One of the things I was looking forward to the most in my travels through West Virginia was the opportunity to listen to some great Mountain Music. West Virginia music leans heavily towards bluegrass and country, with a wonderful dose of mandolin thrown in now and again. There are many other kinds of music around the state too and you can check out my favorites on my West Virginia Playlist HERE or on Spotify HERE. There are some legendary venues around the state, too and I was really happy to visit some of these. This is a quick look at some of the great and not so great spots I found in my travels.
My musical journey through The Mountain State began at The Troubadour Lounge outside of Berkeley Springs. I'm kind of sorry it did. This bar was owned by country music legend Jim McCoy until he passed away in 2016 and houses the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. I'm told it was quite the place back when Jim was running it. When I pulled in, it looked like just my kind of place. It was outside of town and had a good feel to it, an old school honky-tonk on a back country road. I wish I had kept on driving. When I opened the door, loud death-metal was blaring from the jukebox. I can go for some metal, but at a country bar? There were a few people there, and all of them seemed to be smoking. Bars and restaurant that allow smoking these days, especially ones that aren't well ventilated, is generally just a "no" for me, and I know it is for a lot of people. Even most smokers I know, and I used to be one, don't want to sit in a smoky room and leave smelling like an ashtray. My visit took an instant negative turn and I hadn't even had a drink yet.
I took a seat at the bar, and the bartender was nice enough, but not exactly what I would call friendly. I ordered a beer and some wings. There was supposed to be a wing special that night, and though I didn't actually want All I Could Eat wings, I was surprised when it wasn't offered. Oh well. A few more people came in and the smoke got thicker. The death metal stopped and we sat in silence. I hate a silent bar. I know that jukeboxes are a way to make money, but they aren't the way a bar makes money and I am more likely to leave a silent bar much sooner.
I wanted to hear some live music, and it was supposed to be an Open Mic night which I thought was great - I would see several local musicians in one night. It didn't even seem like they were set up for it, and not one person played. I hate this. An Open Mic is not just a calendar filler. You can do one right or do one wrong and when nobody is hosting it and nobody is lined up to come in, it is actually not anything.
My wings arrived and they were obviously frozen breaded wings and I was glad I didn't order the special. And I actually had to ask the bartender for some napkins. Not extra napkins, just napkins.
I got up and sought out the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. It was a series of old plaques on the wall in the pool room and it was okay and I'm glad I saw it. But that was the highlight of my visit. The funniest thing was that the people across the bar from me were discussing why there weren't any tourists in the bar and what they could do to attract them. When I tried to offer a comment, they got quiet and turned away from me. I wanted to love this bar, but it was one of the worst places I visited in my entire month in the state. They're trying to ride a wave when the person who generated it is no longer there, and they are failing. The Troubadour is a lesson in how not to run a bar, especially one that wants to attract tourists. I'm sure Jim McCoy is rolling over in his grave.
Thankfully, my next stop was everything The Troubadour wasn't. The Purple Fiddle in Thomas was doing almost everything right. Their website and Facebook pages were up to date. They were incredibly friendly to a stranger and went out of their way to make me feel like I was welcome. The bar itself was a nice place (and smoke free), and the music was phenomenal. I was so happy to see Man About a Horse play that night. Even though they are a Philadelphia based band, they really hit the spot on some old-time mountain music.
I liked The Purple Fiddle so much, I went back the next day for an afternoon show by The Rogue Farmers. They were also a great band with a unique sound they called "farm jazz". Whatever that is exactly, I liked it, as The Rogue Farmers are very talented. There weren't a ton of people there for the afternoon show, but it was great to see some kids running around in the family friendly environment. And I like just the idea of a Saturday afternoon show, it was great to be there and hear some great music.
The Purple Fiddle was certainly a wonderful contrast to The Troubadour and got me back to being excited for West Virginia music and venues.
After that afternoon show, I headed south and east, stopping off for a quick hike up to Seneca Rocks. I then made my way down to Franklin where I wanted to catch the last show of the season of The Country Store Opry. The Country Store Opry actually started out in an old country store way back in 1967. These days they play a dozen or so shows a year in the spring and fall, and they move around the Potomac Highlands to do it. In addition to Franklin, they play shows in Moorefield and Petersburg.
