Bridgeport's Annie Neeley: 'It's Important to Keep Focused on Your Own Sound'

Jun 26, 2016

Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats ranging from Heavy-Set Paw-Paws to Of the Dell, TeamMate's Scott Simons to Qiet and beyond.

But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day is coming up (not to mention A Change of Tune’s second birthday), we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new #WVmusic interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers and Parkersburg singer-songwriters to West Virginia music venues and regional artist management and beyond, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene.

And today, we are chatting with Annie Neeley from up in Bridgeport, West Virginia. After living in D.C. and making music in Nashville, Annie recently returned to the Mountain State to start a new life for herself, not to mention a new musical life with the Annie Neeley Band. Which begs the question…

Annie Neeley is a blues-icana musician out of Bridgeport, West Virginia.
Credit Michael O'Connor

How did you and the band start playing music (when, where, why, etc.)?

I've been singing for forever: church choir, school choir, county choir, state choir, etc. I spent an entire year of junior high listening to nothing but The Beatles until I learned every single harmony on every single song. In high school, I joined a rock band that did mostly Rolling Stones covers, and my buddy and I used to sing the Ike & Tina version of “Proud Mary.” Playing music was, and continues to be, the most fun I have ever had.

I joined a band in college in Washington, D.C., got an acoustic guitar when I was 19, and I’ve never stopped. Wherever I went, I was always singing and playing. If I wasn't in a band, I'd play by myself or put one together.

After many years away from West Virginia, I returned for a short time in 1997, joined a band, and met my husband at band practice in Fairmont. He's a great bass player, and we quickly realized that we had tons of common ground, musical and otherwise. We played in a few different bands around West Virginia including The Road Dawgs, The Davisson Brothers, Shotgun Annie and Liquored Up (an early incarnation of my country band), and then decided to head to Nashville to see what that was like. Our hope was to meet a community of people that was as crazy about playing as we were. We found it. And then some. We spent 16 years in Nashville and considered it our "flatland" home, where our son was born and where music continues to be the lifeblood of so many beautiful creative souls.

We've been back in West Virginia now for exactly one year. The transition has had its rough patches, but I am thrilled that we have been able to reconnect with so many of our musical friends. There are so many great players and singers in this state, and I am heartened by how much folks in West Virginia obviously love live music. We’re looking forward to keep the songs rolling through the hills for many years to come!

Where does your current band name come from?

I call the band the Annie Neeley Band, primarily because the band can have a rotating lineup depending on if we are in West Virginia or Nashville or wherever, but also because I am no damn good at coming up with band names. All my ideas end up being terribly silly.

The Annie Neeley Band's releases.
Credit Carly Suplita

How has the Annie Neeley Band’s sound changed over time (if at all)?

When we recorded our newest release Cold Heart Blues, we were playing primarily with bluegrass instrumentation, although I always called the band a "blues-grass" band because I am far from a traditional bluegrass singer. I was doing a regular Saturday shift down at Layla's Bluegrass Inn on Lower Broadway, and the band line-up on the record was pretty much that band. Since then, we have added at different times drums, pedal steel, lap steel, and electric guitar. At the moment, we play with a banjo and an electric guitar, which is fairly uncommon. I like the band to have an acoustic/electric feel, kind of like Emmylou Harris's The Hot Band or The Byrds or Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance. That's what we aspire to, anyway.

Where do you all play in and around West Virginia (venues, festivals, etc.)?

So it's been a year, and I'm still learning the ropes (as it were), but I've played the Bridgeport Farmer's Market, The Chestnut Ridge Concert Series (with The Wild Rumpus), some Harrison County Cultural Society events, and a couple of weddings and parties.

A snapshot of Annie Neeley at a recent band practice.
Credit Carly Suplita

What’s been the highlight of your musical journey?

