Take Out Your Notebook! It's Time for a #WVmusic History Lesson with Michael Lipton

Jun 25, 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 The Sea The Sea to Coyotes in BoxesQiet to Bud Carroll 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 Charleston's own Michael Lipton, who wears many, many hats in the #WVmusic scene. He tours around the state with The Carpenter Ants, he plays guitar for the Mountain Stage band, and he also directs the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting and preserving the rich and lasting contributions West Virginians have made to all genres of music. One of those ways is through a new documentary, which will air on West Virginia Public Broadcasting later this summer. We spoke with Michael about his work as a West Virginia musician, the mission of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, and why it's important for West Virginians to listen to West Virginia's musical past.

Michael Lipton speaks with musician Tift Merrit at a Mountain Stage in Grand Marais, Minnesota.
Credit Josh Saul

Are you from West Virginia originally?

I was born outside of New York, moved to Miami when I was 12, then escaped from Miami as soon as possible and ended up in Calhoun County in West Virginia when I was 20. Around 1970, I was in a group in high school, and the music scene in Miami didn’t have much national attention to it. Of course, right after we left, they had Derek & the Dominoes recording there and The Bee Gees moved down there.

Of all the places in West Virginia, why did you move to Calhoun County?

We had moved to Boston as our group. We were there for the better part of the year. There seemed to be a lull in the Boston scene at that time, and it seemed to be kind of tough to play original music there. After a year, we decided to call it quits, and I wanted to go someplace where I could, perhaps, not work for six months. I looked in an almanac and saw that West Virginia was the poorest state east of the Mississippi, and I said, “Well, never been there. Let me give that a try.”

It was a huge culture shock. It couldn’t have been more different than where I was raised or how I grew up. Maybe I was the stereotype of the person who doesn’t know that West Virginia’s a state, because I was driving around thinking, “Where are all the white houses with columns and things?” But even though it was incredibly different, there was something about it that felt good and made sense.

The very first night we spent in West Virginia, we were driving south and deciding where to look for a place. It was getting dark, and our car’s gas was getting low, but we had sleeping bags, so we pulled off and slept on the side of the road until morning. We found a field, put the bedrolls down, and I woke up in the morning and saw an old man digging potatoes around me. He said, “I tried not to wake you.” That was when I knew this place was meant for me. I stayed in Calhoun County for 15 years after that.

A definite throwback moment for the Mountain Stage band.
Credit Brian Blauser / Mountain Stage

How did you end up playing and living in Charleston?

I was planning on going to Northwestern University’s School of Journalism, but then I decided I wasn’t going to school. I had started writing for the Calhoun Chronicle, just for the hell of it. And when we had this band, I was trying to get some press for it. One year, we were playing a costume New Year’s Eve party in Alderson Prison, so I called the Charleston Gazette and asked if anyone wanted to cover it. They said they didn’t have anyone to send out on New Year’s Eve, and somewhere in that conversation, I guess I must have said I was a writer. So they said, “Well, why don’t you write it?” And even though they never ran the piece, I just kept writing for them. I kept doing it more and more, so I just ended up moving to Charleston.

We (Larry Groce, myself and Frank Venezia) eventually took over Graffiti. I knew Frank from Calhoun County. He was part of a commune out there and after my house in Calhoun County was hit with lightning and burned down, he helped me rebuild my house. As for Larry, when I started writing about music for the Charleston Gazette, the most interesting thing to write about was the stuff that was happening on Mountain Stage. At that time, it had only been up-and-running for a couple years. So we became friends, and he asked if I wanted to play guitar for the show.

How did the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame come about?

I’m not very good with remembering dates, but I am with this one. It was 2004. Graffiti had not broken even, not even one month in 15 years. It was a miserable experience with a lot of work and not a lot of credit. Anytime you see you name in print, it was fun. But that satisfaction ended a long time before the paper ended. And we saw the writing on the wall with the internet and hard copy becoming tougher and tougher to keep going. So Ogden Newspapers, a big conservative publisher, bought it. Around that time, I had been to Nashville to the Country Music Hall of Fame and thought, “Gee, why doesn’t West Virginia have one of these things.”

The first exhibits we did, I went in my basement and picked out all the West Virginia records I could find, just to give us something to do. But when I first bought them, I didn’t know that any of them were from West Virginia. After that, I started looking for more things. One of the things I like about the whole project is finding that kind of stuff.

Prior to starting the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, what did you know about the West Virginia music scene?

I thought I knew a lot about it, because I had been playing here for 30 years, but then I realized that I didn’t know much at all. I didn’t know Bill Withers was from Raleigh County. I mean, I knew Little Jimmy Dickens and Kathy Mattea, but I didn’t know two of the co-founders of Parliament-Funkadlic were from West Virginia. The list goes on.

One of the things I think is wonderful about West Virginia is that you can have an idea and you can do it. If you were any place else, there would be three of them that exist already or it would be very difficult to do because of red tape or money or what have you. But here, you can just start things. Keeping it going is a different story, of course.

What was the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony like?

The first induction ceremony was in 2007. That was one the things we knew we had to start doing. The West Virginia Music Hall of Fame board picked the people. The first induction class was amazing, really. Little Jimmy Dickens, Hazel Dickens, George Crumb, Billy Edd Wheeler, Clark Kessinger, Johnnie Johnson, and more. There were ten inductees then, and we have never had as many inductees in a class since.

