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Issue: June 2011

By Alexander Clark Campbell

The hottest worldbeat act right now is Option 22 (which will hopefully be playing the Rudyard Kipling in late July), out of Princeton, WV (the place once known as the home of the late ‘Gilligan’/Bob Denver happily smoking his weed away in retirement bliss). Option 22 uses banjo, guitars, didgeridoo, shamisen, djembes, and other hand drums. The group melts global influences into a very American sound — they have a new album out called Choose the Music (in which the ‘world’ influences are laid out more subtly and kept more in the background than on previous efforts); but as they get bigger, they should release some of these earlier, more obscure albums.

To encapsulate their music in one phrase would be music that with no boundaries, with a blissful, relaxing ‘spread the love around’ vibe. Leader Lori McKinney says it best: ‘Call it Americana, call it Progressive, call it Newgrass, SpaceFolk, AlternaRock, World Funk; no matter what you call it, it is good music.’ Other members include her husband, Robert Blankenship, who play a mean didgeridoo, (his brother?) Clayton Blankeship, and Albert Perrone.

Despite the relaxed, rhythmic vibe of their music, Lori McKinney is a very successful, driven, energetic young woman who, along with her husband, founded and organized CultureFest — the State’s largest Worldbeat/Cultural festival, which is held every September in gorgeous Pipestem, WV, near the resort State Park that has the best State Park restaurant in the State, serving gourmet game like wild quail. The Festival features not only WV acts, but ones from all over the US, and it gets larger every year. The Festival hopes to host more immigrant-based acts and is also not too far from the New River (a Class VI whitewater-rafting river), whose raging rapids I also detect in Option 22′s music. (The Conundrum is my favorite song of theirs).

Speaking of the New River, I cannot resist paddling down a divergent fork for a paragraph to talk about Kelly Harrell (a spitting image of Glee’s Chris Colfer), from Wythe, VA (close to the WV State border). Harrell was most famous for being the singer of ‘that New River Train‘ (a train that used to hug the New River Gorge in WV — tracks of this railroad line can be seen in John Sayles’ film “Matewan” – so it is a song associated with West Virginia. Harrell is also believed to have been among the first openly (as it was possible to be) homosexual entertainer. I have heard some people say he is the REAL Father of Country Music because of his early recording date (1925). (I started out just trying to buy Frank Hutchison’s complete recordings — and look what I got myself into.)

But however you come to it, listen to Harrell’s complete recordings in order, and you might get that impression as well – that he was Country’s earliest-recorded founding father, as well as discovering the hidden world of what sounds like gay code in certain songs ‘boys’ (‘tops’) and ‘girls’ (‘bottoms’). Note especially some of his later songs, like the one in which he calls himself a ‘girl’ and refers to having to shave, and even mentions a man and a young boy’s getting ‘gay’ in a watermelon patch. His songs seem to get braver and braver as they go on; maybe this is why he was kept to the dustbins of obscurity and consigned to the record bins of American Imports in European record shops.

His best song is one in which he sings in the role of a woman — “I Wish I Were a Single Girl Again.” He’s also pushing the envelope of the mores of his time, I think, in his “Underneath the Willow Tree,” which might sneak in a barely-noticeable male-on-male kiss. A textile worker by trade, he apparently died trying to impress other men. His life story would make a great HBO musical directed by John Waters and starring Chris Colfer – but who would have to learn to imitate Harrell’s raspy, frog-like, off-key voice – and I’m telling the hypothetical filmmaker now that the songs would have to be sung in order of recording date to get the right effect.

It is possible that West Virginia is this incognito bellwether, or harbinger of things to come, in terms of music. Option 22, Comparsa, and Appalatin are examples of this, but, in spending time here, I have discovered there are bands that are not necessarily ‘worldbeat’ but that blend in cultural influences, styles, and instruments more subtly than, say, Appalatin out of Louisville, or Option 22. In fact one of the purposes of CultureFest is to unite similar bands, such as the Electric Junkyard Gamelan out of NY, Telesma out of Annapolis, MD, and Alliens from Floyd, VA (not to far from the WV State line).

The sounding ready-for-top-40-radio group the Boatmen, from Beckley WV, use the Ghanian Djembe as their percussion — whose distinctive ‘thump thump’ can be heard on their song “Katherine.” Then there are many, many reggae-influenced bands, such as the Tom Batchelor Band from Morgantown, WV (which to me sound like the Guess Who amalgamated with The Band and Honky Tonk, with a mixture of Reggae and Steel Drums). Shayar, from Beckley via Jamacia, is straight-on Reggae. Happy Minor from Charleston is a reggae, jazz, and early rock-and-roll-influenced band. The reggae is there, happily minor, but noticeable. There is also The Head Changers of Parkersburg; (Vern’s Pot O Chili from Wheeling; and the gangja-loving Shamaicans of Shepardstown. And I almost forgot, the really-ahead-of-the-curve Rasta Rafiki, from Morgantown, which has been mixing Rock with Reggae for almost 25 years.

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