If you had to bet on one, I would say Shepherdstown was probably founded first, simply because it's on an important thoroughfare connecting the Shenandoah Valley to the important Delaware ports, where a lot of European migrants, principally Scots Irish and German migrants, were arriving in the 18th century. So it's likely that these migrants arrived at the banks of the Potomac River in the valley before they arrived in the South Branch Valley. So it's likely that Shepherdstown was founded earlier.
But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day was this month (and with A Change of Tune’s second birthday on the horizon), 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 Morgantown singer-songwriter-rocker William Matheny, who joined a band and began touring when he was but a wee lad. Flash-forward to today, and he has a great new release to his name, and he’s primed to make his NPR Music debut on Mountain Stage. We chatted with William about his experience playing music up in Mountaineer Country, the friends he’s made over the years in West Virginia, and what we can expect at his June 26 Mountain Stage…
My great-grandfather was a regionally known gospel singer, and then his son (my grandfather) was a regionally known country singer named Mansfield Matheny. He had a band with some of his friends called The Rhythm Rascals, this would’ve been in the late ‘40s/early ‘50s. My grandfather was the lead singer of the group and played rhythm guitar.
My dad also plays music. He was in a really good bluegrass band in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. They traveled around, did some stuff, and recorded an album, and then they all got married and had kids. Basically, I broke up the band. He still plays guitar in the church choir. He taught me how to play music, and we actually played in bands together when I was a kid. We played in cover bands when I was an adolescent and in early high school.
It was a long series of different bands, and I really have to give my father a ton of credit on this. I always stress this with people: my parents weren’t stage parents at all. This all was my idea. Basically I’d been playing guitar, and I told my parents I wanted to play in a band. And when you’re a small kid in a really small town, maybe you know people who play music, maybe you don’t. My dad got on the phone and said, “Hey, my son plays music. He wants to start doing stuff. Would you be interested in joining a band?” I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I’m incredibly grateful for it now just because I’m imagining being an adult and getting that call from one of your acquaintances like, “Hey, would you want to join a band with my 9-year-old son?” [Laughing] I would be obviously be incredibly skeptical of that.
On beginning his music career in Morgantown:
I grew up about an hour south of Morgantown. By that time I’d become acquainted with the scene up here and all the bands, [not to mention] making music and doing albums and touring and stuff, I really wanted to get involved with [the scene]. At that point, I started playing with this guy named Brian Porterfield who had this band in the ’90s called Cheap Truckers’ Speed. Brian doesn’t really play anymore, but I say this to anyone who listens: he’s probably the best songwriter I know personally. In terms of people I can call on the phone and say “hello,” he’s just really, really great. Like one of those unknown treasure people.
I wanted to join his band. I looked him up in the phonebook, we knew some mutual people so it wasn’t totally like a cold-call, and I tried to pitch myself. It took a few phone calls, but eventually I joined as his drummer. That was my first proper band that was doing original material. I did that for like two years, like the second half of high school.
That band stopped playing like three or four months after I graduated from high school and turned 18. That was sort of when I [began playing front-and-center]. I was writing songs the whole time and played them a little bit, but it wasn’t my main focus. By that point, I was itching to get back to playing guitar, and I wanted to have a band that was playing my own material. I didn’t go to college; instead, I just moved to a college town and joined like five bands. I didn’t say no to any gig for a really long time. I was playing with a bunch of different groups, and it was a wonderful learning experience. I’m super happy about doing it. It meant I could learn how to play a lot of different genres and have a really good time doing it. There’s no shortcut into doing that. I wouldn’t recommend the same thing if you want to be a brain surgeon, but for music? Do it.
On playing in Morgantown:
123 Pleasant Street is obviously the biggest venue here in terms of ones that do things consistently. I’ve played at 123 for 16 or 17 years at this point. It’s been a really long time, and I’ve always really enjoyed it. It’s still my favorite club. Whatever place you latch onto when you’re young and impressionable, it will always be that gold standard for you. Every time I go out of town, I’m always comparing it to 123.
Gene’s [in Morgantown] is great. It’s this really nice neighborhood bar that’s a block away from my house. The owner Al [Bonner] is one of the best people in the world, just a great human being. It’s a very small place with a little PA, and it almost feels like you’re playing a house party more than anything. But it’s really great. He’s been very cool about getting in touring people. Sharon Van Etten played their once, and so did Lydia Loveless, John Paul Keith, and Webb Wilder. Gene’s is wonderful.
On recording his new record and forming a band of friends for it:
When we started recording, there wasn’t a concrete band line-up. Southeast Engine had stopped, and I knew I wanted to make a record. I wanted to get back to doing what I do. At the time, Rozwell Kid’s Adam Meisterhans was hanging out with Bud Carroll trying to make a record of his own (titled Best Vibrations, which I have to point that out because the title’s great), and I guess Adam sent me a text while he was down there saying it’d be fun for the three of us to work on a record. That seemed as good as an idea of any, so we went down, and we didn’t know what any of us would be playing on it. While we made it, Adam plays most of the bass, Bud plays most of the drums. I used to joke and tell people that if you’re going to make an album, you need to find the best two guitar players you know and have them play something else.
On the new album and the band sharing the name of Strange Constellations:
Initially, I decided it was going to be the name of the record, and I wanted some continuity sort-of between the album and then name of the band. It comes from this thing in Moby Dick where Ishmael is talking about being in the Southern Hemisphere under different stars. What I took that to mean was if you’re astrologically inclined at all, you’re not really sure about the star signs that are guiding you, which is one of the main themes of the record. We wanted to tie the name of the band into that.
This is my fourth time. I did it twice with Todd Burge and once with Southeast Engine. It’s the first time under the guise of doing my own material. We’re obviously really excited. We’re doing the rarest of things in our band where we’re practicing. We’ve decided what we’re going to play, sharpening our knives and getting ready for the street fight.
On advice to anyone getting into music:
The big thing is to don’t quit; that will get you further than anything you can do. After that, you just have to get out of town and play as many places as you can. That can be really discouraging at first, especially when you don’t know what that’s supposed to be like. If you’re playing popular shows in your hometown, you kind of immediately think everything should be like this. You’re going to do this, and it won’t be fun as playing in your hometown is initially, but if you keep coming back, it will. While it may not seem like you’re having an impression, you really are. So the best thing you can do is stay with it.
I’d hardly call myself qualified to give advice, but keep working and don’t get discouraged. That’s the important thing. Keep working, everything will improve. Don’t let it get you down.
Music featured in this #WVmusic chat:
William Matheny- “29 Candles”
William Matheny- “My Grandfather Knew Stoney Cooper”
On this West Virginia Morning, housing can be a difficult issue for many but especially for those in marginalized communities. A group in Morgantown is working to create Project Rainbow, a shelter and housing aid organization specifically for LGBTQ community members.
For his ongoing series Getting Into Their Reality: Caring For Aging Parents, he spoke with Chris Schneider, the director of communications for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, about how to celebrate Mother’s Day when mom has dementia.
West Virginia-born fiddler Phillip Bowen writes songs that reflect love for the place he calls home. His descriptions of the people and places from his childhood touch the ear and heart like a sentimental postcard. But he’s also willing to share songs that remember those who’ve been marginalized or forgotten.