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Stony Bottom Bluegrass Band ~ a family created by music

Photo by Suzanne Stewart
The Stony Bottom Bluegrass Band performed at the Cass Homecoming celebration June 15 at the Cass Community Center. From left: Gary Sharp, Jake Hyer, Julie Riggleman, Homer Hunter, Bob Riggleman and Dana Moyers join their talents to perform old-time and bluegrass tunes for the crowd. It’s hard to get a photo of the full band at once, for instance, Dewitt Daniell is also in this photo although he doesn’t appear to be.

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

“Aw, Sookie!”

If you’ve ever heard a booming bluegrass voice speak those words, chances are you are at a square dance or night of entertainment featuring some configuration of the Stony Bottom Bluegrass Band.

That voice belongs to Stony Bottom “boy” Homer Hunter – a towering man with a powerful voice.

The band has gone through several names and members, but the one thing that remains the same is Homer. As his bandmates say, “Homer is the glue.”

It all began 16 years ago when Lewisburg couple Bob and Julie Riggleman, Lewisburg public defender Dewitt Daniell and former Pocahontas Coun-ty resident and county commissioner Dana Moyers, who all played together from time-to-time, heard Homer perform at a jam session at Allegheny Echoes.

“That’s how we met, at Allegheny Echoes,” Julie said. “We played prior to that, just never with Homer.”

Not everyone remembers their first encounter with Homer the same, though.

“I was Homer’s parole officer,” Dana joked. “No, really, Dewitt, Bob and I met in Lewisburg; we went to the same church. I’d known Bob for a few years, but I didn’t know Dewitt. I said, ‘Let’s get together and play.’ We started playing at things. We went to Allegheny Echoes one night at the Motor Inn, and there was a jam going on like there always is. I heard this booming bluegrass voice, and I said, ‘Let’s go over to that jam.’”

The trio and Julie eased their way into the jam session, and it wasn’t long before they were having a conversation with Homer and making plans for an addition to their band.

Photos by Suzanne Stewart
The “glue” that holds the Stony Bottom Bluegrass Band together is Homer Hunter, shown here with Dana Moyers. Homer is 76-years-young and plans to play music for as long as he is able.

“I introduced myself to Homer and he said, ‘Moyers? Are you any kin to them Moyers down in Bell, West Virginia?’” Dana recalled. “And I said, ‘That’s my uncle and my cousin.’ He had worked with my family and knew them very well.

“We started playing as a band – I don’t know how many years ago now,” he continued, “and we’ve been playing together ever since. You know the quality of a person he is? Homer’s the glue. He keeps us together.”

“We just love Homer,” Dewitt added. “He is a great, great singer. We invited him to play and Homer’s like, ‘Sure, I’ll be happy to come do it.’”

The five founding members of the band – which was once known as the Hot ‘Mater Gravy Band – have brought decades of musical knowledge and talent to the stage and have helped one another become better at their respective instruments.

The band is a big staple of the Dunmore Daze festival. Whether they play for the square dance or just in the front yard at the Dunmore Communtiy building, they are always available to entertain the crowd. Above, Gary Sharp and Dewitt Daniell play at the 2017 celebration.

Homer grew up the son of a minister, so he was always around music at church, especially with his sisters who all played piano, but it wasn’t until he was in his 30s that he became the musician he is today.

“I got home from the military, got a job at Dupont [in Charleston] and there was a hunting and fishing club that we belonged to – a big recreation club,” Homer said. “It was there that I started picking and started singing. Then, I met some people who taught me to sing without music. It’s called the Warner Brothers of Campbell’s Creek, West Virginia, and from there, we formed a group called Flattop Pickers, and we did that in Kanawha County for about ten, twelve years.”

After Homer retired, he returned to his home at Stony Bottom and soon met his bandmates.

“They wanted me to come join their group, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” he said. “I’m seventy-six. I don’t know how long I’m going to do this – as long as I can and enjoy it. Music has been a big part of my life. I have a lot of people in my family who play.”

