Digging Deep In To His West Virginia Roots

By Derek Halsey

West Virginia is one of the more unique states in the union; a place filled with natural beauty, challenging rivers, wilderness, and magnificent gorges. It’s also a state that has seen its coal and timber industries go through many ups and downs over the years. Yet, throughout its history, it has always been a land of wonderful culture, hospitality, and music.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the Confederate States seceded from the Union. During the Civil War, there was only one state that seceded from the Confederacy, and that was West Virginia on June 20, 1863. After the war was over, after the Hatfield & McCoy Feud had died down, the trains rolled through the state at an amazing rate back in the day when coal was king. The train yard in Huntington, W.Va., alone employed over 5,000 workers in the early 1900s. It was also a time of labor disputes, when miners had to fight for their rights, which led to gun battles and deaths in Matewan, at the Battle of Blair Mountain, and elsewhere. Then, The Great Depression hit and poverty crept over the land. In the mid-1900s, the Great Migration found hundreds of thousands of folks who lived in the Appalachian Mountains moving north to Ohio, Michigan, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Md., and other places looking for work. The migrants brought their hospitality and culture with them, along with their music.

Over the last sixty years or so, including in this new century, the fate of most young West Virginians fresh out of high school and college is the inevitable move out of the state. West Virginia has lost population over most of the previous decades and has one of the oldest populations in the country due to young people leaving in search of opportunity. But, when they go out into the world, they carry with them the memories of their grandmother’s cooking in the old homeplace, the taste of brown beans and cornbread and pork-infused green beans cooked for at least three hours, the times when they ran through the rhododendrons on their cousin’s mountain farm, or when they visited their aunt and uncle’s house and heard the twisted, meandering sound of a train whistle as it chugged its way through the hollers or the sound of a late night riverboat horn.

West Virginia is a state that contains places known as the Northern Panhandle, the Eastern Panhandle, river towns, the New River Gorge, and the Coal Fields. The award-winning musician Tim O’Brien grew up in the Northern Panhandle in the Ohio River town of Wheeling. He is a Grammy Award winner and a two-time International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Male Vocalist Of The Year. And as a member of the band Hot Rize, he also won the first-ever IBMA Entertainer Of The Year award in 1990.

Tim was raised in West Virginia from birth, yet he realized all of his musical success after he left his indigenous hills of home. His travels took him from Maine to Wyoming, from California to Colorado to Nashville. Yet, the culture and music of his native Mountain State never left him.

Now, O’Brien has released a special new album called Where The River Meets The Road. The record is comprised of West Virginia-related songs, most of which were written by a superb array of artists who are or were from there. He chose cuts made famous by the Lilly Brothers, Billy Edd Wheeler, the Hammons Family, Doc Williams, the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bill Withers, Larry Groce, the Bailes Brothers, and Hazel Dickens. He also adds two original songs to the project and is backed up by an all-star cast of artists, including Chris Stapleton, Stuart Duncan, Noam Pikelny, Mike Bub, Mollie O’Brien, John Gardner, Mark Howard, Chris Scruggs, Ian Fitchuk, Bobby Wood, Viktor Krauss, Jan Fabricius, Dennis Crouch, Kenny Malone, Nathaniel Smith, Bryan Sutton, and fellow West Virginia native Kathy Mattea.

The O’Briens came to the Mountain State when it was still considered western Virginia. Tim’s great grandfather Thomas O’Brien left Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century to search for a better life. For whatever reason, on this big continent, he specifically chose the destination of Wheeling.

“The family legend was that Thomas took the train to Cumberland, Maryland, and he had the train fare, but Cumberland is where the train stopped,” says O’Brien. “He went through there about 1851 and the B&O train didn’t reach Wheeling until 1853. But, he supposedly went to Cumberland on the train and then walked the rest of the way. The National Road was a paved road between Wheeling and Cumberland (about 140 miles) where the railroad stopped, so maybe he hitched a ride. I don’t know.”

