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Local musician, now clean and sober, speaks of the transformative power of music

By By Nick Harrah
For the Gazette
Sheldon Vance will play his energetic version of “Appalachian acoustic punk” at shows in Huntington and Morgantown this weekend.

First, two things about Sheldon Vance.

One: when you hear he’s playing an acoustic show in your town, think punk rock rather than folk rock.

Two: when he talks about drugs, poverty and (lonely) life in his hometown of Logan — and how it’s all bound up in what he does musically — he speaks from experience.

After sitting a few years out, Vance is back as a solo acoustic rocker, bringing a plug-in-and-go, DIY attitude and his heart-on-his-sleeve passion to shows across West Virginia, including Friday night at Huntington’s Shops at Heritage Station and Saturday night at Morgantown’s Atomic Grill. Equally influenced by punk rockers and country music outlaws, his upcoming 10-song sophomore solo album, “Hills, Pills, and Unpaid Bills” is influenced by the economic depression and drug abuse in southern West Virginia.

Of course, nobody expects to develop a drug habit. And most people won’t lose five family members to overdoses. Vance has experienced both.

They say love is a powerful drug, too, though, and with help from his wife, Vance found renewed hope to set back out on the road of rock.

“When I started doing the acoustic stuff, honestly, I had no intention of ever playing out again in my life; I’d given up on music,” Vance explained over the phone in a charming, twangy southern West Virginia accent.

One day, his wife Jennifer threw him a line, of sorts.

“I was trying to quit drinking, and I’d laid off the drugs; I’d quit all the hard stuff. One day, she basically just shoved this acoustic guitar in my hand, and that’s when the healing started. I knew I didn’t have to be clean for myself, but for her, and what would allow me to do that was getting back into writing those songs.

“And as the songs started coming out, I’d listen to them. I started picking out all these styles that I’d grown up on, like bluegrass and old country. I got excited, because I knew it was pure then. It wasn’t contrived. It wasn’t me setting out to sound like this or do this. It was like, ‘This is for real.’”

Before he would find himself playing shows again, though, Vance needed a change. After getting married five years ago and moving out of Logan three years later, he now calls Cross Lanes home.

Explaining the impetus of the move, he said, “Partly because of work opportunities, but also because things were getting so bad in Logan, in terms of drugs and poverty. It’s just such a depressing area.”

Vance is a veteran of Logan area punk bands Out of Nowhere and Eighty Three Eighty. The desperation he had to play music, that youthful hope and energy, is what Vance lost as the years passed. But the feelings of isolation and self-doubt that led him to punk returned, and instead of music, he fell into depression and the “cold comfort” of drug and alcohol abuse.

“Basically, I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum,” he said. “I had a real disdain for drugs growing up because it’s one of the first things I saw when I got into music. One of the reasons I identified with Minor Threat, was if you really like music as much as you say you do, you’re f------ yourself up with all this bull----.

Things began to change when his band broke up.

“I started this downward spiral. It started with drinking a little bit. And then, in that area [Logan], I got more and more into the substances. I was just, like, a kid that dabbled, and next thing you know, I was in trouble.”

Vance said five of his relatives have overdosed in the past few years, including the cousin who encouraged him to play guitar as a kid.

“The whole time I was doing it, I knew it was bull----,” Vance said of his drug usage.

“I knew I was doing it because I’d given up. I didn’t really want to be there. I was looking for hope but pushing it away. Anything that would do me any good, like music, I was pushing away.”

Vance said he’s in a good place these days. He’s looking forward to an October release for the new record and is excited about playing his songs for people who he hopes can identify with them.

“I knew all along that I needed to get back to my music,” he said. “Growing up with all these issues, I found music, and it gave me hope.

“Then, I pushed it aside for all those years, going down a road I knew was wrong. Coming back to it, finally, is good to embrace what I love.”

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