Zack Harold

writer/editor

The making of Robert C. Byrd’s “Mountain Fiddler”

This story originally appeared in the July 6, 2010 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

In all of the obituaries written about the late Sen. Robert Byrd over the last week, there’s one detail nearly everyone made sure to include alongside his political victories and infamous missteps—his love of traditional mountain music.

A longtime fiddler himself, Byrd held onto his love of old-time tunes when he left the hills of West Virginia for Washington, D.C.

Among his countless, historic accomplishments, the nation’s longest-serving senator is also the only person to have recorded a musical album on Capitol Hill.

His record, “Mountain Fiddler,” was released on County Records in 1978. The project began two years earlier, when Alan Jabbour from the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center contacted Barry Poss, a producer with the record company.

“They had been talking with Sen. Byrd about doing some recording, but it really wasn’t part of the Library of Congress’s mission to get involved. They weren’t really set up for this kind of venture because it was a public recording,” Poss said.

So Jabbour asked if Poss was interested in the project. He was, and made a trip to D.C. to meet with Byrd.

“It was a little bit different. My normal routine was to meet artists at a club or backstage at a festival at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Poss said.

Instead, Poss met the senator in his Capitol Hill office, where Byrd played him some rough demo tapes he had already prepared. The men met several more times to work through Byrd’s extensive repertoire and come up with songs for the record.

Poss said the goal was to cover a broad range of music, from old folk songs and dance to gospel tunes.

“The kinds of music that, growing up in rural West Virginia or even anywhere in the southern Appalachians, you would have heard,” Poss said.

The men eventually chose 14 songs, including “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Cripple Creek,” “Durang’s Hornpipe,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “There’s More Pretty Girls Than One” and “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die.”

Surrounding Byrd

The producer then was charged with booking a recording studio and finding musicians to back the Senate majority leader. And he knew exactly who to call first—Doyle Lawson.

Poss had just produced Doyle Lawson’s first solo album, “Tennessee Dream,” also released on County Records.

Lawson, a multi-instrumentalist who first appeared on the national bluegrass scene in the early ’60s as Jimmy Martin’s banjo player, was at the time playing mandolin in the Washington D.C.-based group the Country Gentlemen.

“He was just the right person, because Doyle is a born leader,” Poss said of Lawson. “He has this incredible ability to bring others around him to inspire him and bring them along to where there’s really good studio-quality material.”

Although he was an accomplished musician, Byrd performed solo for most of his musical life. He often would crack open his fiddle case to play some tunes at fundraisers, rallies and campaign stops but was unaccustomed to playing with other pickers.

Without a strong, talented rhythm section behind the senator, Poss worried the songs might fall apart.

“People who (perform by themselves) have a different sense of rhythm. They can be a little freer with the rhythm,” he said. “I had to make sure the caliber of the musicians was high enough to bring Sen. Byrd along.”

Lawson accepted Poss’ offer and recruited Country Gentlemen band mate James Bailey to play banjo on the record. Lawson then picked Spider Gilliam, the Gentlemen’s road manager and sometime bass player, to hold down the low end.

Recording site

Poss said his original plan was to have Byrd record in a professional studio. He took the senator to Bias Studios in northwest Virginia for a pre-recording visit but could tell something was wrong.

“He looked a bit uncomfortable to me, and of course you wouldn’t want someone to be uncomfortable in a recording,” he said.

Poss said he thinks the jungle of microphones, mixing boards and isolation booths intimidated Byrd.

“It was a little bit of an alien environment,” he said.

With a professional studio out of the question, Poss now had to find a place where Byrd would be more comfortable, a place where he spent a lot of time.

For Byrd, an infamous workaholic, that place was his Senate office. So that’s where Poss decided to hold the recording sessions.

He tapped Bias recording engineer Bill McElroy to make it happen.

“I asked him to build a portable console that would be stripped down and unobtrusive. I guess the idea was to have the recording process be as natural as possible,” Poss said.

McElroy built a two-track recording unit and set it up in Byrd’s conference room.

Completely live

With only two tracks to record on – one for the left stereo channel and another for the right – the band recorded the album completely live. They couldn’t go back and overdub any flubbed parts. If someone messed up, everyone had to redo the song.

“What went on there, that’s what you had,” Gilliam, the bass player, said. “It put the pressure on.”

Poss said, “They basically stood in a circle, performing live, just as though they were playing in his living room.”

Lawson said, “We didn’t practice or anything until we got to the Capitol building.”

Lawson said Byrd had some trouble getting started so he suggested the senator warm up with a “Georgia shuffle,” where fiddlers run their bow over the strings in rhythm for a song intro.

He said the recording went smoothly after that, except for some false starts and a few other typical studio mishaps.

“If he got in a big way of fiddling, his bow might hit the microphone,” Lawson said.

