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In a West Virginia hollow, mountain music thrives

Linda and Lester McCumbers carry on an oral tradition from a time when, as Lester puts it, 'music was something that you made'

Sunday, August 17, 2003

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

CALHOUN COUNTY, W.Va. -- After burying their son Roger, music didn't sit kindly anymore with Linda and Lester McCumbers. The failure of their 43-year-old son's heart was a long, lingering family tragedy, one that broke the hearts of the couple.

Linda and Lester McCumbers have shared a love of homegrown music during more than 65 years of marriage. The West Virginia couple from Mount Run Hollow, near Nicut, are still singing together, including a July appearance at the Appalachian String Festival in Clifftop, W.Va. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Hear the McCumbers

The following song samples by Lester and Linda McCumbers are from the disc "Old Timey: Tunes of Central West Virginia"

Linda sings the lead vocal and Lester joins in on "Oh Those Tombs" (470K MP3)

Lester plays lead fiddle and 18-year-old Jake Krack second fiddle on "Old Mother Flannigan" (468K MP3)

Lester picks a century-old tune on the guitar during the informal recording session at Krack's home in Nicut, W.Va. (575K MP3)

The CD can be purchased at www.jakekrack.com or by contacting WiseKrack Records at HC71, Box 87, Orma WV 25268. Live performance samples featuring the McCumbers playing with Jake Krack are also available online at Mitch's Music Page (scroll down until you see Jake in red letters).


His death in 1998 also broke up the family bluegrass band. A couple of years passed before Lester could pick up one of his homemade fiddles again, and even then he couldn't bear to saw the standards he had shared with his boy. It took a while for the music to return to him. And when it did, it wasn't bluegrass.

Lester draws back the rosined bow, teasing a shrill note from his worn fiddle. Sole leather stomps the hardwood floor as the staccato melody of a buoyant mountain tune resonates through his small living room. He doesn't know when the song originated, but it was already very old when he first heard it as a boy. It's a remnant of a former way of life, a sound that predates country-western, bluegrass and the art of audio recording. Raspy and melancholy, simplistic in form yet stylistically complex, the song is a snippet of the past that's been passed through the generations in the high-country hills of central West Virginia.

Linda and Lester, both 82, of Calhoun County are a living link to a distant and nearly forgotten culture. Studied and scrutinized by ethnomusicologists, copied and critiqued by musicians and contest judges, they accept it all with a friendly grin.

"Everybody wants to know the same thing. I suppose they come to find out what it was like here before all this," says Lester, nodding his wrinkled chin toward their telephone, the nearest example of the technology that in a single lifetime has brought revolutionary change to a long-lost part of Appalachia.

The 19th century lingers just out of sight in the obscure hollow outside Nicut, where Lester's father built the family home from hand-hewn timber. Inside, faded black-and-white photographs hang from the walls. With a crooked floor and small bedrooms, added later and not quite square, it's a practical home sturdy enough to bear the weight of three generations of the McCumbers family. It's where Lester was born in 1921, and where he and his wife of almost 66 years raised nine children.

Linda and Lester McCumbers have a guitar and fiddle at the ready in a 1963 photograph. They performed with three of their sons as Lester McCumbers & the Sandy Valley Boys for about 30 years.
Click photo for larger image.

The house has seen frequent reunions with the couple's 25 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and 10 great-great-grandchildren and has been visited countless times by untold numbers of friends and strangers who travel about 10 miles from the main road for a glimpse of the past.

Music of the mountains

There were no electricity, telephones or running water in the hollow when Lester was born, and perhaps 10 automobiles chugged across the county. A footpath meandered over the creek at the base of the valley, connecting a handful of hilly family farms to distant roads that rolled toward the crossroad communities of Gassaway and Grantsville.

Linda Cottrell -- Lindy to her friends -- was born at a farm just up the hollow.

"We know'd each other since we was babies," says Lester. "There was music in the homes when we was growin' up, but not like today, when you can just turn on the radio. Before that, music was something that you made."

