More than music
When Juanita Fireball and the Continental Drifters take the stage, you know you are in for a fun, foot-tapping time. This group has become one of the most popular and most visible groups – in and out of the county. If it seems they’re here, there and everywhere – well, that’s because they are.
After years of playing for their own enjoyment and for fundraisers as well as private parties, the group ramped it up a step, and next year they will celebrate their 10th anniversary of playing in the public domain.
Band members include Mike Burns and Jay Lockman on fiddle, Mary Sue Burns on banjo, John Sparks, guitar, and bass player Wayne Walton.
Terry Richardson played with the group, as well, and his presence – as a guitarist, but more importantly as a friend – is sorely missed by this group.
“He was a fabulous musician, and a really nice guy,” Mary Sue said.
For the record, Norris Long was the band’s bass player for several years.
The group’s maiden voyage into “prime time” was impressive. It was a picnic to kick-off Senator Jay Rockefeller’s 2008 re-election campaign, which was held at Rockefeller’s Pocahontas County home.
Lockman remembers that it was there that the band’s name was first announced.
“Rockefeller got up and pulled out a piece of paper,” Lockman recalled. “He said, ‘I can never remember band names, and I’d like to thank Juanita Fireball and the Continental Drifters.’ And I thought, ‘that’s a good moment to say we were baptized.’”
Mary Sue credits Lockman for getting the group together.
“Jay would call and say, ‘I’m having some people over. Bring your instruments.’”
They did, and life for them and for us has never been the same.
“We have spurts,” Mary Sue said one Saturday afternoon. “We are in a spurt right now. We played the Bath County Farmers Market last Saturday, the Cranberry Visitor Center today, and next Saturday we will play at Dunmore Daze for the square dance.”
The previous Saturday the group played at the Green Bank Observatory picnic.
“One weekend, about a year ago, we had three jobs in three different counties,” she said.“We played on a Saturday afternoon at the Treasure Mountain Festival in Franklin. We played Saturday night at the BrazenHead Inn, and we played for a square dance at the Hill and Holler in Lewisburg on Sunday night. It was our three-county tour.”
Impressive as their stage appearance is, the group is even more impressive when they sit down for a conversation about music, and who they are and what they do when they’re not “fiddling around.”
Lockman jokes that he is the only “working” member of the band.
Four out of five are retired, but music aside, they are by no means idle, and everyone in the band has a nickname.
Take Mike Burns, aka Juanita Fireball, for instance.
You could say Mike is an accidental fiddle player. He fell while fishing in the river in 2007 and broke his hand.
“It was bad,” Mike said. “I asked the doctor if he thought I would ever play the fiddle again, and he said, ‘not with that finger.’ That was kinda like a challenge to me.
“In March 2007, Norris Long asked if we could put together a group to play at the opera house, and I said, ‘if you’ll give me a year.’ So we had a year. Then we started playing weekly.”
Mike retired six years ago as Forestry teacher at Pocahontas County High School, where he took his forestry team to many state and national competitions, bringing home numerous awards.
He was a dedicated soccer coach – and sometimes bus driver.
Taking on such responsibilities requires a lot of time, and Mike was in for the long haul.
“If you commit to something,” he said, “you need to be there.”
An avid fly-fisherman, he has been a guide and teacher at Elk River Touring, and in his retirement he also shares his fishing passion with veterans as a Project Leader for the Hot Springs, Virginia, chapter of the Healing Waters program.
But wait – that’s not all.
He also repairs fiddles, and other instruments.
Lois Akin, of Manassas, Virginia, mother of Shayna Meadows owner Lynette Otto, had an old banjo which she sold at a pawn shop. Lynette told her mother that Mike repaired such things, so she donated the money from the sale to the cause.
Mike used the donation to purchase four fiddles. He repaired them, and gave them to kids who want to learn to play.
All he asked in return was that they take a picture and write a note to Akin to say “thank you.”
Mike also buys broken instruments off the Internet, repairs them, and sells them at cost to young people.
If you have an instrument lying around the house collecting dust, perhaps you might consider donating it to the next generation by way of Mike.
Sparks, aka Sleepy John, played with the popular bluegrass band Stompin’ Creek.
He said he spent 32 ½ years at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory prior to his retirement.
“They said I had more job titles in my personnel file than anyone they’d ever had there,” he said.
He began his tenure as a graphic artist technician, then a warehouse attendant, security guard, painter’s helper – painting the GBT. He was a utilities man before becoming the head painter for the facility.
“I painted trucks, cars, houses and telescopes,” Sparks said. “ I painted everything up there, even a fire truck. It was a great place to work.”
Several years ago, Sparks also played music with Dana Moyers, Norris Long and Jim Dolan.
“We played on the [Cass] dinner trains for 15 years,” Sparks said.
He got the Juanita Fireball group to play on the trains, as well.
“Those were fun jobs,” Mary Sue said.
“Really good food,” Mike added.
Sparks said it was always a nice group of people on the train, but, of course, they were a “captive audience.”
Sparks said he learned to play the guitar when he was young by spending time with Whitey Love-lace’s dad.
You can find him most days, around noon, at the Green Bank Senior Center. You can find him in church on Sunday, leading the singing – something he has done since the 1970s, and something his mother and grandfather did before him.
