Pocahontas County Opera House Story Session series debuted Sunday evening on the Opera House Facebook page – to the delight of hundreds of fans.
Armed with his life stories, music and his banjo, Richard Hefner took the Opera House stage and kicked off his session with “Red Rockin’ Chair” or “Sugar Babe.”
“Sherman Hammons is who I learned that from, and he called it ‘Sugar Babe,’” Hefner said. “The Bluegrassers kind of changed it around a little bit and called it ‘Red Rockin’ Chair.’”
Hefner is a founding member of the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys, West Virginia’s longest-running bluegrass band which was organized in 1968. He was joined then by his brother Bill, their late uncle Glenn “Dude” Irvine and the late Harley Carpenter.
Hefner is known for his traditional bluegrass banjo playing and tenor vocals. His banjo skills led him to contest victories many times, including the Vandalia Festival.
While many folks consider Hefner to be the best West Virginia banjo player, he has his own take on who he would consider to be the best.
“I would say that the best banjo player that came out of the state of West Virginia was a friend of mine – Don Stover,” he said. “Don passed away quite a few years back. He was from Artie, down in Raleigh County, and he played banjo. He was the Lilly Brothers’ banjo player for years and years, and he went off for a spell – a little bit less than a year or a year, I’m not sure – and played with Bill Monroe in the fifties. He recorded some of Monroe’s really good tunes while he was with him.”
During Hefner’s career as a musician, he managed to play with Stover a few times and recalled a job from the 1970s that was one the highlights of his career.
“I really liked Don’s picking,” he said. “I got to play bass with him on a few jobs, and one of the best times I ever had with him was when he started his own band in the seventies, and we played a job together in Pittsburgh for the United Mine Workers National Convention. We played and the Morris Brothers played, and Don and his band played there.
“We stayed there for a week, and we didn’t hardly have any fun,” Hefner said, sarcastically.
“It was a great time,” he added.
After reminiscing about Stover, Hefner performed one of his songs, “Black Diamond.”
The beauty of Bluegrass songs is the story behind them. The problem with those stories sometimes is trying to figure out if they are true or not.
Before Hefner played his next song, “Little Maggie” – a fan favorite – he told a story about his grandmother who taught the song to him.
“I always tell everybody that my grandmother was a banjo player, and she was,” he said. “My grandmother on my mom’s side – she lived on the side of the hill after you cross the bridge, going out of Marlinton and turn up toward Campbelltown. Her name was Florence Irvine, and she did play banjo.
“My grandpa, Frank Irvine, played the fiddle, and they’d stand out on the porch there and play, and people across the river over here would clap and holler,” he continued. “Also, when they first got a crank phone, they’d call up on the phone and they’d play fiddle and banjo over the phone to folks.”
Sadly, Frank passed away before Hefner was born, and Florence passed away when he was eight years old.
“I never remember her playing the banjo, and I’m sure that she probably did,” he said. “She didn’t lay around sick or anything. She had a massive heart attack and died at fifty-three years old.
“I tell everybody that my grandmother was a banjo player, and she played for the Cleveland Browns,” he continued. “She was a star running back for the Cleveland Browns, and she won the first tough woman contest in West Virginia, too, in 1938, and she got traded to the Dallas Cowboys where she eventually became a Dallas cheerleader.”
Hefner leaves it up to the listener to decide which parts of that story are true. One thing is for sure – Florence did teach him how to play “Little Maggie.”
He ended this performance with the song “High on the Mountain.”
Hefner is still an active member of The Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys and performs with the group at local events and informal music jams at his home in Renick, where he lives with his wife, Maddy.