Linda was raised on mountain tunes sung to her by her mother and aunt and bowed by her grandfather. Lester's father and grandfather played the fiddle as young men, but working and raising families didn't leave much time for music. As a boy, Lester heard the music at the homes of neighbors when farmers, miners and timbermen from distant hollows gathered to play songs, dance and socialize.

"There was an old boy by the name of Tom McCune," says Lester. "That was back when I was a boy, and he was a pretty old man then. He picked on that five-string [banjo] and sung just a solid blues sound. I'm tellin' you, it was something that'd just make your hair just raise up. Ain't no question about it. I never heard nobody come close to it."

By 14, Lester was working at a Grantsville quarry. He saved $9.95 and ordered his first guitar from a catalog.

Lester McCumbers has created fiddles from many types of wood, including old flooring. He says, "You never know how good it plays until you string it up." (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

"Music instruments was hard to come by then," he says. "You either worked hard and saved your money to order one or made it yourself, which, I'll tell you, is a lot of work, too. There was a bunch of young guys around this country who were playing. One of them, Noy Mitchell, was a great guitar player. Him and other people caused me to want to fool with it."

Linda and Lester married at 16 and, in a couple of years, had their first child. Like his father and his father before him, Lester worked 12-hour days or longer and found little time to make music while his children were young. When his dad finally retired, he carved a fiddle from a tree that grew on a hill above their house.

"I never will forget that," Lester says. "He strung it up, and I got to playing with it a little bit. I must have been 18 or 20 before I started fiddling. [Linda's] grandpa was living then, and he was a real old-time player, I mean a good one. He'd come here and stay all night with us and bring his fiddle, which I've still got here now. I bought it off of him. Traded a watch and $10. It was a good deal, you know, 'cause there wasn't any fiddles hardly in the [back] country."

Lester never took a music lesson and doesn't read music. The songs were passed through a long-standing oral tradition, and he's proud to have come up with his style on his own.

"There was some fellers around who played, and some of them I took more interest in," he says. "[Linda's] grandpa was one of them. His name was Hoghead John Cottrell, and there was another old man that lived right down here, Sint Contrell. They were good, but they didn't really teach me. None of them did. I'd learn the songs from them, but I figured out my own style myself."

In the home built by Linda McCumbers' father-in-law and where she and Lester have reared nine children, Linda likes to show off ribbons won by her husband at fiddle-playing contests throughout West Virginia. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

During most of the next 20 years, while he and Linda raised a family, Lester hung up the fiddle and the bow. By day he logged timber and processed it at mills across West Virginia. At night, Linda rocked their six daughters and three boys to sleep singing songs she remembered from her childhood.

"I always liked to sing; it was just what you did," says Linda. "All the old songs, ones I learned from my mother. I'd sing around the house for the kids. I learned them to dance, and sometimes we'd get to playing, Lester and me. The girls liked to dance but didn't take much to making music. But once we learned those boys to play, they just played and played."

When the weather was good, the McCumbers family traveled to nearby parties and dances where old-timers played songs they'd learned from their parents. Gospel music was rare outside of Calhoun County churches, but local musicians picked a particularly bluesy style of mountain music. "Literaries," music events staged by the National Youth Association at local schools, brought in pickers from beyond the hollow. Each of them played a style indigenous to their own region of the mountains.

Generation to generation

Isaac Akers, 9, of Chapel Hill, N.C., was encouraged by his grandparents to join an informal jam session with Lester McCumbers so that Isaac would be able to look back at the experience of playing with a fiddling legend. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

"The music came to Appalachia in the 1700s," says Max Bandt, an ethnomusicologist from the University of Pittsburgh and academic officer for the school's Semester at Sea program. "The reels, jigs and dancing from England, Scotland and Ireland were mostly played on the fiddle, but [the music] eventually met up with the banjo, which comes from Africa. When that happened, it became the mountain music that we now associate with Appalachia."