Walton moved to the county in 2000, although he and his wife, Arlene, had owned a house here since 1989.
He and Mike met when the two had jury duty, and spent the morning talking about music.
Lockman remembered first seeing Walton at Homer Hunter’s Jamborees at the Dunmore Community Center.
“One time, I brought my guitar, and Arlene was with me and she said, ‘go put that away and get your bass, there’s five or six guitar players here,” Walton recalled.
Sparks took Walton to a practice at Mike and Mary Sue’s house.
“And I never left,” Walton said, laughing.
Sparks said Walton had played with just about every big bluegrass player in the business.
“Wayne is secretly famous,” Mary Sue said.
Walton’s father played the claw hammer banjo, and Walton had a friend who taught him to play guitar.
While he was in Baltimore, he played banjo and mandolin with Bluegrass Traditions.
Prior to his new-found career as bass player for Juanita Fireball and the Continental Drifters, Walton worked as a millwright for Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore. He was promoted to the training department as a craft deter- mination helper where he gave tests to potential millwrights.
From there he moved to the continuous casting department as hydraulics foreman, teaching for 10 years at the community college.
What does he do now that he’s retired and Arlene works as a receptionist at the Green Bank Science Center?
“I mow grass,” he said. “And I’m the handyman.”
Hence his nickname “Handyman” in the band.
Music and science melded for two of the band members.
Mary Sue Burns, aka Lou Lou, recently retired after 37 years as a chemistry, physics and earth science teacher – 31 years of which were spent at PCHS.
Mary Sue does consulting work for NASA through NSTA [National Science Teacher Association], giving feedback on NASA’s interactive education programs as to their usefulness in the classroom.
In addition, a friend of hers at Fairmont State University has a three-year grant for professional development for science teachers – an Earth, Space, Science Passport grant.
“I’m teaching teachers geology, and I’ve been doing some part-time summer field work for the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.”
Do music, math and science go hand-in-hand?
“It’s a requirement to be in Juanita,” Lockman laughed.
Lockman, aka Pluto, the “only one with a job” actually has three jobs.
He is the lead scientist at the NRAO and he does “a couple of things on the outside – of the scientific nature – on weekends, nights and vacation days.
That work includes reviewing potential missions for NASA.
He is also a member of the American Astronomical Society and the International Astronomical Union.
“It’s quite interesting,” he said.
Lockman reviews submitted proposals from individuals and organizations who want to use the Hubble Space Telescope.
“It’s something that a lot of us here [NRAO] do,” he said. “When there are new proposals, just like to use the Green Bank Telescope, we recruit scientists to review the proposals and NASA recruits scientists to review Hubble proposals, and you end up serving on these committees. I was on a NASA panel a year and a half ago that was looking at three or four proposed missions. We spent a week going over the stuff and arguing, and then we wrote up a report and that goes into their consideration on what to fund.
“But it is part of the job when you become a professional scientist in an academic setting.
“This came in today,” he said, holding up a folder. “It’s a paper that’s being submitted to an Astrophysical Journal and they asked me to review it to see if it’s is worth proposing.”
Science is a big and busy business.
Just an arm’s-reach from Lockman’s desk was a six-inch thick notebook full of requests to use the GBT – all submitted in one month.
“The GBT is busy twenty-four hours a day,” he said, “and it could be busy forty-eight hours a day.”
When the telescope needs to be represented, Lockman travels to do the job.
His work also takes him to China and Australia.
“We work in cooperation with other institutions,” he said. “China is starting a vigorous and well-funded program in Radio Astronomy, so they are interested in cooperation with us. We’ve had a series of meetings which alternate between China and Green Bank. Two years ago, the Chinese came here. Last year, we went to China.”
In addition, Lockman is doing a personal research project that is centered in Australia.
His work with the International Astronomical Union takes him around the world. Being a member of the American Astronomical Society takes him to several locations during the off-season.
Following the rule that scientists are poor, he said, the group meets in places like Seattle and Toronto in the winter, and Miami in the summer, because hotel rooms are cheap.
As Lockman and Mary Sue talked about their work with NASA, Sparks chimed in.
“I bought a Milky Way bar once,” he said.
This group is just plain fun.
Though Lockman’s job and interests take him around the world, he is never too far away to hear what is going on at home.
He was in China, listening to Allegheny Mountain Radio’s Caroline in the Morning show, when he heard Mike Burns talking about him.
He skyped in and said, “quit talking about me.”
Juanita Fireball and the Continental Drifters are bound together, and to the county, by more than music.
Lockman grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, and when he first came to the Green Bank area, he said it reminded him of the mountains around Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where his grandparents lived.
He and his young family moved to Green Bank 23 years ago when he took on the duties of director as the facility.
He arrived Valentine’s day.
The family came in March, in the snow.
It was his plan to stay one year, but it turned into 23 years and counting.
It was in that first year that he and his wife, Elizabeth, pushed strollers that held their children, three-month-old Martin and three-year-old Janney, around the observatory grounds one evening at sunset. Lockman remembers Elizabeth saying, “We don’t know if we can live here, but it’s ruined us for living anywhere else.”
That is true for many, if not all, who call this place home.
And Juanita Fireball and the Continental Drifters make it even more perfect.