Zack Harold

freelance journalist

Getting Over: The Disgraced W.Va. Gospel Music Promoter Who Found Redemption in Indie Wrestling

This story was published on 100 Days in Appalachia on July 30, 2019.

The sound of twanging electric guitars fills the Madison Civic Center, a small gymnasium in the heart of southern West Virginia’s coalfields. It’s “Ride Stallion Ride,” the entrance music for WWE Hall of Fame inductee Cowboy Bob Orton.

The 300 fans seated on folding chairs and wooden bleachers during this May 2018 show clap and cheer as they wait for the wrestler to appear from behind the black polyester curtain. But the Orton that finally emerges is not the young, scowling, curly-haired villain pictured on the posters for tonight’s show. It’s not the big dumb oaf who, during the inaugural Wrestlemania in 1985, accidentally whacked his pal Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndoff on the head to give Hulk Hogan an easy pin.

The fringe vest and Stetson are the same. So is the prominent nose. But this white-haired, 70-year-old version of Cowboy Bob Orton has a keg where decades before a six-pack used to be. Yet his feet are light as he trots to the ring with Louis Moore, his tag-team partner for the night. He scales the ringside steps and swings his body through the ropes, then jogs slowly around the ring as the ring announcer introduces his opponents.

Now it is Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” blaring from the speakers. The good guy tag team O.V.E.R. appears from behind the curtain. Skinny, pale and dressed in black, Christian Kobain and Shane Kryzak look like members of a heavy metal cover band. They strut down the aisle, jump into the ring and mount adjacent turnbuckles to flex for their devotees — the majority of whom, from the sound of the squeals, seem to be women.

The referee checks everyone’s boots and signals for the bell.

If you’ve ever seen a tag team match, you can guess how this will go. Orton and Moore spend much of the match abusing Kobain while keeping him safely out of Kryzak’s reach. When the battered babyface finally gets to his corner and makes the tag, his comrade explodes into the ring — only to promptly fall into Moore and Orton’s clutches. For a moment, it looks like the bad guys will win. Orton goes for an RKO, a neckbreaker finishing move made famous by his son and fellow WWE superstar Randy Orton. But at the last second, Kobain reaches into the ring and pulls Kryzak from Orton’s grasp.

This destabilizes the big cowboy. He stumbles and falls to the mat. Both members of O.V.E.R. dogpile onto his hefty frame. The referee flops on his belly and pounds the mat with an open palm. One. Two. Three.

The ref signals for the bell and Fall Out Boy again fills the gymnasium, the emo pop mixing with shouts from fans. But instead of cheering the victorious good guys, the crowd sing-songs at Orton.

“YOU STILL GOT IT!” clap clap clapclapclap “YOU STILL GOT IT!” clap clap clapclapclap “YOU STILL GOT IT!”

Moore grabs a microphone and accosts Orton for losing the match. “All these people out here say ‘You still got it.’ From what I saw here tonight, you don’t have it anymore old man.”

The fans begin chanting again. “R-K-O! R-K-O! R-K-O!” In a flash, Orton locks his arm around Moore’s head and drops to the mat. Moore flops on the canvas like his spine has been separated from his brainstem. Now Orton’s music is blasting through the sound system.

The crowd erupts with a fervor usually reserved for tent revivals and championship football games. Grown men leap to their feet in ecstatic applause. Preteen boys in basketball shorts move to the aisle to slap Orton’s hands before he disappears behind the curtain. This is something they might tell their own preteen boys about someday, the night they saw Cowboy Bob Orton administer an RKO at the Madison Civic Center.

Little do fans realize that Gary Damron, who has promoted wrestling shows like this for the last 14 years under the name All Star Wrestling, has worked for months trying to bring this moment to fruition — and he saw almost none of it. Damron spent the majority of Orton’s match hidden away in the civic center’s kitchen, stuffing cash into white envelopes to pay his wrestlers.

Many wrestling promoters are former wrestlers themselves. Damron is not. He is a short, soft-spoken, soft-bodied, spectacled midnight shift movie theater custodian with plantar fasciitis. He loves All You Can Eat Wings Wednesdays at Quaker Steak & Lube, his dachshund Chico, and ’80s pop culture — especially The Golden Girls. He has no interest in administering or receiving a drop kick, frog splash, figure four, or piledriver. He has too much work to do.

Click here to read the rest of the story.

Live from Oak Hill

This story originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of WV Living magazine.

Angel Acevedo was known to Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ fans as Assassin No. 1 of the tag-team duo The Cuban Assassins. Richie Acevedo did not doubt his father’s stories about being Fidel Castro’s bodyguard.

To his young mind, the evidence was all there. There was the star tattoo on father’s left hand, which he claimed was the secret brand of the Communist revolutionary’s inner circle. He also fit the part. Small but brawny, Angel Acevedo had a wild mane of thick black hair, an equally thick accent, an unruly beard, and the gaze of a man possessed. But perhaps most convincingly, all the adults in Richie’s life also seemed to believe his dad’s stories.

From 1969 until 1973, Angel regularly appeared in homes all over West Virginia as part of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’, broadcast live from the studios of WOAY-TV in Oak Hill. Known only to fans as “Assassin No. 1,” one-half of the fearsome tag team known as “the Cuban Assassins,” he was one of the program’s most ruthless characters, willing to take whatever means necessary to win a match.

But Angel’s down-and-dirty antics did not win him many fans, especially in an America where the Cuban Missile Crisis remained a not-yet-distant memory. Richie, now 46, remembers sitting in the auditorium where the show was taped and hearing spectators holler violent threats at his father. “I thought my dad was one of the most dangerous men in the world,” he says.

Angel, like many professional wrestlers of his generation, never broke character, even outside the ring. “What he told us was what he told everybody else,” Richie says. It wasn’t until his teenage years that Richie began to ask questions. He eventually found out his father actually hailed from Puerto Rico and had never met Fidel Castro. He also learned that Raul, the man he’d been raised to think was his uncle, was actually just his father’s tag-team partner.

You might expect Richie to be bitter about these revelations. He’s not. When he got old enough, he became a professional wrestler, too. Although he did not devote his life to the sport in quite the same way as Angel, he still spent decades bouncing between ropes and jumping off turnbuckles.

Richie says he understands his father’s deceptions now. He had a character to portray and a story to tell, and was willing to do whatever was necessary to keep fans invested. “Magicians have known this for a long time,” he says. “The word ‘fake’ is irrelevant.”

“Don’t let those people cuss on the air”

Professional wrestling, for all its artifice, has roots in reality. It began as a sideshow attraction in the 19th century. These were, for the most part, true athletic competitions—a direct outgrowth of Greco-Roman and “catch-as-catch-can” grappling, often featuring a traveling strongman going up against audacious locals. It usually wasn’t much fun to watch. A single match could last for hours. Competitors seldom left the mat as they shifted from one submission hold to another.

