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Town puts on free weekly bluegrass concert

Chip Ellis
Local musicians, including Glen Dean Cecil (left) and Jim Smith, harmonize on bluegrass tunes Tuesday night in Belle.
Chip Ellis Kelsey Stover, 21, and her grandparents, Jeanne and Jim Perdue, drove all the way from Clay County to perform for the first time at MusicFest. The family musicians say they would love to perform again.
Chip Ellis Glen Dean Cecil (left) and "Peewee" Hobbs harmonize on an old bluegrass tune. Hobbs, a Belle resident, is one of the musicians who helped spearhead the free Tuesday night concerts.
Chip Ellis Musicians from across the state play bluegrass, gospel and country tunes at Tuesday's free MusicFest in Belle.
Chip Ellis Belle Mayor Glen "Buck" Chestnut kicks back and takes in the bluegrass tunes next to one of the many musicians. "It just keeps getting bigger," he says of the free music event.

Want to go?

MusicFest

WHEN: Tuesdays from 6:30-9 p.m.

WHERE: Belle Town Hall, 1100 East DuPont Ave., Belle, W.Va.

TICKETS: Free

 BELLE, W.Va. -- The steady pitch of bluegrass music could be heard from the street as locals fiddled the night away in the small riverside town of Belle.

Musicians from across the state trekked to the town hall -- like they do every Tuesday -- for a live celebration of old-fashion bluegrass, gospel and country music. Fiddlers, mandolin and dobro players smiled and laughed their way through a song, an impromptu jaunt back in time.

MusicFest just "keeps getting bigger," said Belle Mayor Glen "Buck" Chestnut, who decided to energize the sleepy town and better use the town hall after he was elected.

"I asked my brother if he knew any good pickers and he asked some people who asked some people who got this going," the mayor said.

The organic flow of gospel, bluegrass and country music, which varies from week to week, has no clear leader. Musicians take turns to whittle out their favorite tune while others back them up.

About eight or 10 musicians showed up that first Tuesday. Each week, more people turn up to see what all the fuss is about.

"Who wouldn't want to come listen to some good music?" said Belle resident and retired railroad worker Roger Hindle.

Fellow retiree Billy Holstein agreed. "I like this pickin' and grinnin'," he said. "Makes me smile."

Bluegrass music still moves the town of just more than 1,200 residents, including 85-year-old Betty Harris, who has been known to get up and dance if the music moves her.

"Oh she'll put on a show," Belle councilwoman Kay Asbury said of Harris with a smile. "Watch out."

Asbury, who has lived in Belle for 70 years, said she makes it to most of the free shows.

"I never really did like bluegrass music -- my husband loves it -- but I couldn't believe what these guys can do. They're great. I can't believe they come from all over to here for free, but I guess it's because they've got the music in their hearts," Asbury said.

Asbury, who "can't read a note," said watching the musicians jump into a song is amazing. "One guy will say, 'OK, this is in the key of D' and everyone will start playing. They just know those old bluegrass songs," she said.

Banjo picker and Belle resident PeeWee Hobbs said that is not always the case, though.

Hobbs, a self-taught banjo player and bluegrass lover who helped spearhead the jam sessions with the mayor, said there are plenty of times someone starts playing a song he doesn't know.

"There are chord progressions that you follow, but sometimes you just have to go with it," he said.

For some musicians, the Tuesday jam is the perfect place to brush up on their skills.

"It's a great opportunity for people to learn. If you have a question, just pull someone aside and they'll be happy to help you out," said Charleston resident and banjo picker Joe Hunter.

Novice musicians can sit in the front row during the performance with their instruments and follow along with the tunes, something Hunter said makes the show unique.

"It's not just a performance, it's interactive," he said. "It gives you something to do, and you're all the time learning and improving."

Although the group is open to all levels of musicians, Hobbs said the idea of having to jump into a tune that a player is not familiar with in front of a crowd could be intimidating.

"But I just tell people that if they make a mistake, just look at the guy next to you," he said with a laugh. "No one will know."

Kelsey Stover, 21, and her grandparents, Jim and Jeanne Perdue, came all the way from Clay County for the first time this past Tuesday to sing.

Stover, who has been singing gospel music with her grandparents since she was 3, said she was happy for the experience and the warm reception they received.

"I would come again," she said, hoping that having a young singer among the performers would encourage more people her age to come out and experience the music.

Robin Campbell, recreation director for Belle, said MusicFest has had an untold impact on the community.

"It gets people out of their homes," she said. "We have kids as young as 3 [and] all the way up to seniors that come out and play."

"It's a laid-back atmosphere," Hobbs said. "We're like one extended family."

The town knows it's unique in offering free live music on a weekly basis, but that is just the start. It plans to offer ballroom dancing classes, as well as a gospel sing, the third Saturday of each month.

"Believe me," Asbury said, "this is just the beginning."

And a good beginning it is.

"My motive for this thing," Hunter said, "is to just get together and enjoy some West Virginia music."

Reach Kathryn Gregory at kathryng@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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