Like the Europeans, mountain fiddlers played each note of a melody line. Accompanying guitarists strummed the chords, and banjo players picked claw-hammer style, flicking their fingernails down across the strings. The musical tradition was passed through classic songs, and there was little need for songwriters. The culture was exchanged from generation to generation through each region's unique interpretation of familiar tunes.

"Each little hollow had its own sound," says Brandt. "In one community, there may have been an immigrant from Ireland and other families that came from England, and they played what they knew. In time, maybe an African American moves north with a banjo and gives the music of that hollow something special. In time, the music from that community would sound completely different from the music of the next hollow over."

When the McCumbers children grew beyond their teens, Lester began logging less and, in the tradition of his father and grandfather, spent more time with a fiddle in the crook of his arm. But by then, beyond their hollow, the music of choice had changed to something flashy, new and radio driven, and named for the band that made it popular. They called it "bluegrass."

"Before Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys come along, it was all just mountain music," says Lester. "All of a sudden, all anybody wanted to hear was this new music."

Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys were drawing big crowds in the 1940s and dominating rural radio with a mixture of mountain styles, gospel, Southern blues and a new way of picking the banjo. Claw-hammer was out, and with the strings plucked with finger picks in an upward motion, the banjo became the dominant instrument.

"That just changed everything," says Lester. "I didn't have no idea, I just know'd that everything was a-changin'. It changed what you did on the fiddle. The old-timers, they jiggled the bow and played every note," he says, rubbing short strokes across individual strings and fingering a melody line.

"Now, this bluegrass style, you quit playing by note and went to playing by chord," he says. "Bluegrass, it's got three or four chords in it and you slow the bow down and long-stroke it, like this ..."

He draws the bow over all four strings, fingering a chord.

Clogging enthusiasts Chloe Edmonston, 12, and Jay Bland both of Atlanta, step to the music of Lester and Linda McCumbers, with Kim Johnson on banjo on the lodge porch at the Appalachian String Festival in Clifftop, W.Va. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

"See, you're doing every bit of that by the same movement," he says. "A good guitar player that plays bluegrass music, he wants to go fast from one chord to another. And of course, they throw'd the mandolin and maybe a dobro in there, too. Those bluegrass fellers, they like to play it real fast."

Lester saws his fiddle through a quick chord progression, which Linda matches on guitar. It's "Pretty Polly," a bluegrass standard they played with their three adult sons.

The family workouts moved beyond their home and the hollow when Lester stopped performing with friends and formed Lester McCumbers & the Sandy Valley Boys. For about 30 years, they moonlighted as a regional bluegrass group, playing the "high lonesome" style made popular by Lester's favorite singer, Ralph Stanley. Linda sang lead and played guitar, with Lester on the fiddle, their eldest son, Roger, on banjo, Billy on guitar and Timothy on upright bass. They played at festivals, fairs, square dances and on a weekly radio program that Lester hosted from a station in rural Spencer, W.Va.

"We played a lot of festivals all over the place," says Lester. "We'd get a little pay in some of those places, but we never did get very much. Bluegrass was the big thing at the time, and so that's what you had to play. We used to sing high, sky high."

When they weren't performing, Lester made his own fiddles, often from timber he found in his hollow. It's a painstaking process, he says, of hand-planing the face and back, cutting the neck and sides and gluing the pieces together. He's used poplar, cherry, apple, black walnut, maple and even an old tile of hardwood flooring.

"I don't know everything about a fiddle," he says, showing off a new work in progress, "but the thing of it is to try to get it at a uniform thickness. It's hard to do, you do most of it by hand. ... You make a mistake, you ruin it. People can put in at least a year making one, but I can make it a lot sooner than that if I fool with it very much. You never know how good it plays until you string it up."

Championship fiddling

Lester McCumbers found comfort in mountain music that he'd abandoned decades before. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

In the late 1990s, Roger McCumbers was diagnosed with heart disease. The little family band performed less often as his condition deteriorated.