In an effort to liven things up for the crowd—and make more money—one 1920s sideshow act known as the Gold Dust Trio began fixing its matches. Wrestlers Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Joseph “Toots” Mondt, with help from manager Billy Sandow, adopted outlandish personas and began scripting dramatic near-defeats and comebacks. Since they weren’t actually trying to hurt one another, they could work together to make fights seem more violent than ever.

By the end of the ’20s, there was a clear distinction between the two varieties of wrestling: the legitimate competitive version and the scripted “professional” version. While it is sometimes suggested fans in the early days did not know professional wrestling was scripted, newspaper and magazine clippings reveal a winking acknowledgment of what was really happening in the ring. Fans weren’t too naive to realize wrestling was “fake”—they just didn’t care.

Wrestling came to television early in the medium’s history. KTLA of Los Angeles, California, began broadcasting matches as early as 1946. Promoters initially worried television would hurt ticket sales to live matches, but the opposite proved true. Television offered something traveling shows never could: an opportunity to create ongoing storylines and feuds between wrestlers. This made fans more invested in their favorite characters so, when the wrestlers came to their towns, they flocked to see their heroes in person.

Wrestling came to WOAY-TV in 1954. A station in Columbus, Ohio, was already broadcasting live wrestling, which a station in Huntington picked up and re-aired with great success. WOAY’s owner Robert Thomas smelled an opportunity and struck a deal with a band of wrestlers who regularly performed at the Memorial Building in nearby Fayetteville. The wrestlers would get 90 minutes of free airtime. In return, the station got free content as well as proceeds from advertising revenue, ticket sales, and concessions sales. Bob Kent, the manager of the Memorial Building, agreed to be the program’s host. But after the first night, when a flying chair knocked over his announcer’s desk, Kent told Thomas he would have to find another emcee. Thomas had just the man for the job.

About a year earlier, Thomas’s father had discovered Shirley Love singing in the choir of the local Methodist church and got the honey-voiced youngster to drop by the station for an audition. Soon Love was working the microphone on WOAY-FM, doing public service announcements, station breaks, and newscasts. He began working at the company’s TV station, too, manning the microphone boom and cranking the homemade teleprompter.

Now Love, still in his early 20s and with little broadcasting experience, was being offered a high-profile job. He didn’t want it. “I said, ‘Mr. Thomas, I can’t do that. I don’t know anything about wrestling,’” Love remembers. “He said, ‘All you’ve got to do is describe what they’re doing.’” So, with his blonde hair perfectly coiffed, Love stepped in front of the cameras to host the second-ever episode of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’. He would continue hosting the show until its finale in 1977.

Despite his initial reluctance, it wasn’t long before Love was getting in on the act. One night, when wrestlers staged a very real strike against promoter–wrestler Jan Madrid and refused to perform, WOAY instead devoted the entire night’s program to an impromptu grudge match between Madrid and one of the auxiliary police officers hired to provide security for the event. It ended with an enraged Madrid grabbing both Love and co-host Sandy Higgins by their shirts—which, unknown to viewers, had been pre-slashed with razor blades—and ripping them off.

Now naked to the waist except for his sport coat, Love picked up his microphone. “I said ‘Sandy, I come out here and try to be as dignified as I can. This is humiliating. Look at me. I don’t know about you but I’m going home.’” The show only ran a half-hour short that night. By the next week, the strike was settled and it was back to the regularly scheduled entertainment.

One of the show’s most popular features was Love’s interviews with spectators between matches. While the action in the ring was prearranged, these provided truly unscripted entertainment. One night Love complimented a young boy on his coonskin cap. “He said, ‘Grandpa found it in the trash dump!’”

Another time, a man from Prince bragged he’d killed 12 squirrels on the first day of squirrel season. “I said, ‘No, you only killed four.’ He said, ‘No, Shirley. I killed 12. We fried four and I got the others in my sister’s freezer.’” It wasn’t until Love gingerly pointed out the state’s four-squirrel bag limit that the man’s count suddenly changed. Love later learned the local game warden was watching that night. “He fell off the couch laughing. He said, ‘I couldn’t have arrested that guy, he was so serious.’”
Sometimes even the most unassuming interviewees could cause trouble. One Saturday, Love noticed Madrid flick sweat on an elderly heckler. She was first in line for an interview when the match was over. “She looked like a little old Sunday school teacher. I said, ‘What do you think of Jan Madrid?’ She said, ‘I’d like to smack that son of a b—h right in the mouth.’

“The boss would always tell me, ‘Don’t let those people cuss on the air. I could lose my license.’” It was an ongoing struggle.

Wrestlin’ gets real

Unlike Richie Acevedo, Jan Madrid’s son Monty was in on the act—literally. “They called me ‘the booker.’ Dad would let me carry a briefcase to the matches. That way I felt included. It was my little make-believe thing,” says Monty, now 53.
Monty was not much of a wrestling fan, though. He was a shy and nervous kid. Even though he knew everything was prearranged, he’d hide in the locker room or at the back of the auditorium during particularly brutal matches.

Things were much different outside the ring, however. “Wrestlers were my playmates growing up,” he says. He remembers dinners at his house with all the WOAY wrestlers, since the good guys and bad guys couldn’t be seen together in public. “Everybody was friends. Gosh knows it cost a fortune to feed all those wrestlers,” he says.

Sometimes a wrestling bear would show up. Whoever was scheduled to wrestle the creature that night would earn its trust by feeding it Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies in the Madrids’ backyard. “It would just grab me up and put me in its paws and just roll me around the yard. It was the sweetest thing in the world,” Monty says. “Growing up like that isn’t the real world.”

But as Monty would find out, real life has an unfortunate tendency to infringe on make-believe. Jan Madrid always wrestled as a villain, or “heel.” That way, the wrestlers he booked always had a bad guy to play against. He portrayed himself as a cocksure, arrogant immigrant “from parts unknown.” “He would talk about his country versus America. He was an American-born citizen, of course,” Monty says.

It was all scripted, but the bad feelings he created among fans were very real. Monty remembers getting threatening phone calls at the house. More than once, disgruntled viewers mailed the Madrids receipts for new televisions—seeking reimbursement for the TVs they had shot in rage. “We’d come out many times, all four tires slit, sugar in the gas tank,” Monty says. “It cost a lot of money, being a villain.”

It wasn’t just the fans. In 1969, the West Virginia state government came after the wrestlers—who were listed by both their ring names and given names in court documents—of WOAY. On a Monday night in August, promoter Warren Schernbach had booked eight of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’s most popular wrestlers—including Jan Madrid and the Cuban Assassins—at the Bluefield Auditorium for a show benefitting local church and school groups. But then the police showed up. They rounded up all the wrestlers, along with Shernbach and referee Larry Swiger, and placed them under arrest. The charges: wrestling, refereeing, and promoting without a license.

Since Shernbach, Swiger, and the wrestlers had not paid their Athletic Commission dues, West Virginia Athletic Commissioner Doug Epperly contended they were violating state law. He told reporters he was hesitant to stop the event, especially since it was a charity event. “However, fair is fair,” he said.

