Picking again, after all these years
WANT TO GO?
The Putnam County Pickers, with Ryan Cain and the Abels
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Haddad Riverfront Park
INFO: Visit www.liveontheleveecharleston.com__
The Putnam County Pickers
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: St. Timothy's in the Valley, 3434 Teays Valley Road, Hurricane
COST: Admission by donation
INFO: Call 304-562-9325
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Steve Hill and Ron Sowell laugh about it all now, but they both think the Putnam County Pickers could have turned into something -- maybe not country music superstardom, but definitely more than they were.
"I think we had a lot of potential," Sowell said. "We just didn't make it."
Gathered together at the home of the band's bassist, Greg Harman, and rehearsing for reunion shows at Live on the Levee Friday and St. Timothy's in Hurricane Saturday, they said they still had a few regrets about that band that came to an end more than 30 years ago.
Hill and Sowell said they were just a little too full of themselves.
"Oh, we were too cool to play that hillbilly s---," Hill said.
"So we said we weren't going to," Sowell added, grinning. "And funny thing: all the gigs dried up."
"It was a stupid career move," Hill said, shaking his head.
The reunion of the popular local '70s band this weekend features a mix of the performers who were part of the group during its roughly eight-year lifespan. John Kessler is flying in from Seattle to play bass. Ammed Solomon is sitting in on drums.
Everybody agrees this is a one-off sort of event.
"We're not getting back together," Sandy Sowell said, though the singer acknowledged there's been some interest since it was announced that Pickers would reunite to help celebrate St. Timothy's in the Valley's 50th anniversary.
The band used to practice there when it was getting started. People at the church remembered and asked the Pickers to come back, though the idea of doing a reunion has been kicked around for years.
"We joked that we wanted to do it before we all got too old and died," Ron Sowell said. "Unfortunately, we were a bit late; we lost Rusty a couple of years ago."
Bassists Rusty Wells died of cancer in 2010.
In the beginning
The Putnam County Pickers formed in 1974 with the Sowells, Hill, Bob Webb, Michael Ivey and David Ziems and then other musicians joining later. The core of the band was Hill and Ron Sowell who performed together before the words Putnam County Pickers were ever uttered.
"We met in a place called the Wrong Place Saloon on Rampart Street in New Orleans," Hill said.
The pair played late nights. Hill went on at 11:30 p.m. Sowell followed at midnight. The two became friends and soon combined their half hour solo sets into an hour-long show.
In New Orleans, Hill and Sowell, along with Ron's then-wife Sandy, met Webb and his wife, who planned to move to West Virginia to start a farm and get back to the land. There was a kind of open invitation for people they knew to come along.
The Sowells had other plans and left for Cincinnati to run The Family Owl, a musical co-op that performed folk music.
"We had 15 or 20 people giving us input." Sandy groaned, "Shoot me now."
Hill, however, decided to give the farm a try.
"I wasn't really into it," he said. "But my girlfriend was."
The Family Owl didn't last, and a few months after Hill arrived at the Putnam County farm, the Sowell's joined him.
"We came to spend the summer and wound up staying," Sandy said.
Life on the farm was loose, chaotic and communal, though definitely "not a commune," Hill said. They shared the land but lived in structures ranging from old farmhouses to the vehicles they drove in with.
The pace was gentle and slow compared to New Orleans.
"We played music at night," Hill said. "And didn't do much else during the day."
"We were just another farm band," Sandy said.
The first show
They didn't even have a name until after they played the annual Mountain State Art & raft Fair in Ripley. They went along with Bobbie Provosty, the girlfriend and future wife Hill, who was exhibiting wooden stomper dolls for the Yesteryear Toy Company.
It was just a chance to play out in public.
"We didn't know that we needed permission to be there," Ron said.
But nobody seemed to mind and the crowds grew.
The name was made up on the fly. A picker was just another name for a musician who played the kind of music they played. Putnam County just happened to be where they are.
"I think I remember seeing a bank calendar right before we came up with that," Sowell added.
On the rise
From there, the band took off. A local car dealer put the band in a commercial.
"Nobody has a copy of that," Hill said, adding, "Thank God."
The assistant commissioner for the West Virginia Department of Culture and History braved a muddy country road and a swinging bridge to audition them for an artist residency in Clarksburg. Ron said he asked the commissioner, "And you think this is art?"
He did, and the artist residency helped get the Pickers get work, though they were still a long way from successful. The band struggled.
"We didn't have a phone on the farm," Sandy said.
Instead, they had to go down to the post office in Culloden to collect their messages. Sometimes their landlady, Miss Rice, would come tell them if somebody wanted to hire them.
The band evolved over time with people coming and going. Harman joined the band in 1976, though he'd known people in the group for a couple of years. He'd seen them around on the craft circuit.
"I was a leather worker," he said. "But they knew I played music."
"The first time I remember seeing Greg, I think, he was playing a banjo," Ron said.
Wells, Harman said, approached him about joining the band. He told him, "We're thinking of going more electric and need a drummer. Are you interested?"
Harman's audition began in the basement of St. Timothy's and ended after the Pickers' first USO tour.
He laughed, "After that, they told me I was in the band."
The USO tour was for two months and included parts of Europe and war-torn Ethiopia.
The visit to Africa was tense. Heavily armed soldiers patrolled the streets and stood guard in the bullet-sprayed airport.
"It was very weird," Hill said. "We were, I think, the last USO tour in Ethiopia."
The Pickers second tour was in Greenland, which proved to be a bit less nerve-wracking.
The band recorded two albums, toured up and down the East oast and performed for Governor John D. Rockefeller. They played a show at the Lone Star Café in New York with Freddy Fender.
"Rehearsal was a shot of tequila," Ron said.
They also performed with the Wheeling Jamboree and were invited to play at the radio show's Jamboree in the Hills festival where they shared billing with Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris and then-rising country sensation, Alabama.
The Putnam County Pickers followed Alabama, which seemed to the Pickers to indicate great things were ahead. That day at the festival, the crowd was loud and enthusiastic, and there was a camera crew catching every moment of the show.
"And we thought: we're going to be famous," Ron said.
The Putnam County Pickers took the stage, and they turned the cameras off.
"And 70,000 people went to the bathroom at the same time," Hill said.
"Crickets," Ron added. "Nothing but crickets."
Calling it quits
The end of the band came not long after, with its final show at the Culture Center in 1981. Most everyone kept playing music in one form or another, though.
Solomon, Hill and Ron Sowell perform around Charleston and are heard regularly on "Mountain Stage." Harman plays some in the area, though often in Huntington, he said.
Sandy Sowell, who left the band in 1978 after she and Ron divorced, has been active with local theater and has an entertainment company that provides entertainment at parties, meetings and events.
John Kessler still plays and is a successful radio host and producer in Seattle.
People moved on, but not everyone moved away.
"Sandy and I still live on the farm," Hill said, then quickly amended, "Not together." Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.