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West Virginia music makes the perfect holiday gift

This review appeared in the 2017 issue of Goldenseal Magazine. Used with permission


Charleston Gazette-Mail

Here is a look at a collection of recordings by West Virginia musicians released in the last year.

‘The Rhinestone Hillbilly’

Little Jimmy Dickens (1920-2015) was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007. The native of Bolt, Raleigh County, and legendary country music star is honored in “The Rhinestone Hillbilly: A Tribute to Little Jimmy Dickens,” with 16 songs he made famous over a long career.

This recording features Charlie McCoy, Tim O’Brien, Kathy Mattea, James Price, Mollie O’Brien, Julie Adams, Larry Groce, Kim McAbee, The Carpenter Ants, Todd Burge, John Lilly, Landau Murphy Jr. and Ann Magnuson, among many others.

Price delivers the classic, “When Your House is Not a Home,” written by Roger Miller.

Dickens’ classic recitation “Raggedy Ann” gets a contemporary treatment with fellow Raleigh native Bill Withers on vocals; Michael Lipton on guitars, mbira and programming; and Don Dixon on bass, programming and trombones.

Mattea contributes “A-Sleepin’ at the Foot of the Bed.” A gem of a B-side, “They’ve Stole My Steel Guitar,” features Russ Hicks, and former Goldenseal editor John Lilly sings “Out of Business.”

There are two standouts: “We Could” with Connie Smith will break your heart. And while there was never any doubt, the Grand Ole Opry veteran still has the goods.

And string wizards Russ Hicks and Robert Shafer, on pedal steel and guitar, raise the roof on “Raisin’ the Dickens.” This CD sounds like a labor of love for all concerned.

A well-written booklet by Tristam Lozaw and Michael Lipton gives an overview of Dickens’ life and recording career. Turn it up!

“The Rhinestone Hillbilly” is available at www.wvmusichallof and other sites.

‘Where the River Meets the Road’

To continue the tribute theme, Wheeling native Tim O’Brien assembled a stellar group of sidemen for this homage to the musicians and songwriters of West Virginia.

Among the songs are “Grandma’s Hands” from Withers; gospel number “Friday, Sunday’s Coming,” from John Lilly; and “When the Mist Clears Away” by Groce.

The recording features Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Chris Scruggs on guitar, Mike Bub on bass and Bobby Wood on piano.

A fine interpreter of songs, O’Brien is also a great songwriter. Here he presents “Guardian Angel,” a moving song of love and loss, about an older sister who died at 6 years old, when O’Brien was 2. His faint memory of her merges with that of a guardian angel print he remembers hanging on the wall.

“Don’t know much about her

There’s not much to know

Just six years of living and she had to go

My parents they grieved, somehow they moved on

And I grew up knowing my sister was gone”

His stirring vocal adds to the heartfelt lyrics.

O’Brien’s skilled fiddling is front and center on the instrumental “Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies,” from the legendary Pocahontas County fiddler Edden Hammons. The addition of cello backup lends a classical feel to this most dignified traditional air.

“My Old Brown Coat and Me” honors WWVA mainstay Doc Williams. The Bailes Brothers’ “Drunkard’s Grave” recreates that honky-tonk sound with a great groove. “Windy Mountain” is a bluegrass classic from Curly Ray Cline, with fine fiddling and banjo from Duncan and Pikelny. No West Virginia collection would be complete without Hazel Dickens, and O’Brien has chosen the classic “Few Old Memories.”

Great selections, great musicians: This CD is a keeper. “Where the River Meets the Road” is available at various places online.

‘State Songs’

Lilly’s latest recording is an ambitious project, with 12 songs. All but one is an original, and each pays tribute to a different state. It was recorded and produced in West Virginia, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee and Louisiana.

In addition to taking listeners on a geographic and, at times, sentimental journey, Lilly knows his recorded music history. He is comfortable in a variety of styles, from Texas swing to Cajun to string band, to ’20s jazz to classic country, to a flat-out rocker.

“Nothing Short of Texas” echoes Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys with a dance-hall beat and lush string section. “In My Dreams of Oregon,” with wonderful vocal harmonies by Brennen Leigh, echoes the great brother duos, such as the Delmores or the Everly Brothers.

“M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I” has a big-band feel, with horn solos and backup singers. “New Arizona Waltz,” has more great harmony singing. “In Kentucky” has a two-step beat with a small jazz combo sound and wraps up with a nice yodel.

“Go to North Dakota” features the shredding slide guitar of Sonny Landreth. And Lilly rocks out with a touch of Buddy Holly “b-b-bye-bye baby goodbye.”

Next up is “Ohio,” and the lyrics are reminiscent of traditional songs about wayward youth.

Throw in the backing string band, which moves at a good clip, and maybe we have a future string-band standard.

“Roaming through Wyoming” has more great harmonies and an arrangement worthy of the Sons of the Pioneers, and “Yvette the Crawfish Queen” is a Cajun romp with accordion, triangle and super fiddle playing. “Goodbye to Idaho” is Lilly alone with his guitar.

The sole non-original is Lilly’s arrangement of “West Virginia Hills” with full band, horn section and backup singers.

“State Songs” has nice cover art and packaging from Julie Belcher at Pioneer House. Very danceable music, folks. Its available from and other sites.

‘Kanawha Tradition: From the Country’

Fiddler Bobby Taylor and banjo player Kim Johnson are joined by Jesse Pearson on guitar and David O’Dell on bass. All four are steeped in West Virginia traditional music.

Taylor carries on Clark Kessinger’s fiddling legacy, while bassist (and multi-instrumentalist) O’Dell learned much of his music from the late Frank George of Roane County.

Johnson’s clawhammer banjo used to back the fiddling of the late Wilson Douglas of Clay County and Lester McCumbers of Calhoun County. Guitarist Pearson is also a fiddler and plays with Johnson in the Modock Rounders.

There are 16 tunes in all, some square-dance standards and a few out-of-the-way numbers. Standouts are a wonderful “Billy in the Lowland” in G, from the repertoire of Henry Reed, and the signature West Virginia tune, “Yew Piney Mountain,” with Johnson meeting every bend of this crooked tune on her banjo.

A book could be written about Taylor’s bowing. His “Liberty” and “Polly Put the Kettle On,” and the bow jumps on “Redbird” are not to be missed. This recording is another good document of a nationally known and much-respected fiddler.

Available for $15 postage paid from Kim Johnson, P.O. Box 333, Dunbar, WV 25064

‘Twin Sisters’

This recording from repeat Vandalia contest champions fiddler Jenny Allinder and guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jim Mullins, features fiddle tunes (mostly from West Virginia, but recast in different keys). In that vein, the guitar uses non-standard tunings, such as D-A-D-G-A-D and others. It lends a contemporary Celtic feel that is old yet remains forward-looking.

An Allinder composition, “Rachel’s Own,” opens with some lovely guitar playing; the fiddle is lilting and lyrical. The title tune, “Twin Sisters” is in the key of A rather than the usual D, and the pair build upon the melody with wonderful variations and expressive tone from fiddle and guitar. “Spotted Pony” takes the listener on another imaginative, melodic journey.

Ably produced by Bud Carroll at Trackside in Barboursville, “Twin Sisters” has beautiful cover art with a pen-and-ink drawing by Allinder and well-written liner notes from Mullins.

Its available by emailing [email protected] with CD order in the attention line or from

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