Each of the men posted his $280 bond and was released. Schernbach maintained everyone’s innocence from the start. “The commission is trying to deprive us of our right to entertain the public,” he told a reporter with the Beckley Post-Herald. “Legally, we are entertainers. Not athletes.”

The gang of 10 was scheduled to appear before Mercer County Magistrate Court but, before that could happen, their lawyer, W. Dale Greene, made an appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to prohibit further proceedings on the charges. “The petitioners are showmen, actors, artist thespians, not engaged in any contest of strength but rather engaged in the thespian arts of facial grimaces, make-believe, mat pounding, and use of all the props,” Greene wrote in his memorandum. “While the petitioners may have billed themselves as wrestlers, a rose is a rose and the public at large knows it.”

The high court granted a hearing on the matter, barring any proceedings on the misdemeanor charges until a ruling was issued. Newspapers lose the thread of the story there, and court documents are nowhere to be found. But an entry deep in the Supreme Court’s daily ledger, recorded January 23, 1970, shows that judges dismissed the case. The Athletics Commission evidently decided not to pursue the charges further. The reason behind this change of heart is lost to history.

The Athletic Commission also came knocking on WOAY’s door early on in Saturday Nite Wrestlin’s history, threatening to shut down the broadcast unless Thomas paid his fees. The station owner responded by changing the spelling on the marquee from Wrestling to Wrestlin’ and adding a disclaimer to the beginning of the broadcast: “Pre-arranged for your entertainment. This is not an athletic event.”

The changes satisfied the government, but Love says it didn’t have much of an effect on the fans. “The people didn’t pay attention to it,” Love says. “They got right into it.”

Down for the count

Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ came to an end in a deservedly dramatic fashion. In September 1977 a generator overheated, caught fire, and burned WOAY’s studios to the ground. The station, scrambling to get back on air, moved its operations next door into the auditorium where matches were broadcast. When everything was back up and running two months later, WOAY had nowhere to host its wrestling program and lacked the equipment to do a remote broadcast. It was the end of a 23-year run. “A year longer than Gunsmoke,” Love says.

There’s no way to really know how popular Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ was during its run. Thomas, a consummate penny pincher, refused to pay for Nielsen and Arbitron ratings. But in 1972 he hatched a scheme to get his own demographic data: he convinced Love to run for a spot at the Democratic National Convention. Since it was a statewide election based mostly on name recognition, Thomas knew he could tell where his station was most popular by seeing which counties gave Love the most votes. Love came in ninth out of nine delegates, but was the top vote-getter for Nicholas, Clay, Fayette, and Raleigh counties.

For Love, it was an introduction to a whole new kind of bloodsport. He ran several more times for the Democratic National Convention and, in 1994, he was elected to the West Virginia State Senate. He served 15 years in the chamber before retiring. Then, in 2017 and at the age of 83, he was sworn in for his first term in the West Virginia House of Delegates.

Love has now spent longer as a politician than he was a wrestling announcer. But he knows Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ will be his legacy. “We could go anywhere right now and if we met 10 people, eight of them—if they’re over 40—would say ‘I used to sit on Grandpa’s lap and watch you,’” he says. “It was everybody’s Saturday night opera.”


Carnival of Soles

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 7, 2012. 

Jina Jordan has held several jobs in her life.

She owned a cleaning business and then worked as a pizza dough maker at Gino’s Pizza in Sissonville. She drives cars for the St. Albans Auction and repairs purses and leather jackets at the Fife Street Shoe Shop in downtown Charleston.

But over a decade ago, Jordan, 53, held her coolest gig of all. For one day, she was KISS bassist Gene Simmons’ cobbler.

The storied rock band played Charleston on May 2, 2000, on the first leg of their “Farewell Tour.”

KISS didn’t actually retire after that tour – they’ve embarked on seven more since then – but the Charleston date was one of the last times the band’s original lineup took the stage together.

Chris Dickerson, the Daily Mail’s city editor at the time, was eagerly anticipating that concert.

“I’m a huge KISS fan and over the years I became friends with KISS’s tour manager,” Dickerson said.

Tommy Thayer, who now plays lead guitar for the group, was KISS’s manager during the 2000 tour.

“I don’t remember all the details, but they had just got into town and there was something wrong with Gene’s boot. Tommy called me and asked me, ‘Where’s a good place I could take them?'” Dickerson said.

“I suggested the Fife Street Shoe Shop.”

That was the last Dickerson heard of Simmons’ boot problems. But it was the beginning of a very interesting day for Jordan.

On the afternoon of May 2, one of Simmons’ assistants brought the boots into the shop.

“It was a rush order,” Jordan remembers.

She had worked at the Fife Street Shoe Shop for about a year, spending much of her time repairing leather jackets and purses, mending rips, replacing zippers and fixing busted buckles. She learned to sew from her mother, Nadine.

“She sewed my sister’s wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses,” Jordan said. “I’ve got her old sewing machine, one of those real heavy-duty ones that you can sew blue jeans with.”

Jordan didn’t do a lot of work on shoes, though. Most of the broken heels and worn-out soles went to Andy Arthur, the shop’s manager.

But Jordan knew her client well. She graduated high school in 1977, two years after KISS got its first top 40 hit with “Rock and Roll All Nite.”

“I used to jam out to them when I was younger. I used to have them on an 8-track. We had a Cutlass, we called it a ‘Gutless.’ We used to jam to that,” she said.

The wildly costumed group became as famous for their onstage antics – Simmons’ fire breathing and blood spitting, Ace Frehley’s fireworks-spewing guitar, Peter Criss’ levitating drum set – as for hard-rocking hits like “Detroit Rock City” and “Calling Dr. Love.”

Well, Gene Simmons had aged a lot since Jordan was riding around in the Gutless.

He still was breathing fire and letting his foot-long tongue unfurl, but his ankles were swollen when he arrived in Charleston.

He needed wider zippers installed on the sides of his platform boots.

Though Jordan had done similar jobs before, replacing the zippers on Simmons’ boots presented some unique problems.

First, they were heavy. Even with all of Simmons’ metal adornments removed, the oversized footwear still weighed 35 pounds.

“I don’t know how he wore them onstage,” she said.

The boots also were wet when they arrived on Jordan’s workbench.

“That leather was real soft and the boots were still sweaty from the night before. It was hard to get them cut out,” she said.

Jordan was working on deadline, too: KISS was performing at the Civic Center that night and Simmons needed his boots fixed, pronto.

She started by slicing the threads that held the zippers to the boots’ leather. She had to be careful not to cut the soft, supple, soggy leather.

With the zippers removed, Jordan glued new ones in place. The glue normally sets up fast, but Jordan said the wet leather slowed the process. She used a fan to dry them, but that didn’t work very well.

Finally, after about an hour, the glue set up and Jordan stitched the zippers back into the leather.

