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Mountaineer Jamboree: Country Music in West Virginia

By Ivan Tribe

University Press of Kentucky, 288 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Rev. Keith A. Gordon, August 2006

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Music always returns to its roots. Bruce Springsteen recently released an album of traditional "folk" music; bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley's popularity with young audiences is as strong today as it was 50 years ago. Even punk rock iconoclast Greg Graffin of Bad Religion has released an album of "old time" styled original and standard folk tunes.

It is appropriate that "Mountaineer Jamboree," originally published in 1984, and again in 1996 with a new afterward, should be reprinted this year when interest in old time music is again growing. Exhaustively and meticulously researched, music historian Prof. Ivan Tribe's tome concerns itself mostly with "hillbilly music," that commercial offshoot of Appalachian folk music that itself had roots in tunes that immigrants brought across the ocean from England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.

As shown by Tribe, many of the roots of modern country music can be traced to the hills of West Virginia. Tribe begins his journey in the West Virginia of the mid-'20s, when academic folklorists were scouring the hills to document traditional songs while early musicians like David Miller and the duo of Charles and Harry Tweedy were making the first commercial recordings in the state.

The importance of the young medium of radio to the popularity of hillbilly music is discussed at length. In Wheeling, radio station WWVA went on the air in December 1929; in 1933 the station inaugurated its popular "Jamboree" country music program, which can still be heard on the station today.

WWVA and the Jamboree made regional stars out of both homegrown musicians like the Tweedy Brothers and transplants like Doc Williams. As radio stations began to spring up across the state, live country music programming brought talents like Lee and Juanita Moore, Buddy Starcher and Frank Welling into listener's homes.

By the '50s, television had begun to supplant radio as a vehicle for hillbilly performers. Daily radio appearances allowed musicians to showcase their songs and promote upcoming live performances (their bread and butter - then, as now, they made most of their money not from record sales, but from ticket sales). With television's ascendance and the trend of radio stations towards replacing live musicians with recordings, the new medium offered hillbilly artists a growing new audience. Huntington TV station WSAZ went on the air in 1949 and, relying on the popularity of country music, broadcast its own live "jamboree" program on Saturday nights from 1954 through 1964.

Throughout "Mountaineer Jamboree," Tribe documents West Virginia's rich country music history, from its earliest performers to hall of fame artists like Little Jimmy Dickens, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Red Sovine and the duo of Wilma and Stoney Cooper to recent stars like Kathy Mattea. Tribe illustrates how hillbilly music basically split into the more tradition-based bluegrass genre and contemporary country music. Ironically, Tribe describes how a new generation of folklorists rediscovered hillbilly music in the '60s and the effect of the state's folk festivals in creating new country and bluegrass fans during the '70s and into the '80s.

Tribe's somewhat academic look at the subject reinforces the importance of the state's contribution on the formation and popularity of country music. Even Bruce Springsteen recorded a song by West Virginia native Blind Alfred Reed for his new album. Music always returns to its roots.