Andy Ridenour [one of Mountain Stage’s co-founders] got me an address for Bill Withers’ wife, so we figured we’d start with the biggest fish, and we figured Bill Withers was the biggest fish. We wrote him and said, “We’re starting this thing, you’re in our first class of inductees. Could you be present for this ceremony?” And he wrote back and said, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He’s been key to a number of things we’ve done, and once he said that, we thought, “Ok. It looks like we’ve got something here.” He’s received awards from all over the world, and in some ways, his memories of West Virginia aren’t that fond. So I could certainly understand if he was too busy or whatever. But he came. All of the five surviving members of that first class of inductees came.

You’ve inducted over 40 West Virginians into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. What are the qualifications for getting selected or being inducted?

There are no exact guidelines. Obviously you’ve had to amass as canon of work and been influential in some way. But there are two main categories: either you were born here or chose to spend your life here. So long as you’ve had a remarkable impact on the state and the nation at-large.

Is there a region of West Virginia with the most inductees?

Kanawha County has the most inductees. But in terms of where respective musicians come from in the state, the central part of the state (the swath that goes through Gilmer, Roane, and Clay) is home to really the best old-time musicians. That’s because that region of the state had the least influx of outside folks.

Credit Courtesy of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame

How long have you been working on getting the new West Virginia Music Hall of Fame documentary up-and-running?

It’s been five years. The idea behind the documentary was not to just look at all of these people’s careers. The idea for it came from realizing that growing up in West Virginia is a different experience than growing up in other places. Granted, any place can say that, but I really think this is more different than other places, partially because of the isolation. Another thing that made me think about doing it was this: when we talked to all of these inductees for the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, there really hasn’t been anybody who has crashed and burned. I wanted to showcase how the ideals that people were taught growing up here helped keep their heads on straight, both when things were going great and when things were going bad. This is how this state has influenced their lives and influenced their careers.

What’s a common thread from each of those inductee’s experiences?

One was that almost everybody started music from church. Another was this common sense of community, family, and support. I think that’s a thread that goes through the whole film. And that this is a very special to be from.

Anna Sale, the host of WNYC’s “Death, Sex & Money” and an alumnus of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, provides the narration for this film. How did you get her on-board with this?

We did the whole film backwards because we didn’t know what all of these people were going to say. I think I did 47 interviews with 130 hours of film. So we were trying to figure out how and when we were going to need narration to bring it all together. Jack Wright, who helped us finish the film and was a friend and film professor at Ohio University, suggested Anna Sale to us. She actually did all of the interviews for us for the first class of inductees when she worked at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. I had also known her for a long time.

And Larry Groce is no stranger to speaking off the cuff, so when we were trying to figure out how to get from “point A” to “point Z” in the film, we looked at Larry’s interview and saw it was all there. In a sense, he serves as another narrator, as one of the film’s guides.

Since 2007, the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame's traveling museum has visited over 500 schools.
Credit Courtesy of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame

Why is this #WVmusic documentary, not to mention the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, important for West Virginians to see?

One of the things we really try to do with the traveling museum, a project we put together with the West Virginia Department of Education and has been to over 500 schools and been seen by 15,000 kids, we try to stress that all of these people grew up in the same situation, if not worse. The last quote in the film was something Bill Withers said (which I’m paraphrasing): “The real goal when you live in a place like West Virginia is to show kids that nobody has any magic that they don’t have. They’re just people.” So that’s it in a nutshell: to let people know that they don’t have to be from a big city to do this. You have to work hard, you have to have the talent, you have to have the determination, but it’s still possible. And this is also to give people a sense of pride of where they live.

Michael Lipton warms up for this 2015 Mountain Stage at Ohio University.
Credit Josh Saul

How do you think West Virginia is doing right now in terms of its music output?

There’s definitely a new vitality, which wasn’t here to this extent back in the ‘90s. There’s always been a lot of great players, not to mention an incredible amount of sidemen from West Virginia who now live in Nashville. But I think there’s a new sense of pride here, which is great. People are starting to move back [laughing]. Not as many people are coming back as are leaving, but everything fuels everything else. The more you feel like you live in a real, vital, energetic place, the better you feel about your work and the more you become a cheerleader for it.

What advice would you give to folks wanting to get into music?

There are so many more avenues now to get your music out there. You just got to really want to do it. That’s what we tell kids, too. “You want to be an athlete? That’s great, that’s fine, but how long is your career going to be? 10 or 20 years, maybe? You can play music virtually the day you die, and it doesn’t make any difference if you’re playing on the back porch or playing on the stage. It will be enjoyable for you and hopefully for other people to.” If that can’t be your own reward, then you’re in trouble.  

Credit Courtesy of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame

Keep an eye on West Virginia Public Broadcasting for the television premiere of West Virginia Music Hall of Fame’s new documentary, West Virginia My Home: Musicians and the Mountain State Experience. And keep an ear out for a Little Jimmy Dickens tribute album (featuring Bill Withers, Russ Hicks, Landau Eugene Murphy Jr., Kathy Mattea, Tim O’Brien, and more), which will be out later this fall. 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.