~From the Charleston Gazette – August 10, 2015
Although best known for his Parrot Head renditions (suited to his affable, laid-back persona), his repertoire runs the gamut — folk, rock, bluegrass, gospel, everything but hardcore country. The diversity attracts enough bookings to keep him afloat.
Reared on the East End and in Cross Lanes, he grew up in a family that appreciated music. As a boy, he taught himself to play his father’s ukulele, and performs with the baritone ukulele to this day. In fifth grade, Bob Thompson taught him to play the guitar.
He performed through Nitro High School, played a lengthy stint at Cheers in downtown Charleston, hit the college circuit and played year-round at a Myrtle Beach hotel.
At 59, he makes his home in Lewisburg but travels wherever the gigs take him, including to several well-known venues in Charleston. Along with entertaining, he stays busy organizing music festivals and community events. He founded the Colesmith Concert Series in St. Albans and the Greenbrier Valley Winter Festival.
Music is a large hunk of his life, but not the most important part. That position belongs to his son, Sam.
“I was born in Morgantown. We moved to the East End of Charleston right before I started grade school. My grandmother and step-grandfather were already here in Charleston. He was press secretary to the governor. When the Legislature created a Department of Labor, my father was director of minimum wage and hour. So we moved to Charleston to the far East End on the other side of the Capitol. Mom worked at the Statehouse as well.
“I had a brother three years younger. When I was 14, surprise, here comes a little sister. The middle of my seventh grade, we moved to Cross Lanes, and I went to Nitro Junior High and Nitro High School.
“During the McCartney family reunions — that’s on my father’s side — there were always a bunch of relatives sitting in the yard with hymnals, singing. One of my relatives had a ukulele. My dad used to have a baritone ukulele beside his easy chair. In grade school, I would pick it up and teach myself how to play. He had a little book with campfire songs, and I taught myself to play from that.
“One of my great-grandfathers was a traveling music teacher in central West Virginia. He taught shape-note singing. My paternal grandmother was one of five sisters and they all sang in church. So music was just there.
“The cool thing about the baritone ukulele is it transfers directly over to the guitar. The smaller ones don’t translate directly.
“I took guitar lessons in fifth or sixth grade at Herbert’s Music Store. My teacher was Bob Thompson.
“In junior high, they have career day and they asked what we wanted to be. I wanted to be a minister or an attorney and became neither. A friend said that was just my passion for justice, a cross between an attorney and a minister.
“On one of my birthdays, I saved up $21 and went to a hardware store on the West Side and bought a guitar. In high school, I went to Galperin’s and bought my first $200 guitar.
“In 1969, when I started at Nitro Junior High, I met up with John Thompson. We were just a natural. We had the kind of harmony you get from siblings, like the Bellamy Brothers or the Everly Brothers. We started playing Simon and Garfunkel and Everly Brothers. In high school, we started doing Seals and Crofts. We played at Cheers for a long time.
“So there was Simon and Garfunkel and Seals and Crofts and Charleston had Snyder and Thompson. We hit the college circuit. We got a job at a hotel in Myrtle Beach, the Sand Dunes, and played there year-round. Hotels paid musicians well then and also put you up in the hotel. We were 20, hanging out at the beach during the day and playing at night. The manager knocked on our door one day and said he had some bad news. He had double-booked our room and had to move us to the penthouse.
“Our friend Kathy [Mattea] went to Nashville right after high school and we would go stay with her off and on. I wasn’t thrilled with Nashville. To me, it was a dirty, rusty town. I didn’t want to be one of those musicians who became a waiter waiting on a record deal.
When Kathy got her recording contract, John wanted to go back to Nashville. I didn’t want to do that. I moved back to St. Albans. Kathy gave him a job singing backup for a while.
“She’d been in a folk group at the Nitro Catholic Church. We ended up going to Lincoln County to play. There was this old two-room schoolhouse. This guy named Uncle Cheat had been a federal marshal and a teacher and lived in a shack up a path. I grew up in Kanawha County, the richest county in the state, and we drive not even an hour to Lincoln County, and here is this school with maybe eight grades in it and an outhouse.
