Texas is not the center of great American songwriting, Travis Stimeling said, despite what the Lone Star State might like the rest of the country to believe.
The WVU musicology professor, musician and author of “Songwriting in Contemporary West Virginia: Profiles and Reflections,” said Texas does have a lot of famous songwriters. Then he rattled a couple off the top of his head, including Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver.
“Anybody with three names, they got ‘em,” he joked.
But West Virginia has plenty of good songwriters, too, even if they don’t have three names. One of the big differences between Texas songwriters and West Virginia songwriters is that Texas invested in music.
“Texas has built an industry around it,” he said.
Through Austin, Texas has branded itself as an anti-establishment country music stronghold, an anti-Nashville. The state has encouraged artistic growth and industry around that growth. Over the last 50 years, Texas has built theaters and concert halls.
Recording studios and record labels flourished there.
“West Virginia just hasn’t had that kind of interest to build the infrastructure,” Stimeling said.
Great West Virginia songwriters, people whose work is good enough to receive radio airplay and be part of major record label releases, just don’t get discovered much outside the state.
They might struggle for recognition, but they do work.
“Many of them are known in the communities where they live,” the professor said. “Some of them are known just in the state or in the region.”
Only a few, like “Mountain Stage” host Larry Groce, have reached a national audience.
With his book, “Songwriting in Contemporary West Virginia,” released through WVU Press, Stimeling hoped to “boost the signal” of local songwriters, help get their names and profiles out to people who care and study American music.
Stimeling wrote the book over the past couple of years, through a grant from WVU. Some of the songwriters were people he already knew, musicians he’d shared a stage with or even helped in the studio. Others he found through the online music store CDBaby.
“You can search the site for music by geography,” he said.
He listened and then he went around the state interviewing songwriters, getting their stories, learning about them and constructing profiles, which became the book.
“I had about 45 to 50 hours of interviews taped,” he said. “Those interviews are in the WVU library archives now, for future historians to study.”
Stimeling said music and genre might vary, but West Virginia songwriters often shared certain common themes.
“West Virginia songwriters tend to write about nature, about local history, about the people in their own community,” he said, and then chuckled.
“Almost everyone has a song about wandering in the woods,” he said. “Almost everybody has a song about a stream. People have a mine song — it’s about strikes, the mine wars or a mine disaster.”
Many of the songwriters draw from the broader folk song tradition and the elements of bluegrass and old-time music that have been part of the fabric of the mountains of West Virginia for generations.
“There’s also a mutual commitment to really telling stories about this place,” he said. “There’s a sense of community.”
In seeking out songwriters to explore and highlight, Stimeling said one of the musicians that surprised him was Doug Harper.
Harper, who died in January of this year, was a folk musician, who frequently performed with his wife, Shelly. He recorded several records, appeared on “Mountain Stage” and established the monthly songwriters’ circle at Tamarack.
Stimeling said Harper was both a great songwriter and a great supporter of other songwriters.
“He created a non-competitive, communal environment where any songwriter could come to learn about their craft,” the professor said. “It didn’t matter if you were a novice or an expert. His songs were about that same sort of community, about finding peace among the conflict — and he was a hell of a guitar player.”
They were friends and Stimeling regretted that Harper didn’t live to see the book in its final form, but he thought Harper would have appreciated what he’d done. It celebrates many of the same things Harper believed in — community and creativity among them.
“That we’re not as money-driven has attracted songwriters here in the past,” he said, but he acknowledged that “it’s also hindered efforts for national fame for West Virginia musicians.”
Stimeling hoped the book would at least help other West Virginians discover some of the musical treasures here in the state.