A group from West Virginia University took bluegrass music to its natural habitat during a recent visit to Clay County.
The WVU Bluegrass Band, founded in 2014, played for the entire student body of Clay County Middle School.
“Never have we had an experience like the one we had in Clay County,” said Travis Stimeling, associate professor of musicology in WVU’s School of Music and director of the band. “They were incredibly attentive, and a few students even sang along to some of the more obscure songs that we performed.”
Stimeling suspects one of Clay County’s music teachers, Rachel Burge, might help set the tone.
“Rachel is an exceptionally talented bluegrass mandolinist, singer, and songwriter, and we had the privilege of performing one of her original compositions with her,” Stimeling said. “In the classroom, she’s helping to build a culture of creativity, critical thinking, and community music-making that should be the model for all of us in music education.”
For her part, Burge was happy to help offer the cultural experience to Clay’s middle-schoolers. “A bluegrass band isn’t something these students get to see or hear first hand at school,” she said. “But many of them have family members who play acoustic instruments, so most already like the music.”
Hillary Kay, a music major at WVU, loved the opportunity to perform with Burge in front of her students.
“The kids loved it, and she’s a fantastic musician, who grew up in the bluegrass tradition, so that was a treat for me,” Kay said.
“Knowing that a good amount of the music we perform has roots in places like Clay County, I think it’s really important to bring it back to the younger generations and show them how rich their cultural heritage really is,” Kay added.
Stimeling agrees, adding that he hopes “these kids will continue to embrace their West Virginian identities and to celebrate the unique culture that our state has to offer.”
The WVU Bluegrass and Old-Time Bands were formed in the fall of 2014 and have two primary purposes. They provide venues in which WVU students can learn about the rich traditions of Appalachian traditional music and explore their own creative voices within those traditions. They also serve as musical ambassadors for the university, performing throughout the state.
“When I was a student growing up in West Virginia, I remember hearing well-meaning teachers tell me that the traditional culture that I loved was something I should be embarrassed by and I should hide,” Stimeling said. “It’s my hope that the WVU Bluegrass and Old-Time bands can encourage West Virginia’s young people to celebrate their Appalachian identities and to stay here and make a positive difference in their communities.”
The WVU Bluegreass Band’s first CD, “West Virginia Hills,” is available for pre-order from the student-run Mon Hills Records label. For more information, visit monhillsrecords.com.
Caption for photo: Rachel Burge, Greg Mulley, Travis Stimeling, Hillary Kay, Alex Talkowski, and Alex Heflin.
CONTACT: David Welsh, WVU College of Creative Arts
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