CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every few years, another West Virginia musician makes it to the national stage. This time around, it's Harpers Ferry's Chance McCoy.
A few months ago, the 33-year-old former construction worker and old-time music teacher at Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College joined Old Crow Medicine Show, a popular alternative country/Americana string band maybe best known for its song "Wagon Wheel."
The Old Crow Medicine Show began with Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua in Harrisonburg, Va. The band came up in the late 1990s, just as string band music and bluegrass began a resurgence in popular music, which was also about the time when McCoy first heard it.
McCoy began playing music in his teens, but he came to old-time music late.
"I got a guitar from my dad when I was 14 years old," he said.
He played what was popular, which was mostly grunge rock like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, as well as classic rock and punk tunes, but nothing that might be construed as bluegrass, old-time or string band music.
McCoy's father played keyboard in a couple of local rock bands and his grandfather had played the violin in a college orchestra, but he was never exposed to traditional mountain music.
He said, "There's plenty of bluegrass music around, but if your parents don't listen to it, it's something you might not ever hear."
Garage grunge, basement bluegrass
McCoy discovered bluegrass and old-time music in his early 20s through some friends. One Friday, they'd invited him to come down to a speakeasy bar started by a couple of students at Shepherd University.
"I think it was in one of their basements," he said.
On Friday nights, the club would host a fish fry, and the house band would pick around an old metal barrel.
McCoy said, "They sold beers for like a dollar out of a keg they had. It was sort of an illegal bar thing."
He gravitated toward the music, he said. It was new.
"They had a washboard bass, a couple of guitars, a fiddle, a mandolin and a ukulele. It was a real mix of folks down there -- just young people getting together, playing on the music."
They called themselves the Speakeasy Boys and played a little bit of everything, but they weren't especially serious about music for the sake of music.
"It was more about having a good time," McCoy said.
He played with them a while and became interested in the culture and history behind string band and old-time music. He went to a talk at the Harpers Ferry library given by Gerry Milnes, a fiddle instructor and the folk art coordinator at Augusta Heritage Center.
"It was exactly what I was looking for -- somebody who knew something about the music."
McCoy became a student at the center, got to know some of the prominent pickers and players, and then started visiting summer bluegrass and string band festivals.
"I had this old, beat-up 1979 Ford F-15 pickup. It was primer gray," he said. "I'd drive that thing to Clifftop, Vandalia, to Galax and to any little festival going on."
Through the acquaintances he made, McCoy began learning other instruments. With the Speakeasy Boys, he picked up the fiddle. When he met Becky Ledarsky, she taught him how to play banjo.
"I got a really crummy banjo from the Civil War," he said. "I had to refret it, get new tuners and replace many skinheads. It's not a great banjo, but I still love the way it sounds."
Breakout success at festivals
After a few years of just picking and playing, he started competing at festivals.
In 2007, he placed fourth in the fiddle competition at the Appalachian String Band Festival. That same year, he won the under-60 fiddle contest at Vandalia Gathering.
"I took the prize money and bought a dulcimer," he said.
The next year, he recorded his first record, which he still loves, but said it was never about making a living.