Zack Harold Published

Remembering Travis Stimeling, A WVU Professor, Scholar Of American Music, Musician And Friend 

An adult person in a blue shirt poses for a photo. They have brown hair and a brown beard. Behind them is a blue sky and green trees.
Travis Stimeling, a WVU professor and noted scholar of traditional Appalachian music, died in their home on Nov. 14, 2023.
Ellen Linscheid

This story originally aired in the March 10, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Sophia Enriquez didn’t know it at the time, but one music history class in her freshman year of college would change the entire direction of her life.

It was 2013, and the music department at West Virginia University (WVU) was looking to hire another professor. As part of the interview process, the university wanted finalists for the position to teach a sample lecture. A “job talk” in academia lingo.

“I was in the guinea pig class that they gave their job talk to,” Enriquez said.

In walked Travis Stimeling. Burly and ebullient, Stimeling grew up playing guitar in church as a child in Buckhannon, West Virginia, then went on to study trombone in college. That eventually led to a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a teaching gig at Millikin University in Illinois. 

Now Stimeling was looking to come back home.

“They gave a job talk for music history class and talked about country music and Taylor Swift. And that had everyone so excited,” Enriquez said. “So that’s how I met Travis.”

Stimeling, whose pronouns were they/them, got the job. It was the beginning of what would be an extremely fruitful period, both for Stimeling and WVU’s music program.

Over the next decade, Stimeling established Appalachian music and Appalachian studies minors at the university. They published reams of articles and a shelf full of books. That includes co-authoring the autobiography of legendary session musician Charlie McCoy, and compiling a book of interviews with modern West Virginia songwriters. 

A stack of books are shown on an end table next to a chair. The book on the top of the stack reads, "Nashville Cats by Travis D. Stimeling."
Nashville Cats, one of Stimeling’s many books, is about the backing musicians who made Nashville into “Music City.”

Photo Credit: Zack Harold/ West Virginia Public Broadcasting

All these books and articles established Stimeling as a leading scholar in the study of traditional Appalachian music. But Stimeling wasn’t only a scholar — they were a musician, too. So they founded the WVU Bluegrass and Old-Time Band in addition to their academic pursuits.

Enriquez joined the band in her junior year. She originally came to WVU to study orchestral trumpet, but caught the bluegrass bug from some friends. 

“I just walked right into Travis’s office one day and said ‘I think I want to do this,’” she said. “They said ‘OK, well sing me something.’”

Enriquez didn’t really consider herself a singer. But soon she was belting out the old Flatt and Scruggs tune “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” with Stimeling backing her up on flat top guitar.

“So then they’re like, ‘OK you’re in,’” she said.

But Stimeling didn’t just help Enqiruez find her voice onstage. When she was nearing the end of her undergrad, she was unsure what to do next. One day, Stimeling sat her down and laid out the options.

“They said ‘I don’t think you’d realize you’d be really great at doing what I do,’” Enriquez said.

Enriquez went on to earn a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. On the day she received her doctorate, she received a voicemail from Stimeling.

“Dr. Enriquez, this is Dr. Stimeling, calling on important doctor business,” they said. “But really, congratulations. I’m just so dang proud of you, so I thought I’d call and wish it to you directly. Looking forward to celebrating with you the next time we’re together. Talk to you soon. Bye.”

Enriquez said Stimeling referred to themselves as her “academic papa.”

“I know they played that role for a lot of other people. A lot of my close friends, we were all mentees of Travis’ at some point,” she said.

Another of Stimeling’s many academic offspring was Mary Linscheid.

Linscheid grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia, the child of two classical musicians. She began studying classical violin at the age of five. But she fell in love with old-time and bluegrass music as a tween. 

In eighth grade, Linscheid made a fateful trip to WVU’s Mountainlair Student Union to see the university’s bluegrass band perform. 

“So I graduated high school and applied to WVU — that’s the only school I applied for because I knew I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “I wanted to be in the bluegrass band. That was one of my top reasons for going.”

A group photograph of nine people. Most of the individuals hold musical instruments, such as a guitar, a mandolin, a banjo and a fiddle.
Stimeling, second from right, and the WVU Bluegrass and Old-Time Band pose with WVU President Gordon Gee, center.

Photo Courtesy of Mary Linscheid

Linscheid ended up in Stimeling’s Appalachian music and Appalachian studies minors, and she joined the bluegrass band. And like Enriquez, it was in that band that Linscheid found her voice.

“Travis actually got me singing. Before college I would never sing, especially in public. I went to church and everything, and I lip-sang,” she said. “But Travis was like, ‘If you’re going to be in the bluegrass band, everybody has to sing.’”

Linscheid started writing songs, compiling enough to record her debut album, A Place to Grow Old, in 2022. Stimeling produced that project and played and sang backup on several tracks.

“Travis was always my first listener. My first reader of anything,” Linscheid said.

A young woman sits across from an individual playing a guitar.
Stimeling and Linscheid performing together.

Photo Courtesy of Mary Linscheid

The two became close friends and bandmates outside the university. They first performed together in a square dance group. Recently, Linscheid and Stimeling had started playing gigs as a duo. They had their first big performance last summer, at Jerry Run Summer Theater in Webster County.

“Travis just seemed like they were finally free in their music and ready to take off with that and go in a whole different direction with their life,” Linscheid said. “They were really excited about this next phase of their life.”

Stimeling and Linscheid were set to go into the studio to record a duet album but ended up postponing the session at the last minute. Then, just a week later, Stimeling was gone. They died unexpectedly in their home on Nov. 14, 2023.

Now, instead of recording an album, Linscheid was left to organize a memorial service. She knew she would need to include Ginny Hawker on the set list. Hawker is an expert in the old-time Primitive Baptist style of singing, so Linscheid asked her to lead the crowd in “Amazing Grace” — sung in the call-and-response style of the Primitive Baptists.

Hawker doesn’t remember exactly how she and Stimeling became friends.

“Our paths keep crossing,” she said.

A young woman sits next to an older woman. They sing from a book.
Ginny Hawker (left) and Mary Linscheid sing from the Primitive Baptist hymnbook in Hawker’s Elkins, West Virginia home.

Photo Credit: Jennie Williams/West Virginia Folklife Program

Stimeling became fascinated by Hawker’s style of singing and the two were beginning a formal apprenticeship.

“I think we were going, Dec. 10. We were supposed to go to a Primitive Baptist church in Clay County and just listen,” Hawker said.

As they dove into the repertoire of the Primitive Baptist church, Hawker and Stimeling came to make a vow. Whichever of them died first, the other would sing the hymn “Dear Friends Farewell” at the other’s funeral.

Hawker didn’t think about her promise as Linscheid was preparing the setlist for the memorial service. She never imagined she would have to keep her end of the bargain.  She assumed it would be Stimeling, singing at her funeral. 

But as she sat there, listening as the WVU Bluegrass Band finish up their set with songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and other classic country songs Stimeling loved — Hawker remembered.

She climbed back onstage, stepped up to the mic and kept her promise to her friend:

“Dear friends, farewell, I do you tell,
Since you and I must part;
I go away and here you stay,
But still we’re joined in heart.”


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.