After John went to Nashville, I got a trio together and went back to the beach and played. I got involved with a musical. Here’s the story behind that. Back in high school, when I got my car, my attendance dropped. I didn’t get in trouble. I pursued things that interested me. Morris Harvey used to have an arts festival, film, crafts, literature. I would skip school and hang out at Morris Harvey.
“I was walking around in the halls and came across a little retired school teacher, Shirley Young Campbell, who had some self-published books. One was called ‘Flowers Grow in Coal Dust.’ I loved that title. I bought the book and wrote music to those poems. About 1979, she called and said she had a show with music and John Marshall with the Light Opera Guild started to write it and quit. She asked me to finish.
“When we put it all together, it didn’t have a flow. You could tell there were two styles. John, coming from a Broadway musical background, had some things in it that weren’t Appalachian. I wanted an Appalachian flavor because it’s about coal mining in the hollers. She grew up in Paint Creek. So we rewrote the music and did it at Clifftop and the Culture Center and St. John’s. It was a wonderful show.
“I went to West Virginia State as a vocal major and then to Morris Harvey as a guitar major and studied under Vince Lewis.
“I played music to work my way through college. The first couple of years, I had straight A’s. Then I started playing five or six nights a week and my grades started falling.
“It came time to do my student teaching and I remembered the hell we gave our choir director and how our band director was overworked and underpaid. I did not want to do that. So I changed majors and got a degree in recreation and leisure services. I’ve related it to what I do, because what I do is what people do in their leisure time. I’ve been coordinating events and community concert series. I’m getting ready to do our fourth annual Greenbrier Valley Winter Music Festival. It’s the last weekend in January. On a snowy night in January, restaurants and bars love us because otherwise, they are dead.
“I started a concert series at the Alban Theater about six years ago and we were there about four years. I did a gospel music mini-festival at St. Albans City Park this past spring. A woman from Lewisburg and I put on an arts festival there in May.
“As I get older, I don’t play bars from 10 to 2. After midnight, I want to go home. Fifteen years ago, when I found out I was going to be a first-time dad at my age, it changed everything. I quite playing the bars and played more restaurants. I played at the Hibachi in Beckley as the house guy a couple of years when Sam was wee little. Except for playing some in the evenings, I was a stay-at-home dad. The marriage was a catastrophe, but Sam was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. Sam was a little over 4 when we started the divorce. State laws regarding family structure are non-gender. Since I was a stay-at-home dad, I got custody of my boy. He’s like a mini me.
“My music is very eclectic. Some venues want that Jimmy Buffett feel. About 15 years ago, I started playing some of the rafting places in Fayetteville. They were into the whole Parrot Head thing.
“Early on, I learned that when someone comes up and says, ‘Here is a dollar, play Jimmy Buffett,’ I am going to learn some Jimmy Buffett. At the Greenbrier Sporting Club, they have me do a Parrot Head thing once in a while. Or little restaurants will have a margarita night. I also do bluegrass. I was raised doing Peter, Paul and Mary. I do everything from Mother Maybelle to Jimi Hendrix.
“I love rock and roll and rock. There’s an energy in rock. To pick up a Les Paul with a stack of amps and hit that power chord ... wow. I also do some blues and some country. Coming out of folk, rock and pop, I didn’t get into country a lot.
“For years, I played at the Fifth Quarter. I was playing in places where people expected variety. Being an acoustic guitar player, people sense your variety is going to be Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, James Taylor.
“I mainly play guitar, and some bass, and I bring out my ukulele.
“My grandfather on his 99th birthday went out and cut his own grass. So I figure I have some years left. I hope so. I’d like to see my grandchildren, being so late having my son. There are places I’d like to travel to. And I just want to play with quality people.
“A lot of people say, ‘When I retire, I’m going to learn to play the guitar.’ Well, I retired when I got out of college. That’s all I’ve done.
“I’ve been very fortunate. It’s been rough, but my stubbornness has kept me going. It’s very difficult to make your living playing music in this area. Most people have daytime jobs. I’m a full-time musician, and it is not easy. You have to redesign your lifestyle and decide what’s important. But it’s what I do.”
Questions or to submit content requests, contact Dena Williams