Authenticity is driving a lot of travel today, and that’s great news for West Virginia. I just spent four days traveling the state with a group of writers, and nobody put on airs for us. Nobody needed to. West Virginia’s authenticity is its calling card.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I love mountain music. I love the instruments, the melodies and the ancient strains that in many cases originated in places across the sea. So I was fully expecting to enjoy this trip, and I did.
Music in Marlinton
In my favorite stop, a tiny town called Marlinton, we gathered in the historic Pocahontas County Opera House that was built in 1907 and restored in 2000. In that building, Carrie Nation railed against spirits during Prohibition. Musicians went there after playing at the Greenbrier Hotel, a storied luxury property in nearby White Sulphur Springs. Sadly, it was relegated to warehouse duty for decades before its restoration.
We had homemade chili and sandwiches for lunch served buffet style on hardwood floors while the band Juanita Firebomb and the Continental Drifters played. One of the band members owns the town’s hardware store. Its fiddler, Mike Burns, told us the store’s motto: “If you can’t find it, you don’t need it.”
“There’s a lot of history that gets passed down from generation to generation with this music,” Burns said. “This is a tune called ‘Fine Times at Our House.’”
After lunch, our hosts told us they’d talked another guy into playing for us. He’d been sitting there like everyone else just enjoying the music. They introduced him as Jake Krack, and he played a couple of old fiddle tunes that were technically perfect as far as I could tell.
So I did some research on Krack. A 2007 graduate of Berea College, he is a master fiddler in the Appalachian tradition. At the age of 14, he was profiled in the New York Times in a story on mountain music.
Krack has won national fiddle competitions, and he co-produced a compilation of mountain fiddle songs for Smithsonian Folkways at the age of 23. He has played on “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Mountain Stage.” I’m glad someone talked him into playing for us, too. Otherwise, he might have just had a bowl of chili, chatted for a while and left.
Restoring an Iconic Resort
Marlinton is in Pocahontas County. People there will tell you straight up that Pocahontas never went through there. Somebody just liked the name, and it stuck. That’s authentic.
Pocahontas County’s mountain region is the genesis for eight American rivers. The Gauley, Greenbrier, Cherry, Cranberry, Elk, Tygart Valley, and Williams rivers, plus Shavers Fork of the Cheat River, all have their headwaters there.
Traditional music flows out of West Virginia like rivers do. Centuries ago, emigrants from Ireland and Scotland arrived there, and many stayed. Their music has been passed on ever since. Not to be confused with bluegrass, Appalachian music is often mournful, even haunting.
As we made our way to the Greenbrier one morning, a blanket of fog was lifting. A fellow writer seated somewhere behind me spoke up.
“One of the things I love about West Virginia is how the fog envelops the mountains,” she said. “As you drive through the state, the views in the fog are constantly changing. It’s just beautiful.”
The Greenbrier has undergone millions of dollars in renovations since being purchased by West Virginia businessman Jim Justus in 2009. After years of uninspired ownership, Justus’ vision for the Greenbrier has returned it to its place as one of America’s most elegant resorts.
An exclusive casino has been built off the lower floor, but it’s simply an entertainment option for guests. It’s more a diversion than a destination.
“Gaming and gambling do not run this resort,” our Greenbrier historian and guide, Robert Conte, said matter-of-factly. “Golf is still the serious operation here. Life leads toward golf at the Greenbrier.”
It’s true that golf has regained its luster there under Justus’ ownership. Hall of Fame golfer Sam Snead called the Greenbrier his home course for years, and today, eight-time major champion Tom Watson has agreed to carry the title of golf professional emeritus. In 2010, the resort became home to a regular PGA Tour event, the Greenbrier Classic.
“The Greenbrier Classic is a very big deal now,” said Conte. “It’s held each Fourth of July weekend, and many players bring their families in. Bubba Watson and Nick Faldo both have homes here.”
Vivid colors and bright floral prints give the Greenbrier a vibrant feel today. And while the resort is far from stuffy, it fully embraces its distinctive past.
“We still serve tea every day here in the main dining room from 4 until 4:45,” said Conte.
We did not have time to tour the bunker that was built 50 years ago to serve as Congress’ wartime headquarters.
“This was the emergency relocation center for the Congress from 1962 until 1992, built in case Washington was made uninhabitable,” Conte said. “Once the Cold War ended, it was not needed. We’ve been doing tours of the bunker for groups since 1996.”