Thomas O’Brien had left an Emerald Isle that was in deep trouble. “My great grandfather was 21 years old in the 1850s when he came to Wheeling looking for work during the post-famine time back in Ireland. The bad years of the Great Famine in Ireland were 1846, 1847, and 1848, and it was a good time to get out. There were a lot of peasants at the time who showed up who couldn’t even speak English. But, Thomas could read and write, and he got a job as a clerk soon after he arrived. He was a pretty political guy. He started a Savings & Loan for the Irish immigrants in town and he ended up being the Customs Agent for the Port of Wheeling. So, there would be a lot of river trade there and, as they would be off-loading goods, he would sign the receipts. They would pay some kind of tax to unload in Wheeling. I have a little receipt that he signed.”

Fast forward  120 years and a young Tim O’Brien is beginning to soak up the music of the 1960s, as well as the sounds emanating from a local, long-running and legendary music concert series known as the Wheeling Jamboree. “I began going to the Wheeling Jamboree when I was 14 or 15, back in 1968,” he recalls. “I was into the rock-and-roll stuff, but the Jamboree was just sitting there, and I had just become aware of Doc Watson and Bill Monroe. I saw Doc Watson on a public TV station. I think he was playing at the Berkley Folk Festival on whatever public station was coming out of Pittsburgh. I also had some friends that were playing bluegrass. My girlfriend’s father at the time was into it as well. He had a big Mastertone banjo and a nice Martin guitar. That was the first Martin guitar I ever got to play. So, I just wanted to see what was going on down at the Jamboree.

“My hippie friends would say that the Jamboree stuff was kind of corny, but we all agreed that there was some good music down there. So, I wanted to watch them. I got to see Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Pride and Jerry Reed; then, every once in a while, there would be Jimmy Martin or the Country Gentlemen. And, it was cheap. My dad would drop me off and it would cost $2.50 for tickets in the balcony. Down on the right side of the auditorium, if you were facing the stage, they had a little velvet rope aisle for people that wanted to take pictures. You would get at the end of the line and then get up there and take a couple of pictures and then go back to your seat. I would stand in that line because you could get close to the stage, even though I didn’t have a camera. I’d get to the front and look for a second and then leave.”

O’Brien grew up in a family of professionals, and a life plan that mentioned the word “musician” was not exactly on the forefront of his parents imagination. Unfortunately, the real life craziness of the 1960s intruded on the O’Brien family in an overwhelming way and changed everything.

“My dad was an attorney. I suppose my parents had other career paths in mind, but I was the youngest and I think my older siblings wore them down, really. They kind of knew. The counter culture happened and my sister and I were on a different side of it than our older siblings. My oldest brother went to Vietnam and didn’t come back. He stepped on a landmine. He trip-wired a landmine. He was probably going to go to law school, and he really did want to follow and work with my dad. But, it didn’t happen. Meanwhile, the next in line was my other brother who went into the Naval Academy. He stayed in the Navy and retired after twenty-some years and now lives in Norfolk. Those guys, they were on a different side of the counter cultural shift. They were both in the military, and (sister) Mollie and I were really just the red-headed ones of all of them. We were the left-handed ones, and we liked to play music.”

Hearing the news of the death of his brother devastated O’Brien. Still, while alive, the older sibling helped to shape his love of music. “I had just turned 14 when my brother died. I wasn’t there when the soldiers walked up to the door, but I was in eighth grade and my neighbor, who lived down the street from us, came and picked us up from school. She said, ‘We’re going to take you home.’ We didn’t know why. And then, we got the word. A soldier that was in his unit came by later and told us about what had happened.

“He was named after my dad and granddad so he was Frank O’Brien III, otherwise known as Trip. He was very traditional. He went away to Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, which was where my dad went to college. He came back from college with folk music records and jazz records and albums by Ray Charles, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Odetta and Joan Baez. I was like, ‘Wow. What is this stuff?’ All I knew was The Beatles and Motown. So, he encouraged me and Mollie with our music. He actually used to sing doo-wop music with his buddies on Friday and Saturday nights. I don’t know that I ever heard him sing, but I know he did.”