“I guess he made it. He performed that night,” she said.

Jordan didn’t get to see her handiwork on stage, though.

Arthur told her he had received free tickets for helping the band, but that was just a little good-natured teasing among co-workers.

Jordan left the shoe shop about eight months after her chance encounter with the famous footwear. She got her old job back about two months ago but spent the intervening years as business-cleaner, dough-maker and car-driver.

She never forgot her most famous job, though.

“I still have the zippers.”

She put them in a plastic bag and placed it in a Pintor cigar box with newspaper clippings from the concert. For a long time, the zippers still smelled like Simmons’ sweat.

“I said, ‘I’m going to keep these ’cause someday something might happen with them.'”

If nothing else, the zippers help her prove that she’s not lying about her most famous client.

How Gillian Welch Created an Americana Touchstone in ‘Revival’

This is an excerpt of a story that first appeared online at Rolling Stone Country on November 10, 2016. Read the rest of the story here.

Early afternoons were pretty quiet at the Lyric Springs Country Inn. The previous night’s guests usually left in the morning, headed for home or into Nashville about 20 miles away. The next guests would not arrive until evening.

This gave the innkeeper – a tall, waifish 24-year-old redhead from Los Angeles – all day to make the beds, dust the oil lamps and horsehair chairs, and tend to Jubal, her boss’s 200-pound English Mastiff. That’s one reason she liked this job. With only Jubal to keep her company, the innkeeper could spend all day composing songs aloud as she mopped the floors and pruned the peony bushes.

One morning, on her 40-minute commute from Nashville, the innkeeper was listening to a cassette tape of the Stanley Brothers. She decided to write a song the Stanleys might enjoy singing in their high lonesome voices. She reached over, switched off the cassette deck, and began to sing.

“I am an orphan, on God’s highway / But I’ll share my troubles if you go my way.”

The innkeeper continued to work on the song throughout the day, her voice ringing off the wood-paneled walls of Lyric Springs’ barroom and the porcelain of its toilets.

“I have had friendships pure and golden / But the ties of kinship, I have not known them.”

The song was finished by the time she got back in her car and headed home. What started as an idea a few hours earlier now had four verses and two choruses.

“I have no mother, no father / No sister, no brother / I am an orphan girl.”

When she got home, the innkeeper grabbed a guitar and her duet partner, an equally skinny guitar picker she’d met while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. She played him the new song, but he didn’t say anything. “I thought, ‘Oh well, he doesn’t like it.’ But he says he didn’t say anything because he thought it was perfect, so what was there to say?” she recalls.

It wouldn’t be long before many people shared the guitar picker’s opinion. This song, “Orphan Girl,” would open lots of doors. It would launch a career that would make the innkeeper one of the most beloved figures in a new music genre called “Americana.” And it would take her away from scrubbing other people’s’ toilets forever.

Play helps director heal

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, March 20, 2014.

Carrie Kirk was acting angry.

In a pivotal scene in the Kanawha Players’ production of “Extremities,” Kirk’s character Terry is in the middle of a heated argument with her roommates when she reveals she was raped as a teenager.

Kirk recited the lines with venom in her voice, just as she’d done dozens of times in previous rehearsals.

But this time, the words caught director Sheila Kerr’s ear. And Kerr realized something was wrong.

“I said, no, no, no. She’s not angry. She’s broken and vulnerable. This is the first time she’s laid it out there for the whole world to see.”

Kerr knew, because she also felt broken and vulnerable. Because earlier that day she had made a very similar confession.

She had appeared on a local radio show to promote her memoir “Distorted Thoughts,” a largely unedited compilation of blog and journal entries chronicling a lifelong struggle with various kinds of abuse.

During the interview, she mentioned that she had been raped as a girl.

Kerr, a first-time director as unfiltered as a pack of Lucky Strikes, didn’t realize she made the confession until she listened back to the interview.

It was the first time she had talked about the assault publicly. And sitting in the Kanawha Players’ theater that night, she knew exactly how Terry would feel.

So Kirk changed her delivery. She faced the empty theater, tugged her sweater a little closer and spoke the words with new fragility. When the scene ended, everyone in the theater was crying.

“Even the non-smokers were like, ‘I need a cigarette,’” Kerr said.

“It was a really intense moment but hands-down one of the most beautiful.”

The play, written by William Mastrosimone, is notoriously difficult for both actors and audience members.

Kanawha Players president Ginger Workman says the play is an exploration not just of violence against women, but also of justice and punishment. And it takes a long, hard look at all of those things.

“It’s not a play you want to get into if you have any past with some of these issues. It can be difficult,” she said.

The Players’ production of “Extremities” opens this Friday at 8 p.m.

The play opens with the main character Marjorie alone in her home, making tea and killing bugs with bug spray.

A man—later discovered to be a stalker that has been spying on Marjorie and her roommates for some time—walks through the front door, attacks the woman and attempts to rape her.

Marjorie is able to overpower her attacker with the help of the bug spray. When her roommates return, they find the would-be rapist tied to a chair inside the fireplace. The women then must decide what they should do to the man.

They could call the police, but since he didn’t succeed in raping Marjorie, won’t they just let him go? Wouldn’t he just come back?

The women also discuss killing the attacker, but there are obvious complications with that plan, too.

“There’s been times I’ve been in rehearsal and wanted to throw up. You feel like you’re watching a crime happen,” Kerr said.

It’s especially difficult for Kerr, a survivor of both domestic abuse and sexual assault.

“I feel like it has me written all over it, she said. There’s parts of this play, there are things that I’ve pushed down deep.”

But in a way, Kerr said that history has helped with “Extremities.”

She’s worked with the Kanawha Players since 2010 but has always stayed behind the scenes, building sets and doing makeup. She tried out for a role in “Extremities,” but didn’t get one.

But then the play’s director dropped out. Then his replacement left, too.

Workman, impressed with Kerr’s strong vision for the play, asked her to take the helm even though she had never directed a play before.

Kerr was initially concerned but has enjoyed being able to bring someone else’s story to life onstage, while giving it her own spin.

“I won’t lie: I’m getting something out of it,” she said.

Singer Todd Snider feels at home on ‘Mountain Stage’

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014.

My conversation with songwriter Todd Snider started off pretty normal.

Normal, at least, considering Snider’s confessed love of psychedelic drugs.

We talked about Snider’s upcoming appearance on this Sunday’s “Mountain Stage.” It’s his 15th time on the show, and he feels like he’s part of the family now.

“I can walk right in there and say, ‘Where’s the moonshine?’”

We talked about his acclaimed memoir, “I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like,” a project Snider says he did “for glory and cash.”

He wrote the book with the help of his friend, Tennessean reporter Peter Cooper. Cooper would come over to Snider’s place and get hopped up on coffee. Snider, who was under the influence of something a little stronger, would start rapping and Cooper would begin typing.

They cranked out 90,000 words in less than two weeks.

