Travis Stimeling is associate professor of music history at West Virginia University and a series editor and author with WVU Press. Here he talks with Jacob Kopcienski, a lecturer in the WVU School of Music. Don’t miss Travis and musical guests at Taylor Books in Charleston, WV, on December 19.
JK: What inspired your interest and scholarly engagement with Appalachian music and culture?
TS: I grew up in Buckhannon, West Virginia, in Upshur County, about an hour and change south of Morgantown. Toward the end of elementary school, we started going to a Methodist church. In our neighborhood you were either down in the holler or up on the ridge, and church was up on the ridge. We shared the minister with three other churches, so we only got a preacher on the first and third Sundays of the month. Second and fourth Sundays were lay speakers and, in months with five Sundays, the preacher got the last Sunday off. On those fifth Sundays, all four churches got together in the evening for a big sing-in. So, from the time I was nine to eleven years old, I was singing gospel music with my mom, and singing in the church choir. Mom and I were a little duo that was a lot of fun. I would sing the harmony and she would sing the lead. When my voice changed, we flipped parts.
One of the things that stands out to me was there was just so much musical talent in about a three mile radius of that church. So, on those fifth–Sunday sings, we would have a full choir. There was a woman named Mary Eddy who played stride piano, gospel piano, and she sang in this very direct mezzo-soprano voice. There was just so much feeling in her voice, and I loved that. So, to bring it back to your question, the scholarship piece of it all comes out of my deep love for this kind of music. When I say “this kind of music,” what I really mean is music that comes from a place of deep personal feeling, whatever that is. Another part of it is a belief that history doesn’t do a good enough job talking about everyday people. So, my work is very much driven by a desire to provide a platform for people to speak who might not otherwise be noticed.
In months with five Sundays, the preacher got the last Sunday off. On those fifth Sundays, all four churches got together in the evening for a big sing-in. So, from the time I was nine to eleven years old, I was singing gospel music with my mom, and singing in the church choir.
Specifically, thinking about the voices of people who might go unnoticed, I always try and make it a point when I am having a conversation like this to mention Randolph Wright and his wife Marie. Randolph would sing, would preach these lay sermons that would use the topography, the space between the church and his house, from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the valley, as kind of a metaphor for how God will be with you all along the way. He and his wife Marie had something like twenty-one kids, and two of them died. One of them died in a bicycle accident about halfway down the mountain. One was shot in the face on the side of that mountain during a hunting accident. The cemetery for this church was about a quarter mile up the hill on the peak of the ridge. For me, those religious experiences, those musical experiences, are very much tied to this sense of place. This very small place. Being able to write about West Virginia, being able to write about Appalachia, is what really motivates me.
JK: What is the historical and cultural significance of music and songwriting within Appalachia?
TS: I think that one of the things that makes music such a powerful tool for people in Appalachia is that it does bring people together. Music pulls people out of the hollers, it pulls people together from their individual locations to something that is communal. People will come from hours away to make music together. Like next weekend, I’m going to an event where the one hotel in the town is sold out because this guy is having a birthday party and there’s going to be music.
Storytelling provides us an opportunity to connect to the place that we would like to be but we aren’t. So if we’re in diaspora, that’s an important tool. And Appalachia loves stories. We have a robust storytelling culture here that is completely divorced from music. But texted music, the old ballads, they’re all about telling stories from a far off place that could also be here. A far off time that could also be now. I think people revel in that sort of storytelling. History is another thing that runs through that. Telling the stories of the mine wars. Telling the stories about the expansion of the railroads here. Almost everyone has a song about what it’s like to walk in the woods. Our landscape is marked with the traces of those histories.
Storytelling provides us an opportunity to connect to the place that we would like to be but we aren’t. So if we’re in diaspora, that’s an important tool.
Storytelling is also a way to reinforce and reinscribe our own values. Appalachia is deeply connected to place, but everybody else looks at this place as if it’s thoroughly flawed. That the people who are in it are thoroughly flawed. Storytelling, particularly storytelling about the things that are important to us, helps reinforce a sense of place that is resistant to outside ideas about the region. Every generation has to address the anti-Appalachian stereotype, and be told that it’s okay to be Appalachian. That’s an ongoing thing we’ve been doing for 100-plus years.
JK: How does your latest book, Songwriting in Contemporary West Virginia: Profiles and Reflections, capture the continuation of this history?
TS: I went into this study knowing there were some amazing songwriters in West Virginia, and finding myself very frustrated that Texas kind of cornered the market on the singer–songwriter. They’ve branded themselves as the state of the singer–songwriter. I thought, In West Virginia we have great songwriters, we have pride in place, but we don’t have the commercial recognition that they do in Texas. I thought, What if I were to write a book that looks at West Virginia songwriting and that thinks about how individuals are trying to navigate stereotype and sense of place? What I found was that there are these regional hubs where there is a lot of songwriting activity. Hubs in Beckley, around Huntington, around Charleston, around Morgantown to some extent, and in the Ohio Valley. Each one of those has its own kind of flavor, musically speaking, but also how people go about collaborating with one another.
I thought, In West Virginia we have great songwriters, we have pride in place, but we don’t have the commercial recognition that they do in Texas.
