West Virginia, the home of bluegrass music, is a long way from Wisconsin, but music fans in Madison sure have a soft spot for its lovechild of jazz, blues and traditional Scots-Irish tunes. From the weekly bluegrass jams at Harmony Bar and The Dry Bean to barn dances in Olin Park, it's not hard to find a place nearby to watch the live showmanship of a banjo player or let it all loose, hoedown-style.
All six members of Alchemy Café, where they blaze through traditional bluegrass favorites, as well as old-time country, gospel and Americana songs and original neo-folk tunes on the first Saturday of each month.
"West Virginia," one of band's favorite standards, is a version of "West Virginia My Home," a song by Hazel Dickens, the grandmother of modern bluegrass and a hero of the band. "Dickens is one of our absolute favorite musicians," says bassist Jeff Kunkle. "She's a big influence on all of us."
Lyrics such as "This life I have is not one I thought I'd find / Just let me live, love, let my cry, but when I go just let me die / Among the friends who'll remember when I'm gone" are about as sad as they get, especially when delivered in the "high-and-lonesome" style Dickens pioneered. Liz Stattelman-Scanlan's crystal-clear voice, lilting atop the slow noodling of Mark Schlutt's banjo, tells the story of a woman who has lost her way in the big city but, like a bird, knows her way back to the hills where she was born.
Perhaps for the Ramblers, the song is an ode to finding their musical hearts in Appalachia while breaking and mending their real ones in places like here in Madison. As such, the band aims to stay true to Dickens when performing the piece while adding some twists and tricks all their own.
An MP3 of the track is available in the related downloads at right. This version of the song was recorded during the United Way Bluegrass Benefit at the Barrymore Theatre last February. More songs by the group can by listened to on its MySpace page. The Oak Street Ramblers play at the Alchemy Café at 9 p.m. on Saturday, October 18.
MadTracks highlights and provides MP3s of songs performed by local musicians. All tracks here are provided with permission of the artist. If you are a musician based in the Madison metro area and are interested in sharing your work as a MadTrack, please send a message.