For the past year, there has been an achingly obvious silence in the Pocahontas County Opera House. No singing, no instruments, no cheering, applause or dancing. Nothing. For such an iconic hub of music to be silent for so long, it feels as though a part of the community – a friend, family member, neighbor – has been mute due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, this past winter, the sounds of banjos, fiddles, guitars and voices once again filled the rafters of the Opera House during the recording of the first Story Sessions series – a five-part digital series focusing on well-known musicians of Pocahontas County.
“I think that was really a magical moment for us this winter, in the recording, which I hope will come through to the listening audience and the viewing audience,” Opera House director Brynn Kusic said.
While the series features seasoned musicians who either grew up in the harmonious hills of Pocahontas County or moved here and honed their talents here, this particular performance was a one-of-a-kind experience for all.
In this series, the stage simply held the musician and his or her instrument, performing to the empty Opera House.
“For all these seasoned performers who have come through – you have to have the energy of the audience and all that space filled up with so much life,” Kusic said. “And to walk into that empty space and be in that empty hall, and think about the absence of music from our lives – live music – and that these performers – our friends and neighbors – hadn’t been playing music. It was kind of this first moment of getting back on the stage and playing songs with the idea that people are going to hear them.”
The musicians weren’t completely alone. They were joined in the Opera House by Ryan Krofcheck and Kurt Schachner, who filmed the interviews and performances with the six musicians.
Krofcheck was serving as an Opera House board member when the pandemic halted plans for the 20th season. Krofcheck – who is also a member of the well-known Morgantown-based band Fletcher’s Grove – was unable to tour with his band and was eager to try something new with the Opera House to continue providing entertainment while the doors of the facility were closed.
“I was playing a hundred and fifty shows a year, then immediately put the brakes on,” he said. “Once the pandemic hit, [the board] was kicking around ideas of what we could do digitally. I kind of asked if I could help produce this piece, so I was asked to leave the board to become an employee.
Krofcheck, who works as a digital marketing specialist at Snowshoe Mountain Resort, enlisted the help of his co-worker, Snowshoe digital media producer Kurt Schachner, and the two set out to record the Story Sessions.
The first series includes Richard Hefner, Jake Krack, Trevor Hammons, Mike and Mary Sue Burns and Kelsey Beverage.
“We started with Richard Hefner as he is just a wonderful supporter of the Opera House and one of the pivotal members of our traditional music community,” Kusic said. “We finally have the time to take the time and hear the stories around the songs and to really listen to it in a different way than we have before.
“It started with him and it was such an incredible opportunity to just take the time to really be present with the treasure of music and the history of music in our community,” she continued. “That was our pilot with Richard. It really opened up our imagination. That just opened up this opportunity to document and archive our musical legacy in Pocahontas County.”
While Kusic has been at the Opera House for years and knows the musicians well, she and Krofcheck decided he would be better suited to interview the musicians because he was somewhat a stranger to them.
“We settled on maybe I should be doing it because I don’t have that backlog of history already downloaded,” he said. “I’m the curious new guy who is asking those questions and wants to know Richard’s history; thinking of questions that maybe she already knows the answer to.
“For half of them, they were strangers to me, but you wouldn’t be able to tell in the interview,” he continued. “Everybody is so welcoming here, and that was a huge thing for me. That was something that Mike Burns said a lot about this area.”
As they made their way through the interviews and performances, it became apparent to those involved just how interconnected the musical community is in Pocahontas County.
“As we did each recording session, we found that musicians and the stories are interconnected,” Kusic said. “Trevor Hammons, for example, referenced Mike Bing so much because he was such an incredible mentor to him. Trevor learned a lot of songs from his family’s music traditions and from folks at Allegheny Echoes.”
Hammons is a descendant of the famous Hammons family musicians, but was not taught by them. Instead, he learned from those who learned from the family.
“He didn’t get to learn from his ancestors, but he learned from people in the community who did have the opportunity to play music with his relatives,” Kusic said.
The Hammons family was, in a sense, the founders of old-time music in Pocahontas County. It’s hard to be a musician in these hills and not have a story related to the family.
“Every single person had said, ‘well, here’s a Hammons family tune, and you’ve really just got to put yourself sitting on the Williams River, playing this music, hearing the sound of the fiddle or the sound of the banjo echoing off the canyon,’” Krofcheck recalled.
“Everybody has this mental image of them – generation after generation of them – sitting on the Williams River,” he added. “It’s super cool. I love it.”
While this first series is broken down into five performances, Kusic and Krofcheck agree that they hope this is the beginning of something bigger.
“I feel like I really want that to come through,” Kusic said. “We didn’t just say, ‘who do you choose? Who are you leaving out?’ It was obvious from the beginning that this is a project that could continue. This project is going to come out in phases. This first series is focusing on the performances at the Opera House more than getting into the myriad topics of the interviews.”
Kusic said there are plans to share the audio from the performances and interviews through a partnership with Allegheny Mountain Radio, for those who cannot access the videos online.
Krofcheck said the first five in the series be shared in multiple ways, but he hopes there will be a new series of musicians featured in the future.
“That’s the thing that I keep pitching to the board,” he said. “This is a multimedia project. It’s not just going to be limited to Facebook. This is a great opportunity for us to partner with people – like the radio station.
“We’re not really sure if we’re going to have more than five for this year,” he added. “I think we’d like to, but now with things getting back to normal with our performance series at the Opera House with Discovery Junction and how that’s all going to work out, I’m thinking our time is going to be limited.”
The Opera House Story Sessions will be shared on its website at pocahontasoperahouse.org as well as on its Facebook page, Pocahontas County Opera House. They will air each Sunday at 7 p.m. with the following schedule: April 18, Richard Hefner; April 25, Jake Krack; May 2, Trevor Hammons; May 9, Mike and Mary Sue Burns; and May 16, Kelsey Beverage.
The videos will also be uploaded to YouTube for those without Facebook.