5 innovative musicians redefining WV mountain music

One of West Virginia’s most profound and longstanding contributions to American culture has been simple, earthy, acoustic music.

We call it a lot of things– bluegrass, folk, old-time– and each of these genres has its own niche and unique fingerprint. But regardless of genre, the Appalachian Mountains spawned a sort of music that used simple, inexpensive instruments like the bass fiddle, mandolin, violin, guitar and banjo, and drew off of various Scotch-Irish, Celtic and even African influences.

Although many players and listeners prefer to keep it in its old, traditional form, mountain music has always been about change coupled with tradition. Through the 20th century, West Virginians like rockabilly star Hasal Adkins, harmonica virtuoso Charlie McCoy, and R&B legend Bill Withers have left their marks on all types of popular music.

West Virginia still has its share of innovators.

Here are 5 West Virginian musicians who are masters of this music’s history and tradition, but are also taking it in new and different directions. 

1. The Hillbilly Gypsies

This quintet is a perfectly-synced, well-oiled machine that embodies all the best elements of traditional bluegrass. Close male-female harmonies, the ability to shred through even the fastest tempos, and a good dose of virtuoso picking from mandolin/banjo/guitar player Dave Asti all come together as the Hillbilly Gypsies circle around their single microphone.  They play extensively around the eastern U.S. and beyond, but their roots and style are pure Mountain State.

2. Tim O’Brien

This Wheeling native gained fame only after leaving West Virginia to ply his trade in Colorado, but his Appalachian roots show through in his mastery of bluegrass, gospel and traditional country. A gifted vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, guitar, banjo, fiddle and more), in 2013 O’Brien was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.

3. Daniel Johnston

Hailing from New Cumberland, Daniel Johnston has produced sparse and minimalist songs that are disarming in their sincerity. His music was never “Appalachian” per se, and certainly not bluegrass, but its earthy acoustics do hint at his West Virginia roots. Famed grunge rocker Kurt Cobain of Nirvana noted Johnston as an influence. Just as intriguing as his music is Johnston’s personal story, which is explored in the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” He recently re-appeared on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series.

4. Mike Morningstar

For the last half-century, Mike Morningstar has been a fixture in mountain music. He has serious chops as a flatpick guitarist, his repertoire of folk music is encyclopedic and his music has always been 100% West Virginia– his first recorded song was an ode to the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster in Logan County.

But without a doubt, the thing about Morningstar that is most unique is his own personally-invented “hickory stick,” a single bow of hickory and string that sounds almost Oriental in style. You’ll have to hear it to fully grasp its haunting, beautiful twang.

5. The Wild Rumpus

Although they stay true to bluegrass’s eschewing of drums, this Fayette County trio nonetheless interprets traditional mountain music through the rebel tradition of rockabilly, blues and even punk. They call their style “Appalachian Stompgrass,” and they’ve long been a favorite in Fayetteville’s rowdy rafting company bars and stages. They attack with a musical onslaught that is usually some sort of combination of banjo, guitar, mandolin or harmonica, always backed with the solid “thunk” of an upright bass.

Whether you’re a fan of traditional folk or more mainstream rock’n’roll, the Rumpus will have you stomping your feet!

How many of these West Virginia innovators have you seen?  

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This post was last updated on July 21, 2020