August 2007 Issue
West Virginia performers share the tunes they love.
At this time of year, West Virginia's country roads, hills and valleys echo with the sound of music the area is known for. Musicians in tune with their heritage share their love of it through banjo, fiddle and voice at festivals and concerts that draw an appreciative audience of all ages. Meet three who take center stage this season.
All in a Day's Work
Todd Burge's singing/songwriting philosophy is simple: Write as though you are having a no-holds-barred conversation with close friends, and broach topics that are universally relevant. For the 43-year-old Parkersburg native, that meant penning and vocalizing an appreciation for the family Weimaraner in "The Good Dog"; creating a tribute to the "Hip About Time" line from the movie "Easy Rider"; and expressing what he imagines the depth of a mother's anguish must be upon getting word that her son was injured while serving in Iraq in "Buffalo Skinned by All the King's Men." "I just write what takes place in a day –– the darkest or brightest of things," Burge explains.
Burge grew up in a musical family: His mother was the choir director of their church, and urged him to participate. And, like every kid in his neighborhood, he took piano lessons.
Much to his dismay, the fledgling musician quickly realized that playing takes practice. So, to compensate for his struggles at the piano, he would make some changes at the keyboard.
"I'd make the songs go where I felt they should," Burge says. "Today, I tell people that laziness was really what got me into songwriting."
He improvised melodies, basing most of his musical phrasing on old folk songs and patriotic tunes that were part of his heritage.
"There's a reason these melodies have been around for centuries," Burge says.
He entered West Virginia University in 1982, not sure where his future was headed. But he had an epiphany while writing a paper for an English class about a punk rock group he'd seen the night before.
"Here was this band playing original tunes they wrote themselves. It kind of blew my mind," he says. "The next day, I was listening to the college radio station and one of their songs came on that I had heard just hours ago. It stopped me in my tracks: The notion that someone would actually sit down and write their own music had never occurred to me before."
Burge quickly became a believer, perfecting his technique on bass and acoustic guitars, mandolin and harmonica. For 20 years, he's played out-of-state with the Nirvanaesque punk rock band, 63 Eyes. Closer to home, Burge performs country, bluegrass and folk music patterned after Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond, Charlie Rich and local performers he admires.
"I've learned so much about so many different musical styles," says Burge, whose seventh CD will be released in October. "Blending them together is what helps keep me sounding somewhat original."
Hear Todd Burge at West Virginia's Blennerhassett hotel Aug. 31 and Sept. 21. Performances begin at 7 p.m. The 1889 Blennerhassett features European-style decor, French-inspired cuisine and backgammon in the library. The Blennerhassett, 320 Market St., Parkersburg, West Virginia, 304/422-3131. www.blennerhassett-hotel.com
In Tune with the Past
He crisscrosses the back roads of the Mountain State, carefully documenting the fiddle music that is West Virginia's rhythm of life. For Gerry Milnes, it's the sweetest sound ever created –– one that he became attuned to as a child, listening to his older brother play the fiddle at family gatherings.
"The music, which has been handed down for hundreds of years, is so honest –– it's an expression of values," says Milnes, 60. "It's a tradition that has gone on for so long that it's part of the fabric of Americana."
Although Milnes –– who serves as the folk arts coordinator for The Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College –– is committed to preserving his state's folk culture and music through video and audio documentation, he also relishes making music of his own. An award-winning fiddler and banjo player who earned first- and second-place honors at this year's annual Vandalia Gathering arts festival in Charleston, the Elkins artist plays in the style of the musicians who've come before him.
"Most genres of music have been handed down through sheet music," he says. "But not these tunes. They've been passed from one fiddler to another without having anything to do with the eyes, just the ears. I listen to other musicians, record the tunes and learn them by ear.
"To this day, I can't read notes."
The songs that resonate the most with Milnes are those that celebrate an event or a person –– whether it's the spirited "Bonaparte's Retreat," marking a defeat in battle, or the haunting ode to Revolutionary War hero "Peter Francisco."
"There's so many stories that go with the tunes," Milnes reflects. "Some commemorate monumental events and special people. Others celebrate places all over West Virginia: the mountains, the rivers, the creeks."
Milnes and his band, Gandydancer –– named in honor of the men who laid tracks for the railroads during the pre-Industrial era –– travel the British Isles, the West Coast and around home. Through their two CDs and live performances, they acquaint audiences with songs that, if it were not for Milnes' diligence, would have disappeared into oblivion.
"Most of the songs we record have never been recorded before," he says proudly.
Hear Gerry Milnes Oct. 21–28 at the Augusta Heritage Center's annual Old-Time Fiddler's Reunion, where more than 100 musicians will gather for jam sessions and conduct master classes in fiddle, banjo and guitar. In addition to performing, Milnes will conduct a class about West Virginia's Appalachian heritage. A Halloween dance and flatfoot dance contests are also part of the fun. Augusta Heritage Center, 100 Campus Dr., Elkins, West Virginia, 304/637-1209. www.augustaheritage.com
Back to the Basics
For Julie Adams, writing a song is akin to diving into a good mystery.
"It's very unmethodical," she says. "I never know where I'm going to end up, but it's usually somewhere completely different than where I was headed. It's always very interesting to see where a song takes you."
For the 48-year-old Charleston singer/songwriter, that can mean the folkish "Stella Could Bake," an ode to a late fan renowned for her cookies, cakes and brownies, or the bluesy "Copper Hill," recounting life in a coal-mining camp during the turn of the last century.
"When I was in high school, it was the era of James Taylor and Cat Stevens, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell," she says, "and I still respond to them. I'm very old-fashioned. I like songs to have melodies. I like songs to have choruses."
Adams, who grew up in western Maryland, began honing her guitar and singing skills while a student majoring in English at West Virginia University. As she evolved, so has her music.
"When I started out, I wrote a lot of love songs," she recalls. "Then I got happily married. I couldn't write those heartbreak songs unless I experienced the pain through someone else's heartbreak –– which, I discovered, is not nearly as tortuous.
"I'm finding that as I'm nearing 50," she adds, "I'm interested in a broader spectrum of ideas. Angst-ridden songs don't really speak to me anymore. I'm more interested in making myself and my audience happy."
For 24 years, Adams has been a featured performer on "Mountain Stage," a weekly, two-hour radio program produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and taped at the 500-seat State Capitol Complex in Charleston. The show, which is broadcast worldwide, plays host to a diverse lineup of artists, including Joan Baez, Randy Newman, Norah Jones and plenty of local talent.
"Like the state itself, West Virginia music is special," Adams says. "By virtue of the geography, the state has never been an easy place to get into or out of. Even though we have highways now, there are a lot of families here who haven't traveled terribly far in their lives. So you have a people who have a real strong identity with the state, the land, and each other. That sense of pride is reflected in their music."
Hear Julie Adams at the State Capitol Complex during "Mountain Stage" tapings (consult the Web site for dates and times.) The center is located at the intersection of Greenbrier and Washington streets. For more information, call 304/556-4900 or visit www.mountainstage.org