Travis D. Stimeling, author of “Songwriting in Contemporary West Virginia: Profiles and Reflections,” is no stranger to the Appalachian music scene.
Associate professor of musicology at West Virginia University and director of the WVU Bluegrass and Old-Time Bands, Stimeling has studied — and performed with — many of the most influential Appalachian artists in the Tri-State area.
I spoke with Stimeling about his published works, his thoughts on Appalachian music and how living in Appalachia has influenced his own art.
Q: What inspired you to write “Songwriting in Contemporary West Virginia: Profiles and Reflections”?
“My first book and much of my early scholarship was on the Texas music scene, particularly the community of songwriters and country musicians who had called Austin home in the early 1970s.
“As I immersed myself in Texas country music, it became clear to me that there had been a concerted effort to make Texas ‘the home of the singer-songwriter.’ But, as a native West Virginian who was listening to some of our state’s great songwriters, I also knew that we had talent that was comparable to that in Texas right here in the Mountain State.
“So I set out to write about some of the best-known songwriters here, folks like Todd Burge and Larry Groce. In the process, I learned that there is a deep and thriving community of songwriters who are deeply committed to working in their own communities and to sharing their talents with others. I learned about their creative processes and their life stories. And, in a couple of cases, I even had the chance to work with them musically.”
Q: Why do you feel Appalachian artists have such an affinity for their hometown, regularly referencing their upbringing, the hills, their city, etc.?
“I’m not sure that there’s any one reason for this, but I do think that many songwriters — not just in West Virginia — write what they know. Even if they are writing from the perspective of another character, the life situations they find themselves in are grounded in their lived experiences.”
Q: Do you think that living in Appalachia has helped or hampered these artists and their ability to create a career in music?
“To answer that question, you’d have to consider each individual case. Some of the songwriters I worked with were certainly focused on making it to the next level in the music industry and commonly tour outside the state and/or visit Nashville to sell their songs and collaborate with musicians there.
“But just as often, West Virginia songwriters are perfectly happy writing songs for their immediate communities, songs that reflect the experiences of people that they might know and have to speak with at the grocery store or the post office. I know several songwriters who have built meaningful and sustainable careers in West Virginia through regular touring in the state, teaching and other musical activities, as well as the perennial day job.”
Q: As a musician yourself, could you describe lyrics that you’ve written that were born from your love for Appalachia and what inspired them?
“I’m not much of a songwriter myself, but the few songs that I have written are grounded in the history and culture of this place. I once wrote a song called ‘Leaving Winona’ when I was driving along U. S. 60 in Fayette County. I was taking the scenic route back to North Carolina, where I was living at the time, and thought about all of the people from that area who left West Virginia in order to find work in the Midwest back in the 1950s and 1960s. So, the little community of Winona became both a place and a person, and the speaker was heartbroken because they had to leave them behind. It’s an OK bluegrass song, but there are a lot better.”
Q: Could you describe your thoughts on the music community in Appalachia?
“There are so many music communities in Appalachia, and they are shaped both by region — western North Carolina doesn’t overlap much with West Virginia, for instance — and the people who live there.
“For instance, we have to think about the ways that Italian immigrants to northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania shaped the musical lives of people in churches and social halls there, but we often overlook those folks when we think of this region. That’s why I don’t think there’s just one music community here, and I think we do a major disservice to ourselves and to others when we think of Appalachian music from only one perspective.”
“Songwriting in Contemporary West Virginia: Profiles and Reflections” was released in April 2018 by West Virginia University Press and can be found on wvupressonline.com, Amazon and other retail outlets.