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Country music groups emphasize social traditions

Sunday, April 22, 2001

By Jerry Sharpe

Nashville may be the epicenter of country music, but the rumbles stretch to Western Pennsylvania in one form or another.

Tony Barge, left, of Ellwood City holds a guitar, while Charlie McVay of Wampum holds a one-of-a-kind aluminum five-string banjo, which he made, at McVay's home. The Lawrence County men are presidents, respectively, of the Pennsylvania County Music Association and the Tri-State Country Music Association. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

The music itself, of course, is one connection. But the region also has two nonprofit, local organizations guided by men who feel a responsibility toward the preservation of traditional country music.

When you talk with Charlie McVay or Tony Barge, the word "tradition" seems sacred. They measure the music by icon -- Merle Haggard, George Strait, Alan Jackson -- not by label. They'll take purists over popsters every time because, they say, the other stuff "all sounds alike."

Barge, of Ellwood City, is president of the Pennsylvania Country Music Association. McVay, of Wampum, heads the Tri-State Country Music Association. The two Lawrence County men say their associations have a combined membership of 1,000.

The groups originally were formed as social clubs for professional musicians.

"Everybody always seemed to have gigs at the same time," McVay explains. "So the only time we saw each other was a fast 'hello' before going on stage."

The organizations soon branched out to do benefit shows, awards programs and testimonials, honoring such performers as Kenny Biggs, Doc Williams, Roy Scott, Frank Grill and the late Earl "Skinney" Clark, all longtime Jamboree U.S.A. performers on WWVA Radio out of Wheeling.

The associations also hold annual picnics and twice-monthly pickin' and singin' meetings, and both have opened membership to nonperformers who simply love traditional country music. Any member who pays the yearly $10 dues gets a monthly newsletter detailing upcoming activities.

In effect, the only difference between PCMA and Tri-State is the scope of the membership. Tri-State extends beyond Pennsylvania's borders.

The leaders of these groups have longtime associations with country music. PCMA's Barge, 42, is a guitarist and singer who's been performing on stage for 25 years. He played bass and guitar for Hank Thompson, bass for Jack Greene and guitar for Grand Ole Opry star Billy Walker. He has opened shows for such stars as Bill Anderson, Merle Haggard and the late Ernest Tubb.

Tri-State's McVay, 70, has played bluegrass since 1949, performing with various bands on the WWVA Jamboree. With his Lone Pine Boys, he did live shows on six Western Pennsylvania radio stations and used a one-of-a-kind aluminum five-string banjo, which he made.

"The guys used to say that the only good banjos had to be made out of seasoned wood. So in 1959, I made one out of metal, and everybody loved it," he says, showing off a photo of Opry star Mike Snider holding the McVay banjo.

McVay also makes pedal steel guitars in a workshop in his home. But since his retirement, he does so only for friends. In addition to banjo, McVay plays steel guitar and mandolin.

Neither Barge nor McVay can read a note of music.

"It's nice if you can read music," Barge says, "but I do think that note-playing takes away some of the sparkle that country and bluegrass need."

Both men donate their time to the organizations they head. In a bit of a twist, Barge founded the Tri-State Country Music Association now headed by McVay. The year was 1987, and Barge, splitting time between home and Nashville, felt the need for a social clique. But in short order, it evolved into a larger organization boasting eight chapters and a mandate: Members are urged to stage free shows from time to time on behalf of needy musicians. Admission fees, plus yearly dues, keep the organization afloat.

"The kindness and generosity of members keep it going," McVay says. "Everyone donates time. It's not a money-making outfit, but one for fun and to help needy people who otherwise wouldn't have any help.

"We're careful of funds, too. We don't just give to anyone who asks. We have a volunteer investigative committee."

After yielding leadership duties at Tri-State, Barge started the Pennsylvania Country Music Association in 1989 at the urging of the North American Country Music Association, which boasted such prominent members as Donna Fargo and Liz Anderson.

Howard Vokes, singer and country music promoter from New Kensington, is one of the most enthusiastic boosters of the PCMA and Tri-State associations.

"Every chance I get, I promote both organizations. The PCMA is great for people getting together. And the Tri-State outfit helps out when really needy people have health or financial problems."


For information on either organization, call 724-752-8545. PCMA also can be found on the Web at www.pcmamusic.com.

Jerry Sharpe covers country music for the Post-Gazette.



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