This show was held in the auditorium at Pendleton County High School. I had sent them a note to see if they would let me record some of their show for my podcast, which they agreed to and you can listen to HERE. From the time I walked in the door, I was overwhelmed with how welcoming and wonderful everyone was. From the ladies selling tickets to the guy selling hot dogs, everyone seemed excited for the show and in such a good mood. This was truly the kind of hospitality that West Virginia is known for and it was such a comfortable environment.
When the show started and the band began to play, I leaned back in my chair and smiled. These guys really loved what they were doing and seemed to be having such a good time. And it was clear that they really loved music and loved to play. Their music was all old-school country, mostly covers, but it was clear that each show was unique. Each band member got to pick a song and take the lead. It was a lot of fun. Then one lady who was dressed like Little Bo Peep and had just been sitting quietly on stage the whole time got up and approached the Mic. She started telling jokes about life in the country and it took a minute for me to register what was going on. By her second or third joke, I was laughing out loud. She was hilarious.
The band took a break and I enjoyed talking with Carolyn Simmons, one of the lead singers. She told me she usually played guitar but had slipped on some ice and hurt her hand. She also told me the other lead singer Wendell Nelson had just had surgery. These guys were real troopers to be on stage making the night happen. I guess the show must go on.
Their second set was really great. They had some guest appearances and played some more great music. Some of the music I knew, and some was new to me, but you could really see how much they enjoyed playing it.
After the show, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with Wendell, who was the only original member of the band. He was as nice as could be, and I really enjoyed chatting with him about his projects and mine. If you're ever headed to the Pacific Highlands, have a look at The Country Store Opry's schedule and see if you can get to a show. It is a good, wholesome, family friendly show, and well worth the effort.
The next show I caught was on the other side of the state, at The Mountaineer Opry House in Milton, between Charleston and Huntington. The Mountaineer Opry House is an old-school auditorium, with really good acoustics and was purpose built for the weekly show. Open since 1972, it is one of the premier places in the state to catch some live bluegrass and is a must-see if you are in the area.
The auditorium is old and is showing its age. Some of the seats are tired and the whole place could probably use a little TLC. But when the band starts playing, you forget about all of those things and just sit back and enjoy. There is a snack bar where you can get a soda or some popcorn, but no booze and this is definitely an all-ages venue.
I had the really good fortune of seeing Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers play when I visited. They did a great show. They were incredibly talented on their instruments, and their music was just great. It wasn't a short show either, I think they must have played for almost three hours. And when the show was over, the whole band stood by the door to say goodbye and shake people's hands. What a wonderful experience it was to visit The Mountaineer Opry House and catch that show. If you are ever on that side of the state, you really have to go. It's worth the effort to get there.
My last big stop on my travels was the granddaddy of them all: Mountain Stage. Mountain Stage, hosted by Larry Groce, is heard on National Public Radio around the world and is probably one of West Virginia's most well known products. Mountain Stage has been putting on shows since 1983, and each show has a unique lineup of bands. The night I was there was the 34th anniversary of the show and the lineup included The Mountain Goats, Nellie McKay, Joe Henry and John K. Samson. I was really happy to catch this show. Most Mountain Stage shows are recorded where I saw it: the Culture Center in Charleston. They do some shows in Morgantown though, so be sure you pay attention when booking tickets. Seating was first-come first-served so you definitely want to get there early. After the show I got to meet Lary Groce, which I thought was a real treat. If you are travelling through West Virginia, definitely make plans to see Mountain Stage.
I had a great time catching these shows while I was in West Virginia. With the exception of The Troubadour, which I really hope will turn around, each was a unique and wonderful experience. Unfortunately, live music in a place like West Virginia is usually limited to the weekends, especially in the winter, but I tried to make the most of the weekends I had. I love the sound of West Virginia and look forward to checking back in on some of these places the next time I am in the state. If you are planning a trip to West Virginia, you should definitely try and make plans to visit one of these great venues and show your support for live music.