Next we talked about Snider’s new jam band, Hard Working Americans.

Formed last year, the group also includes guitarist Neal Casal (of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood), bassist Dave Schools (of Widespread Panic), keyboard player Chad Staehly (of Great American Taxi), lap steel player Jesse Aycock and drummer Duane Trucks, the younger brother of slide guitarist Derek Trucks.

Snider is the band’s lead singer.

“It’s like winning a contest for me,” he said. “I’m kind of in my favorite band.”

He’s found that playing in a jam band is quite different than performing as a solo artists.

“There’s parts of it that feel like your doctor would recommend it,” he said. “I just stand there and do the hippie thing, run in place and sing.”

Hard Working Americans is still considered a side-project, since everyone except Snider plays in another band.

He would be perfectly happy if the group became his full-time gig, however.

“It’s definitely my passion.”

This is when things began to get a little weird.

Snider told me he has been working on a concept album of sorts, based on Hard Working Americans.

But it’s not just a music album. The project also includes a 9,000 word story, a movie, a cartoon show and a board game, all of which explain how to take down ‘The Man.’

“I’ve done tons of research about who The Man is,” Snider said.

The main character of his Hard Working Americans project, Snider explained, is a folk singer called Blind Lemon Pledge. Pledge is sent on a journey to save rock and roll and, by extension, the world.

“’Cause rock and roll is bringing peace to the world,” Snider said.

One of Pledge’s first tasks is to stop Elvis from making movies.

While attempting to free the King, Blind Lemon discovers the 10 forgotten commandments Moses neglected to bring down from Mt. Sinai.

The commandments have survived the ages thanks to musicians, who have passed the commandments down through the generations while hanging out backstage at shows.

The translations are confusing, however. For example, one of the forgotten commandments is “Expose the Fonz.”

“Which really means, ‘Thou shalt be genuine,’” Snider said.

It’s clear he doesn’t have the whole thing worked out yet. But Snider says anyone who plays his “Hard Working Americans” game can take a “Blind Lemon pledge.”

Taking that pledge, he claims, will set off a series of 10 events that will occur over the next 24 hours. Somehow, everyone ends up in Memphis, Tenn.

“It ends in Memphis where we all get embarrassed for thinking what we do is important,” he explained. “The world doesn’t need to be saved from anything, except bands who think they’re going to save the world.”

I’m not sure if Snider means any of this stuff. I’m not sure he knows, either.

But that’s not really important.

Snider probably spent 15 minutes talking about his cartoon/board game/short story/music album project. Although I didn’t understand everything he said, I listened with rapt attention.

That’s what makes Todd Snider such a talented storyteller.

Whether he’s writing a country song, dictating a book, leading a jam band or conducting a very confusing newspaper interview, he delivers each of his words with unmeasured, childlike enthusiasm.

Just like listening to an enthusiastic child, you can’t help but pay attention … even if you have no idea what’s being said.


Roots Town Radio goes silent after internal struggles

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Oct. 28, 2014.

A little more than six weeks after it went on the air, Charleston’s first community radio station is nothing but static.

The community radio station collapsed in a heap of dysfunction.

Burr Beard, 95.7 FM WXDB’s vice-president and station manager, moved to West Virginia earlier this year to set up the volunteer-run, low power FM station.

He spent months raising money for the project, collecting thousands of dollars from local donors.

The station’s parent organization, Roots Town Radio, received a $9,000 grant from the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, a $1,000 grant from the Tamarack Artisan Foundation, and $1,000 from a crowd funding campaign on the website Indiegogo. The station also held several fundraising concerts to help pay the bills.

Beard organized and trained a cadre of dedicated volunteer disc jockeys, who began broadcasting on local airwaves on Sept. 7, playing a wide variety of music from classic country, bluegrass, classic rock, Americana, gospel and more.

The music stopped last Monday.

That day, Beard contacted the Federal Communications Commission and surrendered the station’s construction permit, shutting down the station for good.

The reasons behind the demise of WXDB differ depending on who you ask.

Volunteers blame Roots Town president Dawn Warner, Beard’s on-and-off girlfriend. They say she created a toxic environment at the fledgling station, alienating staff members with a heavy-handed management style while remaining largely absent from WXDB’s day-to-day operations.

Warner, meanwhile, alleges the volunteers attempted to wrest control of the station from her and Beard.

Emails obtained by the Daily Mail provide a glimpse into the drama.

Volunteers say around the second week of September, Warner and Beard ended their romantic relationship. (They have since reconciled.)

WXDB engineer Larry Hoskins said Warner notified volunteers Beard was fired from the station. Someone also posted an announcement on the station’s Facebook page that Beard would no longer have any affiliation with WXDB.

But things had changed by Monday, Sept. 15.

In an email, Warner confirmed that she and Beard would remain owners of WXDB.

Her attempt to fire Beard apparently worried WXDB volunteers, however.

Emmett Pepper, co-host of the WXDB world music show “Beats Without Borders,” suggested the station’s parent organization add two additional board members to serve as secretary and treasurer.

He expressed concerns that Warner’s son, Nemo, was serving on Roots Town Radio’s governing board despite having no involvement with the station. Pepper said one of the new board members could serve Nemo’s replacement.

“I speak only for myself, but given what has happened over the past month, I am very uneasy being involved with this organization under the previous/current structure, which has proven to be highly volatile,” Pepper wrote in a group email on Sept. 25.

Volunteers also were becoming concerned that, despite repeated promises to move from Pennsylvania, Warner never made it to West Virginia.

“Beats Without Borders” co-host Alasha Al-Qudwah expressed this sentiment in a Sept. 26 email to Beard, Warner and others involved with the station.

“Dawn doesn’t live in (West Virginia),” she wrote. “Why is she president? I don’t have anything against her or any of you, just against the actions that caused a lot of drama and negativity.”

Warner responded later that day in a tersely worded email.

“The fact is I am (president) and that is not going to change. That is not me being bossy or pushy that is simply a fact that both Burr and I felt needed to be explained,” she wrote. “Burr and I need to regain control of an unfortunate situation. We either move forward together and let the past be the past or I am concerned about WXDB’s future.”

A few hours later, Warner sent another email with a much different tone.

She apologized for any her previous email, expressed her appreciation for the volunteers’ hard work and promised to replace Nemo and add a secretary/treasurer to the governing board.

“Let’s leave the past where it belongs and move forward,” she wrote.

But on Sept. 29, Beard sent out an email announcing Warner’s departure.

“Dawn decided to stay in (Pennsylvania) with her family and friends and will not be part of WXDB. She was happy to hand over the reins of the station to me. We are breaking up our previous business and personal relationship and are keeping up a friendly level of communication,” he wrote.

This alone probably would have been the death blow for the station. FCC regulations forbid stations with pending licenses, like WXDB, from replacing more than 50 percent of their governing board members. The departure of Warner and her son meant two-thirds of the original board was gone.

But Beard and the volunteers held onto hope. He assured them he was “here to stay and be your leader” and urged the team to move forward.

On Oct. 6 volunteers received another email from Beard, announcing he was taking the week off. He said he lost his job with Friends of Old Time Music and Dance, where he was arts administrator, and needed to find new work.

Steve Ballman, a FOOTMAD board member, said both Beard and the organization agreed he would quit.

“The stress and difficulties of the radio station kind of overwhelmed him,” Ballman said.

In his email, Beard made it clear he would not leave Charleston, however.

“I am not going back to (Pennsylvania) or leaving the station. Roots Town will prevail,” he wrote.

On Monday, Oct. 13 — one week before the station would go dark — Beard sent an email to volunteers announcing he would step down as station manager but remain a board member.

Five days later, on Saturday, Oct. 18, Beard sent the volunteers an email announcing his complete departure from WXDB.

“I think I got myself in too deep. My time for starting up a new station came, happened and went, some 25 years ago,” he said.

On Monday, Beard forwarded staffers an email from James Bradshaw, deputy division chief of the FCC media bureau’s audio division.

“Please treat this email as the official notification of the cancellation of the construction permit, per the request of Roots Town Radio,” Bradshaw wrote.

The email also included a note from Warner and Beard, saying the WXDB call letters were deleted from the FCC database.

“There is ​no legal authority whatsoever to continue operat​ing​ the station,” they wrote.

Beard, in a short phone interview last Wednesday, said he was moving back to Pennsylvania. When asked about the closure of the station, he said he didn’t feel like talking about it right then.

He has not responded to multiple requests for a follow-up interview.

Rookie mistakes

Warner’s story of WXDB’s demise is quite different than staff members’ accounts.

“The volunteers bullied me out of my moving down there and wanted to take control of the station,” she said. “You have a group of volunteers that never have done radio, never had experience with it, and it all goes to their head.”

Warner said DJs were not providing station identification at the beginning of each hour, which is required by the FCC, and said some DJs were allowing profanity to go out over the air.

She also alleged the station was violating FCC rules because WXDB’s antenna was not installed at the height specified by its construction permit.

(Radio stations receive construction permits before being granted full licenses, to allow the stations to test their equipment.)

Worried the FCC might fine her or Beard, Warner said she wrote a letter asking the agency to terminate WXDB’s construction permit.

“Burr decided he was leaving the station because he had lost control over it. To protect ourselves from any FCC violations, that was the only thing we could do,” she said. “The only way we could become not liable legally was to surrender the construction permit.”

Hoskins acknowledged radio hosts sometimes forgot to give station IDs at the required times and profanity sometimes crept onto the airwaves, but he said volunteer DJs were not intentionally skirting the FCC rules.

They just did not have much experience in radio.

“It wasn’t DJs cussing on the air. It was songs that had profanity in them, because they’d never (previewed them),” he said.

It’s standard practice for radio stations to preview every song they play on air, no matter what. Hoskins said WXDB’s amateur DJs weren’t aware how important this due diligence was, so some explicit language slipped through.

“I chalk that up to rookie mistakes. I don’t think any of that was intentional,” he said.

He said problems with the station’s antenna could have been fixed with a little paperwork.

Hoskins said the station had some trouble getting its antenna installed on West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s radio tower, since the state government’s new vendor hiring system did not include any approved tower climbers.

By the time WXDB finally got its antenna installed, it was only installed at about 50 feet instead of the 100 feet specified in the construction permit.

But Hoskins said the station only needed to modify its construction permit with the FCC to accommodate for the new antenna height.

“It wasn’t like it was set in stone,” he said.

Every WXDB staffer who spoke to the Daily Mail for this story denied Warner’s accusations that the volunteers tried to bully her or Beard out of the station.

And while none claimed to have a close relationship with Warner, many expressed feelings of sympathy for Beard.

“Burr Beard did a really great job of pulling together some of the best people, most knowledgeable and most connected musicians and music lovers in the area. We had a really great station going,” Pepper said. “It’s not a good idea to mix your business with your personal relationships. I think this is an example of that.”

Silver lining

Despite the demise of WXDB, community radio in Charleston might not be dead.

Chris Long, a local critical care nurse and chief operating officer of Pulmonary Associates in South Charleston, is working to set up his own low power FM station.

The FCC did not accept his initial low-power application because of a problem with his chosen frequency, but Long is in the process of reapplying.

He is working with the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based group that seeks to help communities start low power FM stations.

“They’re very optimistic that with the reapplication on the right channel I should be able to (be approved),” he said.

He said the Prometheus Project has warned him the process will take at least three months, however.

Long also said he is in “preliminary talks” to assume control of WXDB’s equipment.

“We’re thinking we can easily turn the keys over to my organization,” he said. “All of the volunteers are still interested. All is not lost. There’s a very big silver lining.”

Warner said Beard left everything associated with WXDB in Charleston.

“We walked away from everything. The assets — equipment, computers, antenna — that is all there in Charleston for this group of volunteers. We did not take any of that,” she said.

It is unclear, however, who owns the equipment WXDB purchased.

Because Roots Town Radio was not a registered nonprofit organization, it partnered with FOOTMAD, which served as the station’s fiscal agent.

FOOTMAD received donation money from the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation and other donors on behalf of Roots Town Radio, then made purchases for the station.

Ballman, who was FOOTMAD’s treasurer at the time of the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation grant, said there is no money left in the station’s accounts, but wonders if his organization now owns the equipment purchased for WXDB.

“That’s a murky question, we’re seeking legal advice to figure that out,” he said.

Ballman said FOOTMAD has no interest in using the equipment but would like to hand it over to another community radio group.

It might not be that simple.

Sheri Ryder, senior program officer with the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, said no one had notified her group that WXDB has gone off the air. Ryder was not aware the radio station was defunct until a Daily Mail reporter called last week.

Even though FOOTMAD served as the station’s fiscal agent, Ryder said the organization does not own WXDB’s equipment.

“They would need to contact us and we would need to see if we could work something out,” she said.

Ryder said in the past, organizations have returned grant money to the foundation when projects failed.

Other times, the foundation’s board has required the money (or items purchased with the money) be given to another organization.

On some occasions, the foundation has not received anything back.

“The money was given, it was gone and the organization was gone,” Ryder said.

She said the fate of WXDB’s equipment ultimately rests in the hands of the foundation’s board of directors.

The fate of the station’s legacy — the volunteer DJs who, however briefly, filled the air with unique programs — also is unsettled.

Al-Qudwah said she initially wanted to help with WXDB because community radio stations allow DJs a large amount of freedom to choose music for their shows.

“That’s inspiring to me,” she said. “I’m obsessed with world music and instrumental music. I think it’s important people hear those kinds of sounds.”

She’s determined to continue her efforts even without WXDB, and said other DJs feel the same way.

Al-Qudwah and Pepper also are looking for ways to take “Beats without Borders” to online audiences.