I have had so many wonderful musical experiences, but there was this one gig… It was with the same band that I had gotten together in Nashville that played down on Lower Broadway. We also had a regular monthly gig at the VFW on Charlotte's Pike on the west side of the city. A bunch of really nice folks would come out to see us, and it was always on a Friday night. Anyway, my banjo player double-booked himself that night and couldn't play with me, so I needed a sub. My dobro player, Gene Bush, himself a Nashville legend, says, "Well, I'll call Alan and see if he's available." Alan, in this case, was Alan O'Bryant, the banjo player and lead singer of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, a multi-Grammy winner, an acclaimed songwriter, and so on. I said, "Sure, Gene, that'd be great," thinking, of course, that there is no way that Alan O'Bryant is going to play a VFW gig with me. But, Nashville being Nashville, Alan said, "I'd love to!" Turns out, he grew up playing in VFW's in North Carolina and really enjoyed those gigs.

So, there I am, standing on stage with Alan O'Bryant, not quite believing it but getting through the set, and then the next song on the set list is "Those Memories Of You," which he wrote, which I learned from the Trio album by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt, which is one of my favorite songs in the world. I took a deep breath and sang it the best I could, which I guess was pretty good because Alan smiled real big, and we played together several more times over the following few years.

Do you have any advice for folks who want to start making music?

Only you can sound like you, so do that. Do you. That's not to say that your musical influences won't shine through here and there. Of course they will! But it's important to keep focused on your own sound.

Also, always thank everyone! Everyone who asks you to play. Everyone who compliments you. Everyone who passes your name along to someone else. You don't have to play every gig that someone asks you to play or work on every project that comes along, but always thank the person who offers you the opportunity.

Lastly, if you are a singer, especially a girl singer, learn to play an instrument well enough to accompany yourself on a few songs. It will make you a better, more confident singer and musician.

What projects/announcements are you currently working on?

A duet record with Fayetteville singer-songwriter Andrew Adkins!

What’s it like making music in West Virginia?

In Nashville, there were 20-30 music venues in a 3-mile radius of my front door. All of those venues had a primary emphasis on original music. Obviously, in West Virginia, there is considerably more driving involved to get to venues, especially if you're less interested in playing bar gigs from 10pm-2:00am. Not to say that that isn't fun every once in a while, but with a 6-year-old kiddo at home, it's not really a lifestyle I can maintain anymore.

People do love music here, and there are good groups of people in Bridgeport and Clarksburg who are working hard to bring music events to the community at-large and in all different venues, and I am happy to be working with them.

Annie Neeley at a 2015 Songwriter Stage in Charleston.
Credit Bobby Moore

Do you feel held back by being in West Virginia? Or does it feel like a musically-supportive place?

I count among my West Virginia friends some really first-rate musicians and human beings. Within weeks of returning here, I got an invitation from Roger Rabelais to play the "Songwriter Stage" series in Charleston with Andrew Adkins and Allan Dale Sizemore. That one magical evening allowed me to connect with these super West Virginia musicians and songwriters, and we continue to work and play together.

I have also reconnected with the guys I played with before I moved to Nashville, and all of them are just tremendous musicians who love to play. I look forward to continuing to grow musically with all of these people and meeting new musical friends along the way. I feel incredibly supported here by musicians and fans here.

What, in your opinion, needs to happen in the West Virginia music scene for it to move forward?

I really think that the more "alternative" venues that support live music there are, the better the scene is for everyone. Have live music in your restaurant, in your city park, at your school fair! There doesn't have to be a big stage and a PA system necessarily; we just need a place where it's cool to hang and play. Let kids listen, hear real instruments, and watch the musicians interact. It’s all good for the soul.

Also, Andrew Adkins and I have discussed this West Virginia sound that exists among the people making music here. I think there is a unique voice to be heard among all of us mountain folk! A music sampler of all of the bands and acts featured on this series would be an awesome thing.   

The Annie Neeley Band’s latest release is Cold Heart Blues. Keep an eye on their social media for summer tour dates and a fall release for the Annie Neeley-Andrew Adkins duets album. To hear more #WVmusic, tune in to A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic.