After contracting polio as a young boy, Glen Irvine spent most of his life in a wheelchair, but his mandolin almost never left his side.
Although he’s virtually unknown outside of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, Irvine--or Dude, as he was known--was one of the area’s most gifted musicians. One of the founding members of the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys, Dude was a virtuoso, self-taught musician. Although Dude passed away at the age of 52 in 1973, his bluegrass band continues to play all around West Virginia today.
One of Dude's nephews, Richard Hefner, says he used to wait up for his uncle every Saturday Night. It was the only quiet night inside his family’s Civil War era home, in the house that was almost always full of music whenever his uncle was home.
“Uncle Dude, lived with us most of the time, taught us all how to play music, he played in beer joints all the time. Just about every Saturday night. Somebody would come and carry him out," said Hefner.
"They’d carry him out, put him in the car, and then they’d carry him in the beer joint and set him in the chair. I’d usually stay up until Dude would come home at night, listen to his tales.”
These tales usually included whatever beer joint brawl or late night escapade had taken place that night at the square dance. In that house that may or may not have been haunted—there are a few tales of possible ghost sightings—Richard grew up idolizing his uncle.
When he was 14, Richard began going with his uncle to the beer joints—they definitely didn’t card people back in the 50’s. There was one beer joint he often took his uncle to, called High Rocks, in Stompin' Creek. Richard remembers when a bad fight broke out at the High Rocks bar, right next to his uncle Dude.
“I guess I was 16 and had my license, and I took him up there. He was playing with Virgil and Vincent Rider. Dude played the mandolin. And there was this real small place, it was a small as this room, narrower," he said.
“A bunch of guys came from Richwood. And Richwood and Marlinton, at that time, didn’t like each other. That guy come off there and said something to him and boy he come off there and hit that guy. I grabbed Dude and slid him back behind that stove, and grabbed his case and slid it back behind the stove. Two of them went right through the front door, tore the whole door off the beer joint. Went out in the parking lot! There was five or six of them that just got whipped up pretty bad that night.”
“But, just like always, you know, just as soon as they get everything settled down, I slid Dude back out in the floor, got back in tune, started playing again.”
Dude taught himself to play harmonica when he was 5 years old. He later taught himself to play mandolin, banjo, ukulele, slide guitar, and on the guitar he could finger pick any Chet Atkins tune. Night after night, musicians would come to the Hefner home to play with Dude.
“There was always somebody at the house playing. Everybody on my mom’s side of the family played and sang. And uncle Dude always had somebody in here playing. And they did all kinds of country and blues. Old county, you know, when country music still was country music.”
Dude learned music by ear by listening to radio shows like the Grand Old Opry or the Wheeling Jamboree.
“So they got to mixing in country and Honky Tonk, Elvis, Chet Atkins tunes, and everything else,” Richard recalls.
He and his siblings remember that Dude didn’t let his physical limitations drag him down. He was born with a condition called Hydrocephalus, which causes fluid to swell near the brain. For some, this impairs mental intelligence.
But in Dude’s case, he was probably above normal intelligence—he taught himself to read and write, and even helped his own siblings with their homework. Because he suffered from polio as a little boy and couldn’t walk, Dude spent part of his childhood being pulled in a wagon, until one of the neighbors bought him a wheelchair. He never had a job, except for the cash he earned playing at local square dances and beer joints.
“I remember one time Dude, they played for $5 a piece. And he come home and he said, ‘Gilbert gave us a raise. He’s paying us $6 now.’ He was tickled to death, you know, because he got a dollar raise.”
Eventually, Richard and his brother Bill learned to play from their Uncle. Hamp Carpenter had been playing with Dude for years, and his son Harley Carpenter got to meet Bill Monroe in Maryland. Soon they all began playing more and more of Bill Monroe’s tunes. This was in the late 1950's and into the 1960's, around the time when they formed the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys.
“There wasn’t much Bluegrass. There wasn’t any Bluegrass around here, until we started playing.”
Soon, the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys began writing their own songs, and in 1971 they recorded their first album, “Pure Old Bluegrass”. It was the only one of the band’s albums that Uncle Dude played on.
The Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys are still playing today-although most of the faces have changed. Richard Hefner is the only founding members who is still in the band. They play throughout West Virginia, including every Friday night at the Sweet Shoppe in Lewisburg. More information about the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys and other bands that regularly play near US 219 can be found on the Mountain Music Trail website.