They had a few dozen people listening online during their first few shows, which they consider a success for an unknown show on an unknown station.

The duo, like many former WXDB hosts, also has agreed to join Long’s station whenever he gets it running.

But Al-Qudwah said she’s disappointed WXDB didn’t work out.

“I feel very sorry for Burr, honestly. He had a big vision for this radio station,” she said. “When love gets involved everything gets messy.”

Farnsworth, a band born under a bad sign

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014.

“Live it” has become a mantra for Charleston blues-rock duo Farnsworth.

It’s the name of group’s first full-length album, which will be released this Saturday. But “Live it” is also what guitarist Chris Vance and drummer Jason Reese tell one another when things aren’t going very well.

They’ve been saying it a lot lately.

On June 20, the band was scheduled to be the opening act for Live on the Levee, Charleston’s popular summertime concert series. It also was the opening weekend of the city’s annual FestivALL celebration, so the crowd was expected to be even bigger than usual.

That’s one heck of a break for an up-and-coming band.

“We felt like, this is it. It’s a big deal to play Live on the Levee,” Vance said.

But shortly before they were to take the stage, the skies opened up with a torrential downpour.

Vance tried to remain upbeat when a local television reporter interviewed him about the show. He said Woodstock went on despite the rain, so Live on the Levee would too.

He was partially right. The weather dried up just in time for the night’s headlining act, US FLOYD. Farnsworth did not get to perform. Reese looked at Vance and raised a fist in the air.

“Live it,” he said.

Last month, the band sent their new album to United Record Pressing, the nation’s oldest vinyl record manufacturer.

Vance and Reese had worked for months on the project, painstakingly recording it using a vintage tape recorder and all-analog equipment.

They sent the only copy of their master tape to a mastering house in Columbus, Ohio, where technicians cut a “lacquer” of the album, an acetate-coated aluminum disc containing all the grooves that would appear on the final vinyl record.

It’s a delicate and expensive process.

“Each individual cut is unique. It’s a very fine art,” Vance said.

The finished product sounded great. But then the mastering house sent the lacquer to United.

“They lost it. They couldn’t tell us where it was,” Vance said.

Without informing anyone, United fired the customer representative who was overseeing Farnsworth’s record. The jilted employee didn’t bother telling anyone where the lacquer was located. United eventually found the disc . . . but not before the band’s record label paid another $600 to have a second lacquer cut.

Upon hearing the news, Vance and Reese had only one thing to say.

“Live it.”

The band has plenty more bad luck stories. During a recent tour, they paid to spend a night in a 1968 Shasta camping trailer parked in a converted junkyard — but it was double-booked.

On the same tour, they landed a gig at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s noted Trash Bar nightclub. When they took the stage, there were only three people in attendance: the sound guy, the bartender and some guy from a band who played there the night before.

“The guy literally came back to get his guitar,” Reese said.

Just this week, Reese and Vance learned their new keyboard player Justin Yeats will not be able to perform at the record release shows scheduled this weekend at Sullivan’s Records and Sam’s Uptown Cafe.

“So now we are a two piece,” Vance said in a Facebook message. “Live. It.”

Vance and Reese have taken plenty of hits since starting Farnsworth in 2011, but they keep getting back up.

And for that reason, they have the occasional stroke of good luck, too.

When they decided to record “Live It” using all-analog equipment, neither Vance nor Reese knew much about vintage recording processes.

They also chose to record the album at Sullivan’s Records on Washington Street East, even though the store is not really equipped to be a recording studio.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Vance said.

But once recording began, Vance said it was clear something special was happening.

“The way that room sounds is incredible. It’s surprising how good it sounds,” he said.

Using vintage recording equipment also paid off for the band.

It’s much more difficult to fix mistakes on reel-to-reel tape recorders than on digital recording equipment, so Vance and Reese took their time recording the songs.

It took them an hour just to set up microphones on their first night of recording.

“You have to commit to tape,” Vance said. “You have to commit to a sound. It forces you to think about it.”

The result is a loud, eight-song album infused with vintage rock sounds. If it were recorded 30 years earlier, you would call it “classic rock.”

The album is being released by Charleston-based record label Twin Cousins Records.

Vance and Reese said the label has been extremely supportive, helping their band navigate some of the pitfalls of record-making.

“You couldn’t ask for a better partnership,” Vance said.

Farnsworth hopes to push their luck and record another full-length, all-analog album for Twin Cousins before the end of the year.

They’re hoping lightning will strike twice.

And if lightning would strike anything twice, it’s Farnsworth.


Friends keep jazz musician’s memory alive with nonprofit group

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on June 19, 2014.

Bryan Boyd remembers everything about the last gig he played with Derick Kirk.

Boyd had booked a gig at Soho’s at the Capitol Market and asked Kirk to come along and play keyboards.

He showed up looking white as a sheet, a cap pulled over his hairless head, an oxygen tube in his nose. His left arm was in a sling.

“He was so sick he could barely sit up,” Boyd said.

But then Kirk started playing. And he kept playing for three hours.

Boyd said cancer and chemotherapy had robbed Kirk of his strength, and he had use of one hand, but he still outperformed every musician in the house that night.

“It was just beautiful,” Boyd said. “It was marvelous. It was absolutely marvelous.

“I was thinking to myself, what if this is the last opportunity Derick gets to play? Then I shut it out of my mind. But of course, that was it.”

Kirk played that gig with Boyd on June 15, 2007. His health took a turn for the worse a few days later.

In a little more than a month, Kirk was gone. He was 28 years old.

But the music didn’t stop.

A few months after his death, Kirk’s friends and family formed the Derick Kirk Foundation, a nonprofit organization that gives out college scholarships to young musicians and donates money to public school music programs around the Kanawha Valley.

The foundation will have its annual fundraising concert this Sunday at Black Sheep Burritos on Summers Street. The concert will feature local groups Blues du Jour, Ignition Jazz Quartet, Hybrid Soul Project, the Bob Thompson Unit and VooDoo Katz.

Derick’s mother Lois, who sits on the foundation’s board, said the bands all play for free so every dollar can go toward music education.

“They do it because they knew Derick,” she said.

x x x

It wasn’t a surprise that Derick Kirk became a musician.

His mother, Lois, played in the high school band. His dad, Danny, played guitar and banjo. His older brother Darren, seven years Derick’s senior, played saxophone, keyboard and guitar.

There were musicians all through the extended family, too.

But no one expected Derick’s talents would show so early.

Lois remembers riding in the car when her son was an infant, listening to music on the radio.

Mothers didn’t worry much then about putting children in car seats, so she had him wrapped in a blanket on her lap.

She noticed his arm bobbing back and forth.

“He was going right in time with the music,” Lois said.

She figured it was just a coincidence but decided to try a little experiment. She stopped Derick’s arm, held it for a moment and then released it.

Before long, his arm was again ticking like a metronome.

When he was about three years old, Danny and Lois gave Derick a toy keyboard.