As Tim slowly entered the adult world, the events surrounding his brother’s death left him conflicted. “The 1960s were a touchy time. With politics, there was a counter culture move towards a moratorium on the Vietnam War and all of that stuff. Meanwhile, I had a brother that had just died over there. I was into the music and I was thinking, ‘Gee, I’d like to go to this protest,’ but I was too young, probably about 16. But, I always sort of synthesized both sides because my oldest brother was my hero. We were in the Boy Scouts and he took me camping. Before he went to Vietnam, he took me and my buddies on a fifty-mile hike, and that was pretty cool. But, I just thought, he honored his commitment. He said he would go fight and he did and he lost his life, and it wasn’t in vain because he kept his honor. I was glad when that war ended.”

As O’Brien came of age, he began to have thoughts of wandering. But before he left Wheeling to attend college many miles away, another family member contributed to his musical legacy. “My aunt used to play violin in the Wheeling Symphony and after she got married, she never played it again. I had been playing the guitar for three or four years and she said, ‘Well, maybe you can use this. Maybe you should try and play the violin.’ I took it from her, but I couldn’t make any sense of it. I went away to college for one year in Maine and some of the guys in the dorm played bluegrass, old-time music, and folk music. One of them had a mandolin and some Sing Out! magazines that had mandolin tablature in them. I learned two or three songs on the mandolin that I already knew on the guitar, and then I went home and grabbed up the fiddle and began woodshedding all the time.

“After that one year of college, I tried my hand at playing music for a living. I wasn’t expecting much when I went to the ski areas around Jackson Hole, Wyoming. But, I could play and sing, and I had enough guts to say, ‘I can entertain your crowd in your pizza joint.’ So, I went out there and played at night and practiced the fiddle all day and, once in a while, I’d get to go skiing. About a year into that, I was able to play with other people on the fiddle. You practice until you can play in tune and play in time and get a pleasing tone. I wanted to play other instruments so I would be valuable to somebody in a band.”

After his time in Wyoming, O’Brien began to hitchhike in 1974. His path led him from Idaho to California to Colorado, where he lived for many years as a member of Hot Rize. After a couple of decades, he moved to his current location in Nashville. As his career flourished and he began to get older, Tim started to think about the musical heritage of his home state he left behind long ago. When he became involved with the creation of the West Virginia Music Hall Of Fame almost ten years ago, his eyes were opened further as to the cultural history of his beloved Mountain State.

“I like the idea that this album is looking back,” he says of Where The River Meets The Road. “It has music from WWVA Wheeling Jamboree with Doc Williams. It’s got the old-time music that I fell in love with as I was leaving the state. When I played music with Hot Rize, we would listen to the Lilly Brothers and the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. I didn’t have the idea to make an album like this, but I was definitely thinking about all of these things and the context and significance of it all as I went through the years in Colorado and Nashville. Then, when the West Virginia Music Hall Of Fame activities started kicking in, it was really getting close to me, as I started meeting all of these people.”

The opening cut of of the album is “High Flying Bird.” Written by West Virginia native Billy Edd Wheeler, the song kicks the project off with a fun bluegrass sound. “I like how this album flows,” says Tim. “As for the first track ‘High Flying Bird,’ a lot of people leave West Virginia to see the world. You kind of feel like you need to escape, and that vibe is in that song. I first heard that song sung by Ritchie Havens on the Woodstock festival movie. Jefferson Airplane also recorded it. Billy Edd Wheeler had a publishing deal in New York while working with some of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters up there. I don’t think he was in Nashville at first. So, that cut sets the tone because it is kind of like a West Virginia song and a Woodstock generation song as well—written by Billy Edd Wheeler and brought back with a bluegrass treatment. It also shows some of the breadth of the music that comes from my home state.”

Singing with O’Brien on that tune is former SteelDrivers guitarist and vocalist Chris Stapleton, whose career has blown up on the country side of the musical ledger over the last year or so. “I met Chris Stapleton soon after he moved to town to Nashville. Bryan Sutton had a job producing demos for him back then, and he got me to play on some of those cuts. So, I met Chris when he was doing his first demos, and he and I wrote songs together a couple of times as well. I told him, ‘I’m doing a West Virginia record.’ He said, ‘Oh, my dad is from Logan, West Virginia; I know all about that. He was a coal miner.’ He is a great guy, but I didn’t know if he would do it because his career has just mushroomed, as we know. But he said, ‘Yeah. Sure, I’ll come down and do it.’  He’s making a new album and he’d been in the studio the night before he worked with me. He just came in there and nailed it. He found notes that I didn’t know existed in that song, which I thought was pretty remarkable. He is a total pro. He came in and studied the music and learned it real fast and said, ‘I’ll just keep singing until you got what you need.’ I think the world of Chris.”