Homer has granddaughters who have been bitten by the music bug, but there’s one thing they didn’t inherit from their grandfather – a love of the stage.

“I will push you off the stage,” he said, laughing. “I’m a stage hog. They aren’t like that. Music has just been big in my life.”

Julie has always played guitar, but Bob actually started as a mandolin player before taking on the upright bass.

“When we were playing before we met Homer, Dana played the mandolin and I played the mandolin, but we didn’t have a bass player,” Bob said. “The church actually bought us a bass, and Dana was going to play it. One day we were practicing and his son, Jeremy, picked it up and in a few minutes, he sounded better than Dana on it, so he played until he graduated from high school. Then I started fiddling around with it. He played mandolin better than I did.”

Bob still plays mandolin and guitar some, but sticks to the bass for the band.

As for Dana, who stuck with the mandolin, he was inspired by a young musician who went on to become one of bluegrass’ biggest stars.

Photo by Suzanne Stewart
After forming 16 years ago, the Stony Bottom Bluegrass Band – formerly Hot ‘Mater Gravy – has included a lot of musicians. A guest is never turned away, as evidenced above, at the 2009 Dunmore Daze festival. Joining the band were from left, the late Dave Buck, and Richard Hefner. Four of the founding members – Homer Hunter, Julie Riggleman, Bob Riggleman and Dana Moyers – rounded out the group.

After forming 16 years ago, the Stony Bottom Bluegrass Band – formerly Hot ‘Mater Gravy – has included a lot of musicians. A guest is never turned away, as evidenced above, at the 2009 Dunmore Daze festival. Joining the band were from left, the late Dave Buck, and Richard Hefner. Four of the founding members – Homer Hunter, Julie Riggleman, Bob Riggleman and Dana Moyers – rounded out the group.

“My first job out of college was in Mingo County,” Dana said. “I went to a bluegrass festival and saw Bill Monroe and other really good musicians. There was a young mandolin player there with a band. He was about seventeen years old and his name was Ricky Skaggs. He was such a good mandolin player, I just decided that evening, ‘I’m going to buy a mandolin and learn to play.’”

Dana bought a cheap mandolin and a how-to book and learned the basics.

“I would stand off from a jam because I wasn’t good enough to jump right in, but I started learning the timing and things you’ve got to do,” he said. “I started playing with Jim Dolan – the banjo player – John Sparks, Norris Long and Bill Lovelace. We made a band and played for probably fifteen years. We were called Buffalo Chips, because I lived on Buffalo Mountain. We played here in the county for many years. Jim passed away, and the band kind of broke up after that.”

It was a great loss to Dana when Jim passed away, but he continued to play music and soon he found his current bandmates.

Banjo player Dewitt brings a more southern flavor to the group, from one of the most well-known music cities in the country – Asheville, North Carolina.

It was there that Dewitt discovered bluegrass music and his talent to play banjo.

Dewitt recalled that, as a youngster, he wanted a stereo, so his parents gave him $100 to go toward the purchase of one.
Instead of a stereo, he used the money to buy a banjo, after his guitar playing older brother convinced him it was a better investment.

“My brother pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen, you can spend that hundred dollars on a stereo, and you can get some lousy stereo that will last you about two or three years, or you could learn how to play the banjo, and you’ll have music the rest of your life,’” Dewitt said. 

Dewitt took the money to a local music shop, owned by Mark Pruitt, a banjo player with the band Balsam Range, and purchased his first banjo.

“[Mark] was teaching banjo, and I was in the ninth grade, I think,” Dewitt said. “I started taking lessons and really only took lessons six months or a year, something like that, and played all through high school.”

After high school, the banjo was played less and less, until the adult Dewitt moved to West Virginia and returned to music through his church.

