WV band Stark Raven reunites after 26 years

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail
Deni Bonet (from left), Ron Sowell, John Kessler, Julie Adams, Ammed Solomon and Bob Webb. Stark Raven, back after 25 years, takes a selfie while on break from rehearsal. The band performs today at the Clay Center and then again Friday for Live on the Levee.
Courtesy photo
Stark Raven, nearly 30 years ago. Front: Bob Webb, Deni Bonet, Ron Sowell and John Kessler. Back: Julie Adams and Ammed Solomon.

Over the years, myth and legend can replace the actual history of something. The truth can get tangled up in a mess of secondhand recollections.

For sure, experimental folk rock band Stark Raven got its start in 1982.

The band, which reunites for two shows in Charleston, was one of the most popular area bands in the 1980s and released two albums.

Most of the members of Stark Raven also became the “Mountain Stage” house band, but electric fiddle player and songwriter, Deni Bonet, said the group started with just her and vocalist Julie Adams.

“Julie and me knew each other in college,” she said. “We were super fans of the Putnam County Pickers and then Rhino Moon. They broke up and we were like, ‘Come on over here.’”

Bonet stopped.

“Wait,” she said. “That’s not what happened. I take that back.”

How Stark Raven became Stark Raven is a tangled story that begins about a year after the Putnam County Pickers called it quits in 1981.

Ron Sowell, Ammed Solomon, John Kessler, and Steve Hill were core members.

Solomon said, “When the Pickers ended, Steve, John and I were working on stuff anyway.”

The three of them formed an indie rock group called Rhino Moon.

“But Rhino Moon was a struggle,” Solomon said. “We went from having notoriety, lots of gigs and making decent money, to not much of anything.”

Within six months, the financial struggle became critical, particularly for Hill, whose wife had just given birth.

“He needed to get a job,” Solomon said.

Rhino Moon broke up. Hill found work, while Kessler joined musician Turley Richards in Kentucky and Solomon moved back to the farm where the Putnam County Pickers had called home.

Meanwhile, Bonet and Adams had recently graduated from West Virginia University and had left Morgantown for Charleston.

“We met the guys when they were with the Putnam County Pickers,” Adams said. “They told us we should really come to Charleston. We would make so much money with music.”

The singer laughed. That never really happened.

Sowell told them he was putting together a new band.

“It took me about a year to come up with the concept,” he said. “My friend, Bob Webb, played cello, and I wanted to do something with cello. Then there was Julie and Deni and I kind of saw this thing as having an electrified string section.”

At the time, Webb wasn’t doing a lot of music. An early member of the Putnam County Pickers, he’d bowed out to raise a family within months of the band forming.

“I had to buy diapers,” he said. “I needed a steady income. So, I spent a good part of the 1970s as a social worker.”

Sowell’s invitation came just as Webb was ready to quit his job.

The future “Mountain Stage” bandleader also invited Solomon to join, but asked him to play a hammer dulcimer, not drums.

In the fall of 1982, Sowell’s odd five-piece band had a guitarist, a cellist, a fiddle player, a singer and a drummer playing dulcimer, but didn’t have a name.

“Having a good name was important to us,” Adams said. “We didn’t want to get pigeonholed to playing one style of music by what we were called.”

She said they tried to imagine a band that the governor might be able to announce, but something cool.

Cool did not come easy.

“We had these boards where we would write the band names on,” Bonet said. “And they were just horrible.”

They would laugh about how bad the names were.

Eventually, they settled on Stark Raven, the name Bonet and Adams were using as a duo.

More people would remember the pair as the Fabulous Twister Sisters, but that didn’t come until later, when they were on the first episode of “Mountain Stage.”

“That was just supposed to be a one-time thing, kind of a joke,” Adams said. “But...

Adams said she and Bonet had barely used the name before the band adopted it — and that name actually preceded their duo.

“If you want to dig deep into the trivia, Stark Raven was the name of this one-day kind of band I played with back in my hometown in Maryland,” Adams said.

She said it seemed terrible to let a cool name go to waste.

Sowell’s vision was to get Stark Raven out of the bars and into theaters with the hopes of landing a record contract.

The band rehearsed relentlessly — like it was a separate day job.

“We would go all day and there were business meetings,” Bonet said.

“It was all very intense,” Adams said. “We would spend a lot of time arranging songs and everyone had an equal voice in the band. That was very important to Ron — that everyone’s ideas get heard.”

They also had support staff. Sandy Sowell, Ron Sowell’s then-wife, served as the band’s manager and booking agent. Jim Robinette mixed Stark Raven’s sound.

A couple of months after Stark Raven was formed, Kessler returned to Charleston and began hanging out with the band.

“They were my buddies,” he said. “So, I helped with lights or something.”

He and Bonet were also dating, but Webb said Kessler’s return was a lucky break.

“I started the band playing cello, playing the low-end for the band, but it wasn’t really cutting it for me.”

Adding Kessler freed Webb to play dulcimer, mandolin and guitar.

“I was a lot happier,” he said.

Stark Raven quickly became popular. They played all over West Virginia and the east coast — often touring packed in with their gear in a brown, repurposed bread truck affectionately named, “Moose.”

“It was an adventure, that’s for sure,” Adams laughed.

Shows were a mix of music and laughs. Stark Raven came to entertain.

“We were a lot of fun live,” Sowell said.

“But we were kind of all over the place, musically,” Solomon added.

In hindsight, the variety of music the band played might have worked against them, Webb said.

“We would have record company people come listen to us and get very excited, but then couldn’t figure out how to market us,” he said.

Stark Raven made a modest living playing area clubs, doing educational shows at state public schools, and touring colleges. They independently produced two records, but never connected with a record label.

By 1990, Stark Raven had run its course.

The group dissolved amicably in 1991. Most of Stark Raven continued to play together as the “Mountain Stage” house band.

Bonet and Kessler left Charleston for New York in 1993. Bonet stayed, where she worked with a wide variety of musicians and pursued a solo music career.

Her latest record, “Bright Shiny Objects,” was released in January.

“It’s doing really well,” Bonet said, excited.

Kessler eventually went to Seattle, where he became a blues music host on Seattle Public Radio Station KNKX.

Webb also left Charleston several years ago and moved to Oregon with his partner, Heidi Mueller.

Coming back for the reunion has taken some time and a lot of work. Most of the band hasn’t looked or listened to Stark Raven’s music since it disbanded.

“There’s kind of angst at doing that,” Adams said. “You put so much time into something and then you have to move on. Looking back is hard.”

“But the music holds up,” Sowell said.

There was a lot of work to do to get ready for their reunion performances, but they said they’d all matured as musicians. With experience, they’ve all learned how to work faster.

“It’s good to do this,” Solomon said. “We’re like family, by now.”

“What I really like about us is that we’re all still playing music,” Kessler said. “By now, a lot of people would have hung it up, but we’re all still making music somewhere.”

Webb said reacquainting himself with Stark Raven’s music wasn’t any trouble at all.

“Like putting on an old, comfortable shoe,” he said.

Reach Bill Lynch at

lynch@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-5195 or follow

@LostHwys on Twitter.

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