Beckley, for instance, is this hub for a group of songwriters that extends about an hour in any direction. They have this thing called songwriters circle, where songwriters come in and share their songs with one another, with the idea that you are to offer only constructive criticism. What it has done is create this environment of mutual creativity. That group is so interesting because there are veteran songwriters in that group, people who have been writing for twenty-plus years, who get their songs held by major commercial artists for use on later albums. And then you have some people who have never written a song before. They show up, and everybody’s equal. Everybody gets the same amount of time. It’s just very egalitarian.
JK: Are there any interviews that stand out as particularly memorable?
TS: Talking about speaking names, the Beckley songwriters circle was the brainchild of someone named Doug Harper, who passed away just earlier this year. He was one of the sweetest, kindest, most generous human beings you’d ever want to meet. Doug wanted to get together with his songwriter friends and create an opportunity for people to share. He wanted to mentor people. He believed everybody had songs in them, they just didn’t know how to get them out.
I’m producing an album with a fellow named Clinton Collins who is part of that songwriting circle. One of the things we’re putting on the album is a song he co-wrote with Doug Harper. It’s called “I Don’t Sleep Much Anymore,” and it grew out of a conversation they had about how neither of them, as they aged, slept much. They were both up at about the same time, at two or three in the morning. So whoever got up first just texted the other guy and said, “You up?” Then they’d have this lengthy phone call. Just two men, pushing sixty, talking about life and stuff. Doug has this line that he added to the song, talking about things that had been left undone, “loose ends dangle when they should be tied… I don’t sleep much anymore.” I’ve been thinking about this song in light of Doug’s death. Thinking about what do you leave undone, what words are left unsaid, what projects do you want to do but never get to finish. Again, being able to continue speaking Doug’s name, telling his story and the stories of other songwriters like him, has been an honor.
JK: What do you think the book means to the songwriters and musical communities included in the book?
TS: I am really excited that I’m able to include people who don’t necessarily look like traditional songwriters. Pam Spring, a retired school teacher, taught at Anna Jarvis Elementary School in Grafton, West Virginia, the birthplace of Mother’s Day. She wrote these wonderful little songs, all about how great it is to be from West Virginia. She’s got a song about all fifty-five counties which was published in the West Virginia history textbook for many years. That’s not a conventional singer–songwriter. She’s a pianist in her local church, but she’s written songs and performed them publicly and had them published. She seemed, at times, to be completely unsure as to why I had picked her out of the blue, but to learn about the work she does, the work she had done with her late husband to share this music, to raise community spirit . . . I think that sort of stuff is amazing! We’re all here working to make sense of who we are in a world that is deeply and profoundly confusing. When people take the time to articulate their thought process, to articulate their observations so that others can understand it, I think that’s powerful. That’s what all of these songwriters do. This book could help validate those individuals who were unsure. It can help validate their lives. And, in many cases, that’s really what it is . . . it’s validating their life because the songs are about their observations, their thoughts, about their experiences.
I am really excited that I’m able to include people who don’t necessarily look like traditional songwriters. Pam Spring, a retired school teacher, taught at Anna Jarvis Elementary School in Grafton, West Virginia, the birth place of Mother’s Day. She wrote these wonderful little songs, all about how great it is to be from West Virginia.
JK: How is this project similar or different in scope or mission to the other books in the series you edit for WVU Press, Sounding Appalachia?
TS: My earlier book in the series with Charlie McCoy, Fifty Cents and a Box Top: The Creative Life of Nashville Session Musician Charlie McCoy, is, to a certain extent, about helping people who have made huge contributions to their immediate community. When Charlie and I were initially talking about the book, he’d written part of it, and he was frustrated that he couldn’t get a publisher. He was going to self-publish it because he said, “The only people who are going to care about this are the people who come to my shows at the RV parks in the winter time. I’ll sell some mail order.” We’ve sold hundreds and hundreds of copies of that book. Yes, some of them are to people who come to Charlie’s shows. But every week I’m selling a copy at least of that book, because people are interested in knowing, “What’s this guy’s life like?” And, as I think about Charlie, one of the things that I’m realizing more and more is that most of the songwriters I work with are older than me. So, when they pass, which I’m hoping is years and years and years from now, I’m going to be one of the few people that can give the sort of detail. It’s my responsibility to continue speaking their names and to share their work.
JK: In the future, what kinds of books can we expect from the Sounding Appalachia series?
TS: Opioid Aesthetics: Expressive Culture in an Age of Addiction is an edited collection, so it’s not just my work. The basic idea there is I want to find ways to rehumanize people who are suffering with addiction. Suffering with it and from it—whether they are people who are in active addiction, in recovery, friends and family, loved ones, coworkers, this thing is having an impact that is so deep and so broad, that it’s going to be decades that we’re still figuring it out. But when we talk about the opioid crisis, or the opioid epidemic, we often forget about the opioid abuser. We forget about the person who is struggling every day just to be alive. To not be in pain. To do the “right” thing. To maintain their sobriety.
I want to find ways to rehumanize people who are suffering with addiction.
Additionally, there’s not a lot of scholarship on the sounds the native people, the indigenous people, would have made or encountered in Appalachia. In many ways, those histories, those stories, those sounds have been erased because of settler colonialism. So, I’m hoping one of the projects in the series is something related to those issues. Trying to reconcile those sorts of things is becoming increasingly important for me, but also increasingly important as we think about the ways that Appalachia stands in for certain national ideas about whiteness, about racial purity, about backwardness.