Multiple rehearsals

The senator soon grew accustomed to his new band, and the music fell into place.

“He was really open and very observant and picked it up immediately,” Lawson said. “To be honest, I was really surprised at how well he played old-time fiddle. He had drive, authority and passion.”

He said Byrd’s singing wasn’t anything to be ashamed of either.

“He would sing with the same gusto that he played with. It was a lot of fun,” Lawson said.

Banjo picker Bailey said he also was impressed by Byrd’s knowledge of old-time music.

He said Byrd knew lyrics to songs that most musicians only know as instrumental numbers, like “Cumberland Gap.” And if the senator knew the words, he would sing them all.

“If a song had 15 verses, that’s what he did,” Bailey said. “He looked at a song as a work and that’s what he would do. He would cover the whole thing.

“His heart and soul were in old-time numbers,” he said.

Poss remembers recording the album was “amazingly fun” and said Byrd’s enthusiasm for his music infected everyone involved.

“He wore everybody out,” Poss said.

“Musicians typically tend to like to warm up a little bit to limber up, but not too much because they don’t want to lose that edge. Sen. Byrd was different. The more he rehearsed, the more he wanted to rehearse.”

Byrd on tour

After the record was finished and released, Byrd and his band went on a short promotional tour.

One of the first stops was at Discount Records and Books, a record store in Washington, D.C. Byrd gave an in-store performance and signed records for fans.

“I remember showing up. It was a scene like I’d never seen,” Poss said. “The store was mobbed, the street was just jammed with cars and people lined up around the block.”

The tour also included stops on the hit variety show “Hee Haw” and the “Grand Ole Opry.” Byrd’s appearance marked the Opry’s second-ever national broadcast, shown then on PBS.

Poss, Gilliam and Bailey accompanied Byrd on his trip to Nashville.

“It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Poss said.

Byrd listened to AM broadcasts of the Opry as a child, and sawing his fiddle on its hallowed stage was a lifelong dream.

But when his moment in the spotlight came, Poss said the senator was quite nervous. “That quickly went away because of what goes on backstage at the Opry,” Poss said.

Byrd and his band hung out in Opry legend Roy Acuff’s dressing room that night. As country music stars like Minnie Pearl and fellow West Virginian Little Jimmie Dickens stopped by to chat, his nerves started to calm.

“They welcomed him, not as majority leader of the U.S. Senate, but as a fellow artist. They really made him feel right at home,” Poss said.

“I almost had the feeling he was ready to go on the road.”

Gilliam remembers stopping at a restaurant after their Opry performance. It was about 3 a.m.

“He asked me, ‘How old are you, Spider?’ “Gilliam said. The bass player was 38 at the time. Byrd was in his late 50s.

“He told me, ‘If I was your age, I’d give up my seat in the Senate and do this for a living,'” Gilliam remembered. “I thought, ‘Yes, sir. And you would flat starve to death.'”

Mission complete

While Byrd stuck to his day job, he continued to wow D.C. crowds with his playing.

Gilliam said the senator often invited him and Bailey to Capitol Hill get-togethers, and even to the National Democratic Convention a time or two. Lawson often couldn’t make the performances, since he was on the road with the Gentlemen and later his band Quicksilver.

Gilliam said he saw Byrd play so long and so hard that he wore the hide off his fingers.

But even that wouldn’t stop the senator from sawing the strings.

“He’d bandage those things up and keep on going. One of the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen. He’d work all day and beat on that fiddle all night if he could,” Gilliam said.

But Poss said there was never talk of doing another album.

“I think he understood that this was something he needed to do and this wasn’t his career,” he said. “I think that was kind of a mission accomplished.”

Still the record producer, who went on to found Sugar Hill Records and sign artists like Nickel Creek, Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs, said he’s proud of his work with Byrd.

Recently, he and Jabbour wrote a new set of liner notes for “Mountain Fiddler’s” first CD release.

“It’s great,” he said. “I was delighted to hear how well it stood up, and I think that was his goal. The music had already stood the test, and I think his recordings will stand the test of time.”

Poss said, “He had put as much work into this as he did anything else in his life.”

“Mountain Fiddler” is now available for sale at www.countysales.com. The album will appear in music stores and online in a couple of weeks.

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.

Making the Stage

This story originally appeared in the summer 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

Jerry Run 14 small resArrive late to a show at the Jerry Run Summer Theater and you can hear the music as soon as you open the car door. Low frequencies seep from the uninsulated walls, drawing you along the worn grass path toward the green front doors. Inside, after you’ve paid the $5 entrance fee and a few bucks more for a hot dog and bottle of pop, the theater will be dark except for the stage lights and the fading sunlight that wriggles through the louvered, glassless windows.