The toy had a button that would automatically play songs, and Derick was constantly mashing that button to hear the music.

One day, Lois noticed the keyboard sounded like its batteries were going dead. It was playing wrong notes.

She walked into Derick’s room and found her toddler banging out Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on his miniature keyboard.

“He was just a born musician. Once in a while they come along, and Derick was one of them,” Danny said. “It was a gift.”

He joined the band program at his elementary school when he was in fourth grade, playing alto saxophone just like his mom and older brother. By junior high, he was playing with Sherman High School’s marching band.

He soon proved to be one of the band’s most versatile musicians.

“It got to the point, when I went to watch him, I never know what he was going to play,” Lois said.

Once, at a parade in Whitesville, she got a little worried when she didn’t see Derick with the saxophone section. But then she spotted him marching with the brass section, trombone in hand.

He graduated high school in 1997 with scholarships to both Marshall University and West Virginia State University. He chose State so he could stay at home and drive to school.

In his first year there, he helped form the jazz group Moment’s Notice with local guitarist Ryan Kennedy.

Kennedy left for Berklee College of Music in California shortly after that, but met up with Kirk anytime he returned to West Virginia.

“Every gig that I got a call for, I made sure to see if Derick was available,” he said.

Even when they weren’t playing publicly, Kirk and Kennedy spent hours practicing together.

“In some ways they were our formative years as professional musicians,” he said. “I felt like, at the time, we did a lot of our best work.”

They composed songs together, helping each other hone their arrangements.

“He had amazing musical ears. His ear for music was one of the best I’ve ever seen. He could hear harmony so well,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy found he could communicate with Kirk in a way he couldn’t with many other people.

One time Kirk played Kennedy a song he wrote, a melancholy jazz piano ballad. After listening to it, Kennedy suggested he call it “Afterthought.”

“I told him it reminded me of a sad old washed up boxer from the 1920s,” he said. “These abstract explanations of things seemed to make perfect sense to Derick. He just got it.”

x x x

But then came cancer.

When he was 26, Kirk began complaining about pain in his shoulder. His mom tried to get him to see a doctor, but he thought he just pulled a muscle lugging heavy music equipment.

Then, one night, he was at a party and saw a woman nearly trip.

“He reached to grab her. She landed on his arm and it popped up,” Lois said.

Lois heard him come home late that night and found him sitting on the couch with a big knot on his arm.

She took him to the emergency room, where doctors there determined his arm wasn’t broken. They referred him to an orthopedic doctor, who thought it was a hematoma and told him it would soon go away.

“It never got better,” Lois said.

He tried physical therapy but that didn’t help either. His doctor finally referred him to a specialist in Pittsburgh, who did a biopsy on the knot and found it was a tumor.

Worse, the cancer had already spread from his shoulder into his lungs.

Danny remembers when he learned his son had cancer. They were sitting on the front porch.

“He said ‘Dad, they said I had a tumor.’ I said ‘You can’t have a tumor. You’re too young.’”

He began heavy doses of chemotherapy, spending a week every month at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital.

The drugs zapped his strength, but after about a week he was usually well enough to get out and play a few gigs. He would play music around town until his next trip to Morgantown.

“Playing’s what kept him going,” Lois said.

“Right up until the end, that’s what he did,” Danny said.

Boyd met Kirk a few years before he died, when Boyd was looking for a keyboard player for his band.

“Somebody had told me about this kid Derick Kirk. They said you need to call this guy, he’s off the hook,” Boyd said.

Boyd invited Kirk to his house for practice.

The band ended up blowing through 25 songs in an hour and a half.

“I was born at night, but not last night. It didn’t take me long to say, this kid is special,” he said.

Boyd said Kirk’s passion for music began to drive his own playing.

“We’d play a conference at a hotel. We’re up there playing, and they’re cleaning up the place. And they’d say ‘You guys are going to have to leave,’” Boyd said.

When Kirk got sick, Boyd began wondering how long they might have left to play together. He started booking every gig he could find.

One night, Boyd scheduled the band for an out-of-town performance that was supposed to last three hours. They were headed into the third hour — and still going strong — when the drummer hollered at Boyd, asking how much longer they had to play.

“I said, ‘I don’t know where your head is, but I’m having the time of my life,’” Boyd said. “He realized then, at that moment, what I was talking about. We’re not going to have Derick very much longer.”

As his health declined, Kirk became determined to record his music.

He cut seven original compositions with Kennedy, bassist John Inghram, and drummers Sam Wiseman and Chris Hudson.

“In that last year that we had Derick, he just played. He played for real,” Kennedy said. “There was this academic approach to things when we were young. But when Derick knew he was sick, everything became more focused.”

The recordings would not be released until after his death, however.

The foundation compiled the tracks for an album called “Soar” and asked Kennedy to write the liner notes.

“All sentiment about Derick’s illness or the unfairness of his untimely passing its totally absent from the music presented here,” he wrote. “It is an acknowledgment of his genius and a testament to how he, through his music, learned to truly soar.”

x x x

When people talk about Derick Kirk, they usually begin by marveling at his musical talent. But by the end of the conversation, without fail, they start talking about his character.

“He was one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” Kennedy said. “Never had a harsh word to say about anybody. Mentally clear, kind, to the point. Quiet, but not shy.”

Lois recalls a time when, returning home from a late-night gig, her son stopped to pick up a girl walking home from a back-roads bar and drive her home. Lois scolded him, reminding her son of how dangerous the situation could have been.

“He said ‘Mom, I’m going to help somebody if I can.’ And that was that,” she said. “Every time we would go to hear Derick play, people would come up to me and just brag and brag about him. Not just as a musician, but as a person.”

Boyd remembers the enthusiasm he had for teaching music.

“He was a natural, because he never intimidated you,” he said. “People just loved him. He had that quality of peace about him. ”

That’s why, a few months after his death, Boyd and some of Kirk’s other band mates decided to start a nonprofit in his honor.

“We knew we had to do something, because it just couldn’t stop. We needed an outlet to say, you need to remember who this person was because he was so important,” Boyd said.

They approached Lois and Danny with the idea.

“I was humbled his friends wanted to do that but I wasn’t sure it was going to work,” Lois said.

But it has worked.

Since the foundation was formed in 2009, the group has given out thousands of dollars in college scholarships to students who are pursuing degrees in music performance or music education.

The awards aren’t huge — usually less than $1,000 apiece — but the foundation hopes to expand in coming years.

“It’s good for us to do this, to remember him, rather than just be sad that he’s gone,” Kennedy said. “I think he’d be smiling ear to ear if he knew what we were doing.”

Boyd, who now serves as president of the foundation, says he’s happy the foundation can inspire young musicians to achieve the kind of success Derick would have if cancer had not ended his life.

“It wasn’t that Derick didn’t make it. He just ran out of time,” Boyd said. “I’m convinced. He was just special.

“He ran out of time, that’s all.”