Zack Harold

writer/editor

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.

 

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.”

Bluegrass gospel group The Easter Brothers still saying “Thank You”

This story was originally published July 3, 2014 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

There aren’t too many living people who can say their songs are in hymn books, but James Easter is one of them.

His song “Thank You Lord For Your Blessings on Me,” co-written with brothers Russell and Ed, is sung in congregations all over the world.

And the brothers, now all in their 80s, are still singing that song. They will perform it live this Saturday night at the Milton Opry House.

James, 82, said he still sometimes cries when he sings “Thank You Lord” because he remembers the man he was when he wrote it: a recovering alcoholic and convicted felon, fresh out of prison.

He had a wife and young child, a job that paid next to nothing and a tiny house he rented for $10 a month.

“I didn’t have no wealth whatsoever. I was right at the bottom but I knew I had something in my life that made me happy.”

James sat down and wrote the words that would find their way into gospel music history:

“There’s a roof up above me, I’ve a good place to sleep, there’s food on my table and shoes on my feet. You gave me your love, Lord, and a fine family. Thank you, Lord, for your blessings on me.”

It’s a simple declaration of faith that fans have come to expect from the Easter Brothers, who also have contributed songs like “Lord, I Can’t Picture Me Without You,” “He’s The Rock I’m Leaning On,” and “A Heart That Will Never Break Again” to the southern gospel canon.

Their success might be a little surprising to those who grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., in the 1930s, however. The Easter brothers were singing a very different song then.

Russell, the oldest of the Easter boys, taught James to play guitar when he was eight years old.

A few years later — when James was 10 and Russell was 12 — the boys started playing in beer joints together. And before long, they were doing more than just playing in beer joints.

James said he and Russell were full-blown alcoholics before either of them could legally drive a car.

The addiction almost killed Russell when he was 14. He got a bottle of bad whiskey and would have died from alcohol poisoning if James hadn’t carried him to a doctor.

Russell’s life was spared when he met and married a girl from Danville, Va. She got him into church and away from the bottle.

James, meanwhile, was still in Mount Airy.

“I got in with the wrong crowd,” he said. “You had to do mean things if you got to run with them.”

That quickly got him into trouble. By age 16, James was stealing cars with his buddies and taking them for joyrides.

“We called it borrowing cars,” he said.

The court didn’t see it that way. James was found guilty of felony theft charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

But like Joseph in the Old Testament, James believes his time behind bars was just part of God’s plan.

Rev. C.S. Grogan, writer of southern gospel classics like “Jesus Signed My Pardon,” came to speak at the prison a few months after James arrived.

James reluctantly attended the service and sat in the back of the mess hall, hiding behind the heads of the other inmates. But then he looked at Grogan.

“I saw some tears coming out from under his glasses. He pointed straight at me and said ‘I know somebody that loves you.’ I punched my buddy and said ‘He must know my mama.’

“I’d never heard about Christ. None of us had ever been to church, never heard preaching,” James said.

“From that moment I wanted him in my heart. I didn’t get him right then, but I wanted him right there.”

James would not convert to Christianity for several more years.

He was released after five years for good behavior, returned to Mount Airy and, before too long, was running with his old group of friends.

“I was well on my way back to prison,” he said.

Russell came to James’ house and talked his little brother to move to Danville, where both he and Ed now lived in an effort to escape their reputation back home.

“We were three alcoholics in Mount Airy,” James said.

Once in Danville, James found himself wandering into a little church.

“I don’t even know the name of the church. I couldn’t wait for them to give an invitation because what brother Grogan said kept running through my mind.”

His life finally on track, James joined his brothers in their group the Green Valley Quartet, which they eventually changed to the Easter Brothers to avoid confusion with another local group.

They started off singing religious songs by country and bluegrass artists like The Stanley Brothers and Roy Acuff as well as old hymns.

But their popularity really took off when the brothers began writing their own tunes.

Russell wrote a song called “The Darkest Hour,” which got the attention of bluegrass duo Don Reno and Red Smiley, who got the Easters a recording deal with King Records.

Not long after that, James said a New York magazine interviewed Elvis Presley about his favorite records.

Presley mentioned he listened to a lot of southern gospel, and one of his recent favorites was a song called “Darkest Hour” by a North Carolina group called the Easter Brothers.

When the magazine hit newsstands, calls started flooding into the Easters’ record label.

“All of Elvis’s fans wanted our record,” James said.

As their star began to rise, the brothers were offered opportunities to get back into country music.

They always declined, however, worried returning to secular music might drive them back to alcohol.

Once, a record label executive promised to put them at the top of the record charts if they would record some love songs.

“We told him we were already singing the greatest love songs we could sing,” James said.

The Easter Brothers have now been on the road for 60 years. And even though Russell is 84 years old, James is 82 and Ed is 80, they are showing no signs of stopping.

James said it feels like they’re just getting started. They are still writing songs — they have more than 100 now — and the brothers hope to record at least one more CD.

“We’re called to do it. That’s why the Easter Brothers are still out here,” he said. “It ain’t the money. That disappears real quick.”

The Easter Brothers will appear this Saturday at the Milton Opry House along with the Easter Family, a bluegrass group of Russell Easter’s grandchildren.

Doors open at 5 p.m. and the concert begins at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $5 for children. Concessions will be available.

The Easter Brothers and the Easter Family also will appear at Rumble Community Baptist Church in Ashford on Sunday at 10 a.m.

The groups will perform at Stanaford New Beginnings Christian Church in Beckley at 6 p.m. Sunday.