for teachers, an upcoming interactive map of music and locations, a list of nominees and inductees, past and present, and some inspirational links. And may I just say, “God Bless Bill Withers.” Love, love, love this man.
The fifth annual WV MUSIC HALL of FAME’S ceremony coincides with West Virginia’s sesquicentennial and, throughout the year, the WVMHoF will sponsor more events leading up to the November ceremony. The induction ceremony, held in Charleston, will be broadcast live on WV-PBS, across the state. In addition to a notable cast of hosts, presenters and performers, this year’s event will feature more musical performances. . For information about the 2013 induction ceremony or if you are interested in being a sponsor, please call 304/342-4412; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
General admission tickets are $60; Preferred tickets are $200 and include preferred seating and admittance to a private reception with the hosts and inductees before the event. This is a ceremony of great magnitude, and I would greatly encourage everyone to attend!
And so they go, our musical roads, our meandering pasts and presents and futures. They climb to the ridges and to the moon. They drop into wretched depths of despair. They bring to us our loves and lives and memories and hopes. But most of all, they lead us home.
– Susanna Robinson-Kenga, LBSPY #40. Aug 26-Sept 9th, 2013.