Innerviews: Mountain music mentor earned role the hard way
He’s a mandolin player and square-dance caller, a passionate champion of traditional mountain music. He’s best known as a founder of FOOTMAD, an organization devoted to promoting the music he loves.
Earning that identity wasn’t easy. Music did not come naturally to Steve Ballman. He had to work at it.
Obviously, perseverance and practice paid off. Now, he relishes the magic, that Zen-like moment when all the gears are clicking and the energy flows from musician to dance caller to dancer.
A mediocre student interested mainly in athletics, he finally mastered math and went on to a successful career as a chemical engineer for Carbide.
Music is the icing on his cake, the treat he turns to when he wants to unwind. Making a living at it would seem way too much like work.
“I grew up all over the place. My father worked for Shell Oil, and we were transferred every three or four years. It was challenging. We lived in Canada a number of years, northern California, Illinois, southern California. In Canada, the company provided housing right next to the plant. Not a lot of green space, and not a lot of other kids around, so I entertained myself by reading.
“The nearest kid was my brother, who was five years older, so I was just kind of wandering around on my own.
“My grandfather, I’m told, was an incredible musician. He played with Scott Joplin. So I guess there was music in the genes.
“My music came from just hearing music. They sent us to a summer camp where they did folk songs in the evening. That was probably first time I heard that kind of music. As we moved to the states, the folk music faded away until I graduated from high school.
“I did have piano lessons, but we didn’t have a lot of music in the home. My father didn’t like music and didn’t want to hear it. It bothered him.
“In a lesson, my piano teacher would be playing something and say, ‘Do you hear this?’ I would say, ‘No, I don’t hear it.’ So music was a struggle, even worse for someone socially backward. In recitals, I had to get up and play, and I wasn’t very good.
“I went off to college, and a friend had a nice Martin guitar. He said if I bought the guitar from him, he could buy a motorcycle. He talked me into it. I bought some music books and struggled along trying to play that guitar.
“I went to an engineering school in Missouri, so there wasn’t a lot of music going on there.
“I didn’t really get into music successfully until I came to West Virginia in 1966. I came here with Carbide as a chemical engineer.
“I ended up in engineering by default. I wasn’t good at anything in school except athletics. I finally started applying myself at math. My father and brother were chemical engineers. My brother enticed me with an athletic scholarship to the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy. I got involved there in converting engineering problems to computer programs and went on to do the same thing at Carbide.
“A few months after I got here, I ran into the Vandalia Festival, all this wonderful music and dancing. And I met a lot of people there and talked to them about the music. I started going to a club where they featured folk acts and old-time music. I met Dave Morris from Ivydale, an incredible singer, and he introduced me to some music people.
“I ran into some folks who had a thing going on called amateur night where people were learning to play different instruments, and I got invited to that and slowly worked my way into amateur night activity. So it was that, and going to Vandalia every year.
“Even if I was watching TV, I would pick up a mandolin and run through the scales. I was playing mandolin and guitar and trying the concertina. I stuck with mandolin.
“About 1981, FOOTMAD started. I was one of the founders. There was a food cooperative in town. They asked if we could put on a square dance. So we did a couple of square dances for them. Paul Epstein said we should form an organization to do this officially and bring some concerts to town. Ellen Shapiro came up with the name, and a group met and formally decided to incorporate as a nonprofit.
“The summer of ‘81, we had a one-day music festival at the Pinch reunion grounds and then moved to Gandyville and had a festival there that became a three-day festival. This lasted up into the ‘90s when we moved to another location in Fayetteville.
“I was president for a year or so and then became treasurer. In ‘93, Carbide was talking about moving my department and some others to Houston, and I thought I’d better turn FOOTMAD over to someone else, because I could get moved any day.
“I was out of it for seven years. I retired in 2001 when Dow took over Carbide. So I got back into FOOTMAD. I was always on the board, but I got more active. I’m treasurer again, and I set up sound for the dances. I’ve pretty much been a thread through the whole thing for the whole 34 years.
“We do concerts and community dances and we’ve started doing jam sessions. We invite people learning to play to come into the group. It’s a lot easier to learn the tunes if you are playing with someone who knows the dynamics.
“We do old-time music, the traditional Appalachian music. There’s a strong Scots-Irish background in West Virginia, so we promote Celtic concerts. We try to focus on things that people can’t get other places. Recently, we’ve been doing groups that are a cross between the old-time style and bluegrass.
“There’s a big difference between bluegrass and old-time music. They play the same tunes but they will sound completely different.
“Bluegrass grew out of mountain music, which was basically a music for dancing. Back when there wasn’t radio, people would play on the porch or play for community dances.
“My mother used to tell the story about living in Missouri when her father rented a cabin way out in the Ozarks where they would go on weekends and in the summer. A local family was feuding with another family. One night, from one direction came one family and from the other direction came the other family. They said, ‘We are having a dance tonight at your cabin.’ They took all the furniture out. One family would get up with their musicians and caller and their family would dance. Then the other family would get up with their fiddler and caller and they would dance. To me, that was a really powerful story about how music and dance can bring people together.
“FOOTMAD started a monthly dance and would bring in bands and callers from several hundred miles away. We had small turnouts, not a lot of income. So a few of our musicians started calling, and I started calling, too. I would write down the pattern of a dance when I went to dances. I also went to the Augusta Festival when they had dance week. They would have caller workshops and I would hang out there.
“I enjoy square dancing. One of my most memorable experiences is when I was learning to call and went to a dance weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. They had a magical setting at this clubhouse. You had to walk up through this lighted pathway. They had maybe 200 people dancing in this room. They had a dance orchestra from D.C. with several fiddles and guitars and horns.
“They did this dance with the ‘Teddy Bears Picnic,’ which normally wouldn’t be a dance song. We were going through the dance and time stopped. You didn’t want to do anything except be there with the music, no other real cares, with the energy flowing around. It’s like a meditative experience. You could feel the energy flowing.
“Musicians talk about the energy that flows from the dancers to the music and dancers talk about the energy that flows from the musicians and the caller. If you get a caller with the right charisma and musicians with a certain feeling and the right group dancing, it’s a Zen experience. To me, that’s what dancing does. Everything fades away but the dance and the fun of this music.
“I have a 1921 Gibson mandolin that I got about 35 years ago. Somebody connected me with someone in South Point, Ohio, who was selling it. That’s what I play most of the time.
“Music is a strong pull. In high school, my father said a friend had a son who took a battery of tests and found out what he wanted to do in life. So they sent me out for psychology and aptitude testing. The results said they weren’t sure what I was good for. They said he shows interest and aptitude for a lot of things, but the one thing he should never do is anything mechanical, and he should never get involved in art or do anything with music.
“Music has been a struggle, learning. Now, when you go to Vandalia or the string band festival, kids are playing fantastically. I hate them, that they are playing so well, but I love it that young people are taking all this up.
“I can finally hear what that music teacher wanted me to hear. From working with the mandolin, I can hear all the dynamics.
“So music has that pull, but I had a lot of fun at Carbide. I was in an engineering technology programming area, and there were a lot of shiny objects there to hold my attention.
“I had a good career at Carbide and did music part time. I made a decision. Music is so much fun. If I turn it into something where I make money, it wouldn’t be fun. I’d rather it be something I can come home and relax to after a day at work.”
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-542-5478.