The first show
They didn't even have a name until after they played the annual Mountain State Art & raft Fair in Ripley. They went along with Bobbie Provosty, the girlfriend and future wife Hill, who was exhibiting wooden stomper dolls for the Yesteryear Toy Company.
It was just a chance to play out in public.
"We didn't know that we needed permission to be there," Ron said.
But nobody seemed to mind and the crowds grew.
The name was made up on the fly. A picker was just another name for a musician who played the kind of music they played. Putnam County just happened to be where they are.
"I think I remember seeing a bank calendar right before we came up with that," Sowell added.
On the rise
From there, the band took off. A local car dealer put the band in a commercial.
"Nobody has a copy of that," Hill said, adding, "Thank God."
The assistant commissioner for the West Virginia Department of Culture and History braved a muddy country road and a swinging bridge to audition them for an artist residency in Clarksburg. Ron said he asked the commissioner, "And you think this is art?"
He did, and the artist residency helped get the Pickers get work, though they were still a long way from successful. The band struggled.
"We didn't have a phone on the farm," Sandy said.
Instead, they had to go down to the post office in Culloden to collect their messages. Sometimes their landlady, Miss Rice, would come tell them if somebody wanted to hire them.
The band evolved over time with people coming and going. Harman joined the band in 1976, though he'd known people in the group for a couple of years. He'd seen them around on the craft circuit.
"I was a leather worker," he said. "But they knew I played music."
"The first time I remember seeing Greg, I think, he was playing a banjo," Ron said.
Wells, Harman said, approached him about joining the band. He told him, "We're thinking of going more electric and need a drummer. Are you interested?"
Harman's audition began in the basement of St. Timothy's and ended after the Pickers' first USO tour.
He laughed, "After that, they told me I was in the band."
The USO tour was for two months and included parts of Europe and war-torn Ethiopia.
The visit to Africa was tense. Heavily armed soldiers patrolled the streets and stood guard in the bullet-sprayed airport.
"It was very weird," Hill said. "We were, I think, the last USO tour in Ethiopia."
The Pickers second tour was in Greenland, which proved to be a bit less nerve-wracking.
The band recorded two albums, toured up and down the East oast and performed for Governor John D. Rockefeller. They played a show at the Lone Star Café in New York with Freddy Fender.
"Rehearsal was a shot of tequila," Ron said.
They also performed with the Wheeling Jamboree and were invited to play at the radio show's Jamboree in the Hills festival where they shared billing with Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris and then-rising country sensation, Alabama.
The Putnam County Pickers followed Alabama, which seemed to the Pickers to indicate great things were ahead. That day at the festival, the crowd was loud and enthusiastic, and there was a camera crew catching every moment of the show.
"And we thought: we're going to be famous," Ron said.
The Putnam County Pickers took the stage, and they turned the cameras off.
"And 70,000 people went to the bathroom at the same time," Hill said.
"Crickets," Ron added. "Nothing but crickets."
Calling it quits
The end of the band came not long after, with its final show at the Culture Center in 1981. Most everyone kept playing music in one form or another, though.
Solomon, Hill and Ron Sowell perform around Charleston and are heard regularly on "Mountain Stage." Harman plays some in the area, though often in Huntington, he said.
Sandy Sowell, who left the band in 1978 after she and Ron divorced, has been active with local theater and has an entertainment company that provides entertainment at parties, meetings and events.
John Kessler still plays and is a successful radio host and producer in Seattle.
People moved on, but not everyone moved away.
"Sandy and I still live on the farm," Hill said, then quickly amended, "Not together."Reach Bill Lynch at ly...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.