The 2023 Appalachian Heritage Festival at Shepherd University, celebrating its 27th year, will have a focus on families and the community ties that bind us together. The day-long event schedule for Saturday, September 23 will feature artists of three different generations of families with diverse musical styles and traditions: the family band Just Us Lillys featuring John Lilly; blues and songs of freedom from Sparky and Rhonda Rucker; and the newlywed couple of powerhouse fiddler Tessa Dillon McCoy and Grammy Award-winning artist Chance McCoy.
The festival will kick off on Saturday morning with free workshops including an introduction to unaccompanied Appalachian singing, a conversation with award-winning songwriter John Lilly, a presentation about songs of struggle and civil rights with Sparky Rucker, and a post-concert jam session. The evening outdoor concert will begin at 7 pm on the Frank Center patio on Shepherd University’s West Campus under the stars (in the event of inclement weather, the concert will be moved inside to the Frank Center auditorium). This is a pay-what-you-can event with donations accepted to the right of the stage. Community members are invited to bring their own lawn chairs.
Festival Director Rachael Meads says that the original idea for the Festival was born during a long car ride home from the Appalachian Studies Association conference with her co-instructor at the time, Dr. Linda Tate. The idea was to introduce the Eastern Panhandle community to the traditions and culture of West Virginia and the greater region. “Appalachia is not the flat stereotype that has dominated pop culture and media and it possesses a significant place in the American story that is still often ignored or whitewashed.” Over the years the event has featured more than 80 musicians, poets, writers, and dancers including nationally recognized cultural ambassadors like Jean Ritchie, John Cephas, Walker Calhoun, Ralph Stanley, and Hazel Dickens. Meads says, “It has been an honor to broaden our community’s understanding of the rich diversity found in our region.”
ABOUT THE ARTISTS:
Chance McCoy and Tessa Dillon McCoy
Chance and Tessa McCoy are today’s torchbearers of West Virginia traditional music. Both West Virginia natives, they have been awarded the highest honors in traditional music– a Grammy for best folk album through Chance’s work with Old Crow Medicine Show and an exhaustive list of blue ribbon wins for Tessa including five-time record as West Virginia State Fiddle Champion. Mentored by some of the greatest players in Appalachia, they are part of an unbroken chain of traditional music and culture. The two married this summer and now are partners in life as well as in music.
Raised in Saint Albans, West Virginia, Tessa traces her lineage through the Kanawha Valley fiddling traditions of Bobby Taylor and Clark Kessinger. Her mastery of this unique and technical old-time fiddling style has positioned her as one of the most significant fiddlers living in Appalachia today.
Chance McCoy is a Grammy winning artist, music producer and film composer who was raised in a musical family in Harpers Ferry. He has recorded and performed with a diverse roster of artists including Old Crow Medicine Show, Willie Nelson, Tyler Childers, Mumford and Sons, Kesha, The Lumineers, Rhiannon Giddens, and more. His solo recordings have been met with critical acclaim and span from traditional Appalachian string band music to genre bending Americana. Their extraordinary musical chemistry was brought to a new level when they got married this summer.
Just Us Lillys
Just Us Lillys is a true family band from West Virginia led by award-winning singer, songwriter, and folklorist John Lilly and his two multi-instrumentalist children Mason and Georgia. Featuring three-part harmonies, lonesome melodies, and of course some of John’s phenomenal original songs, Just Us Lillys are rooted in West Virginia traditional music, country, and bluegrass traditions.
John Lilly is a renowned songwriter, performer, and retired editor of Goldenseal magazine. When John developed Parkinson’s disease, it opened the door for Georgia and Mason to step to the musical forefront by playing mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar, and more. This year they released their first recording, Not Far from the Tree. As Ron Sowell, the director for WV Public Radio’s Mountain Stage says, “Start with great songs, add tightly crafted family harmonies, creative instrumentation and impressive production, you end up with something special.”
Sparky and Rhonda Rucker
James “Sparky” Rucker has been performing for more than 50 years, received dozens of awards, been recognized by the Smithsonian and the NAACP, and has dedicated his life to sharing the music that tells the stories of America from the slavery and the Civil War through the Civil Rights movement. Sparky has been active in the civil rights movement since the 1950s, participated in workshops at the Highlander Center, and marched and sang along with Pete Singer, Bernice Reagon, and Guy Carawan. His wife Rhonda Rucker is an accomplished musician, author, and storyteller. Their music ranges from bottleneck guitar slide blues to heart-rending songs of struggle and redemption. As a duo they have recorded ten albums, been nominated for a W.C. Handy Award, and performed for audiences around the world from the Kennedy Center to Mountain Stage, A Prairie Home Companion, and the National Folk Festival.
The festival is held in conjunction with the Shepherd University Appalachian Heritage Writer In Residence project. The 2023 writer in residence is Ann Pancake, One Book One West Virginia Common Read Author of Strange as This Weather Has Been. The writer in residence project has multiple events scheduled between September 22 and 29, beginning with a screening of the documentary film Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice, directed by Chet Pancake on Friday, Sep 22, 7pm at the Byrd Center (click here for the full schedule of writer-in-residence 2023 events).By Staff Contributor