"We sent him everywhere," says Lester, the fiddle dropping to his lap, his eyes to the floor. "Even to Pittsburgh. They wanted to give him a heart transplant, said that was the only thing that would help him any. He said he didn't want none, and with all the people want-ing new hearts, he probably wouldn't have got one anyway. He didn't even sign up for it. He lived one more year after that. Couple of years maybe."

An awkward silence fills the room.

"He died five years ago and would have been 48 on the 24th of August," says Linda.

"Well, we didn't play any music at all after he died," says Lester, still staring at the floor. "I kind of figured we was too old to play, anyways."

It was two years before he picked up a fiddle again. The bluegrass he'd played with Roger was too painful to play, but Lester found his spirit again in the mountain music that he'd abandoned decades before. Old favorites returned to his weathered fingers: "Cherry River Line," "Lonesome Valley," "Take My Mother's Hand," "Purple Robe."

Linda soon joined him on guitar, and they began making young new musical friends. Kim Johnson began driving in from a nearby town with her banjo, which she picks claw-hammer style. Mountain-music festivals led to old-time fiddle competitions, and, Lester says, he was surprised when he began taking home blue ribbons.

"The style of fiddling that Lester does is ancient," says John Lilly, editor of The Golden Seal, a quarterly magazine published by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. "It only exists in a two- or three-county area around where he lives. Nobody knows exactly where it came from, but Lester's way of fiddling is not accidental. The style includes an archaic roughness. They very much strive for a gritty nature in the music. There's a drive, a soulfulness that's consistent in [Lester's] playing that is not easily achieved."

Lester McCumbers isn't a celebrity, but he's more than a musical curiosity. Lilly says his desire to play the music of his youth speaks volumes about his life.

"Some people wax poetic on how [the music] reflects their lives. I stop short of that," Lilly says. "But if you said it reflects a lifestyle that they're proud of and have been a part of, that wouldn't be far from wrong."

Carrying on the tradition

Four years ago, a new family moved into Linda and Lester's hollow. Fiddle prodigy Jake Krack had seen Lester perform at old-time music festivals, and his family relocated to West Virginia to further his musical education. He applied for and was granted a state-funded apprenticeship to study under Lester, and long after the one-year program expired they've remained friends.

"Lester has a way of playing that's just from here," says 18-year-old Krack. "There was another old fiddle player who I studied with, Melvin Whine, who died just recently. As the crow flies, they only lived about 20 miles apart, but their music was completely different. Lester's style has a more bluesy type of sound to it."

Lester McCumbers checks out damage caused by heavy rains to the potatoes in his garden. He and his wife, Linda, have spent all of their 82 years in the Mount Run Hollow near Nicut, Calhoun County, W.Va. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Krack is learning more than just songs from Lester. He's made it his mission to learn every nuance in the older man's playing. And with the songs come lessons about life.

"It's a promise that I made to Lester and Melvin that I'd play the songs just like they do, sort of as a way of preserving the music," says Krack. "But with every song they taught me, there's a little story they remember. It's something they learned from their parents or grandparents, or something about how the song was written or played by the old-time guys. That adds soul and heart to my music when I hear what they have to say."

The lessons have stuck. Krack was recently awarded the two top prizes at the annual Old-Time Fiddle Convention in Galax, Va. Last year, he became the youngest musician to be named West Virginia State Fiddle Champion, in the category for fiddlers under 60 years old.

Lester and Linda continue to make the rounds at regional old-time music festivals. Early this summer, they declined an invitation to perform at the prestigious Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., when Linda was hospitalized for heart bypass surgery.

In recent weeks, she's begun feeling stronger. In July, she traveled with her husband to the Appalachian String Festival in Clifftop, W.Va., where Lester was awarded the top fiddling prize in his age category.

"In the end," says Lilly, "when a guy like Lester passes on, he'll take a large part of his music with him. But some of his music will remain with the young people who've played with him. This continuation of the oral tradition helps to define us as a unique culture and place.

"You won't find it anywhere else, just in those particular hollows of central West Virginia."


John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1991. Staff photographer Martha Rial can be reached atmrial@post-gazette.com .

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