If we listen, we can hear that there is a persistent hum that seems to come from the bones of our ancestors and those around us. It is almost as if the music emanates from the land. It differs locally from place to place and what is defined as “country, folk or roots” can change in feel and sound as you explore different areas. So what is this “local music lore” and how do we begin to understand it or just simply enjoy it?
Small shops hold a treasure of craftsmen repairing and building remarkable instruments. “Jam sessions” happen in basements, family rooms and garages with people often skilled playing multiple instruments. Rhythm seems to be the guide with less or no dependency upon written scores. Suddenly, you find you are tapping your foot or out of your seat high-stepping to the beat.
There is a richness that comes from the hills of Virginia. This western part of the state, all along the Skyline Drive, is where generations have told their stories through music. Jam sessions are held spontaneously at the Blue Ridge Music Center and their Roots of American Music exhibit. Surrounding towns are known for their music festivals and rich musical storytelling in the local restaurants. This history seems to have spilled out generously to the Tidewater communities. The Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck, and surrounding geographic areas brim with musical performances and talented performers. Taking a microscopic view is sure to eliminate many talented musicians, but it is certainly worth a peek and is meant to whet your appetite. Follow the sounds and explore other venues and areas for a true look at this enchanting musical lore.
Lively, Virginia, in the Northern Neck, is a community that you can easily miss altogether with one flashing light and a few restaurants marking its presence. Looking more carefully you will find some of the buildings hold a richness of music. In one a gentleman restores pianos, plays the guitar and cello, while in another a skilled craftsman is considered “world renowned” for his guitars and other instruments.
Jim Merrill is a luthier or guitar maker and has a small shop filled to the brim with guitar parts and delicate specialized tools. Following school, Jim went into construction, high-end millwork, antique restoration and then worked in a shipyard. He began at the age of sixteen to play a bass guitar. That evolved into a garage band. When members needed repairs done to their instruments, he was the man for the job. In 1981, he began guitar repairs full-time at Isle of Wight, VA.
He has been making guitars full-time since 2000. From the 1980s until 2000, he built 23. To date he has built an amazing 480 at his shop in Lively where he works with his son Jordan. Jim stated that “a great guitar should not be an accident; it is a sum of its parts”. He speaks reverently about the woods he uses: Honduras mahogany, sitka spruce, curly maple, Adirondack pine and red spruce which not only make his guitars beautiful but improve the quality of the sound or tone of the music. He uses koa wood from Hawaii for ukulele construction.
Jim caters to custom requests for certain wood and neck shapes of the instruments that he builds. “The finishes should have a minimal effect if applied properly,” stated Jim. His primary focus is to build a “great” guitar not just a good one. He focuses on recreating the highly sought-after sound of the Martin guitars of the 1980s. Some of his guitar bodies are hand-shaped by sanding to create an arc. Even the braces he installs on the interior are scalloped to allow slight movement of the top up and down, enhancing the sound. He described the acoustic guitar sound to be smoother and richer or “woodier” than the electric guitar which has more of a “metallic” sound.
He built a guitar for Tommy Emmanuel who is considered the world’s greatest player. Tommy is a native of Australia and began playing at the age of four. He spent his young life touring the country and playing with his family. Defined as an “Australian virtuoso guitarist, songwriter and occasional singer”, he has a unique style that includes guitar percussion (sounds made by thumping his hand on the guitar body) and his own style of fingering. Currently, he resides in Nashville.
Further down a side street from the “center” of town, music can be heard pouring from a home where Ann Hetrick and Don Kenefick reside. Ann and Don have a covey of music-loving friends. Ann stated that she believes music lore comes partially from the Scottish, Irish and English as they immigrated to the United States. She compared the verses in an early poetry book to more recent folk ballads. She noted that the lyrics are changed to suit American tastes of the time, which was often more gentile. Her early memories were of her parents “always singing”. She has played the violin and guitar, loves to sing and plays a “mean” tambourine.
Don plays the baritone ukulele which he purchased for $10 and uses it to accompany himself singing. He also plays the whistles and bones along with his newfound love, the bagpipe. The whistles are a six-holed woodwind with a high- pitched sound. They are held vertically rather than the horizontal position for flutes. Following many hours of study and practice, he plays with the Kilmarnock Pipe and Drum Band. The bagpipes he plays are the Great Pipes, the larger ones, and the Kitchen Pipes. It takes a great deal of skill and practice. He stated, “you need to practice every day”. He also “plays” bones, originally made from bones and sometimes wood, these objects consist of two pieces about 7-8 inches long and approximately one inch wide. They are held in the hand of the “player” and with the flick of the practiced wrist they produce clicking sounds. They can be found in folk instrument stores.
Don also plays with the Shiloh String Band, named for the place where they practice, Shiloh School. A one- room school in Northumberland County, this building was established by the DuPonts of Delaware. Jesse Ball DuPont, wife of Alfred I, taught at the school. She started teaching at its establishment in 1906. It is now restored as a museum. The string band consists of a talented group with guitars, dulcimers and ukuleles, mostly stringed instruments but not always.
Bill Gurley who with his wife Pam are acoustic musicians mastering the guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin. Their melodic presentations are heard from many venues all over the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula and beyond. Bill states he began playing the guitar when he was impressed by the Beatles. During his college years, in the 1970s, he was taken with bluegrass and had a six member band in New York. He suggests that “roots music” is a generic term for “Americana”, which covers everything from blues to Cajun. He adds, “Bluegrass is more the style of playing and the instruments used. It originated in Kentucky.” Cajun, also known as Zydeco music, (cajun verte, direct translation green beans) was the music of Louisiana. It is heavy on accordions and very danceable. He became a fan of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.
Following college he heard Pam sing, fell in love, and they started singing together. They have now been married 40 years. They live in the Middle Peninsula on a farm where his mother was born that they have restored. Bill teaches music to some 30 plus students, although he says he is more of a music therapist. He teaches at a guitar shop in Gloucester Point and also at Chesapeake Academy.
He was invited to play at a restaurant with Justin Burke and Bailey Horsley, two local musicians, for the entire evening without any practice. “All I needed to know was the key,” Bill says. He continues that the “level of musicianship bar has been raised over time.”
Justin Burke has been playing his electric guitar for some 18 years starting on the trumpet and then moving to the acoustic. He feels it is a “universal language that gives off energy”. He is a part of three bands. He has a new record coming out in the spring that will be his fourth.
Music has been an integral part of this area and is documented in Irvington at the Steamboat Era Museum. During the time between the 1800s and early 1900s, paddleboat steamers brought floating theatres with musical performances from Baltimore to Virginia. Many communities told time by the “arrival of the steamboat” and the entertainment they provided.
Music is so much a part of our area. Listen and move to the music around you. Explore the many opportunities to experience what so very many talented musicians bring to our lives. Hear the stories of the musicians. This is our local music lore.