“The minister at that time played the accordion,” he said. “For special music one day, they had him playing accordion and Bob played mandolin. After church I told the preacher, ‘If you ever need a banjo player, you give me a call.’ And being the good pastor that he was, he called me and promptly lined me to play in church.”

Photo by Suzanne Stewart
Although Homer Hunter, left, is a self-proclaimed stage hog, he is willing to take a back seat to other esteemed musicians. At the 2017 Dunmore Daze – when Homer was crowned king – he took a break and turned the spotlight over to Dunmore native Bill Lovelace, center, who can croon with the best of them. Julie Riggleman, right, sang harmony with Lovelace.

From there, Dewitt joined Bob, Julie and Dana, and the rest is history.

In the past few years, the group has expanded to include dobro player Gary Sharp and fiddler Jake Hyer, who, with Valerie Monico, make up the trio, Uncle Gary and the Porch Pickers.

Gary began his musical career as a guitarist, but after an accident with a table saw, he wasn’t sure he’d ever play again.

“About five years ago, I was building my grandson a toy box, and I got into a table saw,” he said. “Mangled this hand all up. Broke a finger, broke the tendons. They stitched me up and put me back together, but I could no longer play guitar.”

It was luck, then, when Gary and his wife, Marie, attended a concert at the Pocahontas County Opera House where a musician was playing a dobro. Marie encouraged Gary to give it a try and with the help of instructional videos and a class at Allegheny Echoes, Gary found his music again.

“It just came to me naturally,” he said. “It was at Allegheny Echoes and I had been playing around to where I could play along with some people.”

It was at that Allegheny Echoes when Gary met Homer, who invited him to join some of the musicians in playing for the residents at Pocahontas Center. Homer and several volunteers play at the center once a month, as well as at two nursing homes in Greenbrier County.

Gary joined in and was happy to see the joy the music brought to the residents.

“I know so many people in there, and you go down there to play music – some of them don’t even know you although you’ve known them your whole life – but when you start singing those songs, they know every word,” he said.

After joining in with Homer at the nursing homes, Gary was invited to play with the band full-time.

“Homer said,‘Why don’t you play with us all the time?’” Gary said. “He encouraged me. He’s our music man. He’s pushed me, and he just makes you get better. Homer’s touched a lot of people with music.”

Jake, a native of Pocahontas County, began his foray into music in school, although it was a slightly different kind of music than he plays now.

“When I was in the third grade, an orchestra teacher came around and demonstrated instruments,” he said. “I guess one day after that, I went home and told my mom I wanted to learn to play the violin, so I played in the school orchestra.”

Jake later discovered bluegrass music and went from violin to fiddle – not a big stretch – and played with several musicians in the Twin Cities.

Then, four years ago, he moved back to Pocahontas County and immersed himself in the local flavor of bluegrass.

“I got my first taste at Taylor’s General Store,” he said. “I got a Dwight Diller tape and a Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys tape and things went from there.”

While working in Lewisburg, Jake met Dewitt and got involved with the band.

“I used to work across the street from Dewitt in Lewisburg,” he said. “It’s all [probation officer] Dustin Martin’s fault. I told Dustin I played fiddle and he said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come jam some time,’ and I did.”

Jake works at Allegheny Mountain Radio and is the youngest member of the group.

File Photo
A quick search through the archives turned up this oldie but goodie of the five founding members back when the band was known as Hot ‘Mater Gravy. From left: Dewitt Daniell, Bob Riggleman, Julie Riggleman, Homer Hunter and Dana Moyers.

Despite all the differences the members have – age, careers, hometowns and more – they all have one thing in common – their love of music. And that love is never more obvious than when they get together and perform.

Although Homer is considered the leader of the band, the spotlight changes from song to song. Each member takes turns singing lead and harmony, and they all get a chance for a solo.

No matter the style or subject of the song, it is impossible to sit still when the Stony Bottom Bluegrass Band plays. And the crowds aren’t the only ones who enjoy it.

“Nobody plays music with a frown on their face,” Gary said.

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