Slip into the rows of thickly padded auditorium seats and you’ll likely go unnoticed. The crowds at Jerry Run are known for their attentiveness to the entertainment. But look around. See the scores of smiling faces. Neighbors will be tapping their feet and bobbing their heads to the music, alongside folks from farther away who’ve come to see this little theater in rural Webster County. And in the corner of the balcony, show after show, you’ll find Dusty Anderson—the soundman, master of ceremonies, handyman, and janitor, and the guy who designed and built the theater from the ground up.

Anderson is a lifelong music fan, having learned the basics at the knee of his organ-playing grandfather. In high school, he played electric bass in a rock band. But when he graduated and started working as a carpenter, his interests shifted—instead of playing music, he dreamed of building a place where he could host performances by other artists.

He was inspired by a benefit concert he and wife Renee organized to help save the local elementary school from consolidation. The school’s gymnasium wasn’t the most acoustically appealing space, but the response was overwhelming. “People really enjoyed themselves. It brought pleasure to their lives,” says Renee.

Dusty started researching theater construction, trying to find books about acoustical design at the local library. “I believe in a blueprint,” he says. The information proved lacking. Good acoustics, the authors seemed to suggest, are as much a matter of luck as anything else. This did not intimidate Dusty, however. He began making models of his theater, planning how it all would fit together.

A tract of land eventually came up for sale across the road from the Andersons’ home. They bought the property and Dusty began clearing trees. He designed and built tall arching trusses that make up the building’s rib cage, hoisting them upright with some assistance from helpful neighbors. “People were thinking, ‘What’s he doing out there?’” he says with a laugh.

He included skylights down the middle of the roof to provide ventilation and a little light, and built louvered windows for the same purpose. He built a tidy concession stand in one corner of the foyer and left the opposite side open for a seating area.

Dusty bought a speaker system from a friend who upgraded to a more high-tech setup. “They go back to the ’80s but they sound good,” he says. The theater seats also came second-hand, from a lecture hall at West Virginia Wesleyan College. The school had planned to send them to the landfill, but Dusty spent a whole weekend hauling them back to his theater. Each seat still has a fold-up desk bolted to the right-hand side—which makes for a handy place to rest your hotdog and pop while enjoying a show.

After years of planning and years of construction, the theater opened its doors in 2003. Now in its 14th season, Jerry Run hosts about 25 shows each year, beginning in late spring and running until early fall. Despite its out-of-the-way location, the theater has attracted scores of musical acts from across the state and around the country, as evidenced by the wall of framed pictures hanging in the foyer. Most are bluegrass bands—that’s what most local bands play, and that’s what audiences like to hear—but there have been rock, country, and folk groups, too. As word of the quaint little venue has spread, so has its roster.

In October 2014, Jerry Run Summer Theater got its biggest act to date:
internationally renowned songwriter Sam Beam, who goes by the stage name Iron & Wine. Beam’s manager Howard Greynolds saw an article about Jerry Run in a Chicago newspaper. Greynolds has family in Clarksburg, so he decided to stop by on his next visit to the Mountain State. He asked Dusty if Jerry Run would host one of his acts someday—to which Dusty agreed, although he didn’t expect anything would come from it. “We thought, we’ll never hear from this guy again,” Renee says.

More than a year later, however, Greynolds called the Andersons and asked if they would put on a special concert by Iron & Wine. Beam had been inspired by Dusty’s story and wanted to feature the theater in a short concert film to promote his new collection of early songs, Archive Series Volume No. 1.

Beam’s people trucked in loads of fancy cameras and lighting rigs, along with generators to power everything. The show attracted fans from Charleston and Morgantown and Pittsburgh, along with Jerry Run’s usual band of regulars. “People were just so thrilled. The crowd was hanging on every word,” Renee says.

The concert film—called “Dreamers and Makers are my Favorite People,” now easily found on YouTube—has gained Jerry Run national recognition, but it hasn’t changed the venue’s handmade charm. When the Andersons opened the theater in late April for this year’s first show, Renee was still at the concession stand, slinging hot dogs, pepperoni rolls, and popcorn with her longtime helper Barb Kopanko. Renee’s sister Linda Pugh was still behind the cash box collecting admission. “Glad to see you open again,” a woman said as she handed over her five-dollar bill.

At seven o’clock sharp the night’s entertainment, a Buffalo, New York-based folk rock group, walked onstage with Dusty in hot pursuit. He strode up to the mic, hands tugging at the lapels of his unbuttoned denim shirt. “Please welcome—Savannah and the Kings!”

Dusty was off the stage almost before the applause began. His tall, lanky frame quickly carried him to the darkened balcony, where he took his place behind the mixing board. Next week he’ll sweep up the popcorn off the floor and wipe up any coffee rings left on the folding desks. If a breaker knocks out the lights again, he’ll be the one hunting down the problem. But while the band is onstage, Dusty can just sit back, enjoy the songs, and appreciate a music scene he built with his own two hands.

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.”