Another renowned musician that appears on this album is fiddle great Stuart Duncan, who plays on “High Flying Bird,” the Bailes Brothers tune “Drunkard’s Grave,” Curly Ray Cline’s “Windy Mountain,” and more. “Stuart Duncan is kind of the best there is,” Tim says. “For me, he has been that for a really long time. When I was coming up in bluegrass, Kenny Baker, Byron Berline, and Vassar Clements were the triumvirate. Bobby Hicks came back into the scene and they were all kind of the kings of the fiddle. Somewhere in there, Stuart stepped in. He was the young kid out of California, and he was playing with Larry Sparks, which was exciting, and then with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. When Hot Rize was playing on the circuit, the Nashville Bluegrass Band started around the same time, along with the Johnson Mountain Boys. And, Stuart was good then. He was just the guy and still is. You don’t get to hear him play bluegrass that much these days because he’s on all of the country records now. But, I’m always glad to play with him.”

To represent the legacy of the Lilly Brothers, O’Brien chose the song “Friday, Sunday’s Coming.” To pay tribute to Edden Hammons of the Hammons Family, Tim picked the evocative and raw “Queen Of The Earth, Child Of The Skies.” Tim remembers, “When I got to know the Lilly Brothers a little bit, they were really quiet mountain people. When you hear the Hammons Family talk on those tapes [recorded by professor and folklorist the late Alan Jabbour in the 1970s], it’s a similar vibe. I have a tape of Alfred Reed’s son being interviewed by Mike Seeger and it’s also a similar thing; just real shy people. But they had that real art that they pursued as well. I’d always heard people play ‘Queen Of The Earth, Child Of The Skies,’ and I always wanted to play it and learn it. It’s a little instrumental that is kind of an Irish Aire that was cooked down in the West Virginia hills. Edden Hammons was recorded playing that tune on his fiddle in what’s known as ‘dead man’s tuning’ with that low string that has that haunting sound to it.”

The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers’ song “Windy Mountain” may be the most familiar cut on the album. “The Lilly Brothers’ ‘Friday, Sunday’s Coming,’ and the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers cut by Curly Ray Cline, ‘Windy Mountain’—those are songs I’ve already sung over the years,” Tim says. “I loved Curly Ray Cline. He was a one-of-a-kind guy. I don’t think Curly Ray really wrote that song. Ivan Tribe told me that he got it from this guy named Hobo Jack Adkins, who gave it to him. Hobo Jack was a real cult figure who played bluegrass in the real early days of bluegrass. Apparently, Curly played on his records, so maybe Hobo Jack said something like, ‘Curly, I can’t pay you, so why don’t you take this song.’ Something like that probably happened. Curly Ray Cline was a good business man and a great musician. He was real down-to-earth, but he knew how to sell stuff and knew how to take care of his family.”

Ultimately, Where The River Meets The Road is a wonderful record that finds a West Virginia native paying homage to a part of the world that still resonates within his soul. “Working with the West Virginia Music Hall Of Fame has blown my mind, as to the music that has come out of my home state,” says O’Brien. “I wasn’t aware of it all. I was all for the project when I was brought into it, but I didn’t realize what I was going to learn. Over the years, I sang some of these songs during the induction ceremonies and met all of these people.

   “There is a real hard-scrabble thing to West Virginia, and the people are survivors there. They really have to dig in. I think that sets a pretty good tone for the whole West Virginia vibe. A lot of people say that the best and brightest leave West Virginia and they don’t come back. But the West Virginia Music Hall Of Fame is about bringing attention back to the state. And, that’s what this record is about. I just wanted to honor where I came from and the people that brought me up. I really enjoyed making this album. It’s a labor of love. I feel really good about this record, and I know why. I just really want to honor this state and I’m fascinated by the history and the people. You realize that you are a product of that, and it’s cool. It’s cool to sing this music.”

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