Vandalia Award Winner Gallery
Each year at the Vandalia Gathering, West Virginia’s highest folklife honor – the Vandalia Award – is presented in a ceremony on the stage of the Cultural Center theater. The individuals who receive this award embody the spirit of our state’s folk heritage and are recognized for their lifetime contribution to West Virginia and its traditional culture.
Fiddler Melvin Wine was born in Braxton County in 1909. His extensive repertoire and rustic fiddling style represent a long tradition of music from within his family and community. Melvin was acknowledged for his powerful live performances and his willingness to teach his music and share it with others. Recipient of the first Vandalia Award, Melvin was also awarded the National Endowment for the Arts’ prestigious National Heritage Fellowship in 1991. Melvin Wine passed away in 2003. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Champion fiddler Ira J. Mullins was born in 1902 in rural Clay County. Ira (pronounced I-ree) was a true individual with a unique repertoire and an outrageous personal style. His competitive spirit, exaggerated gift for storytelling, and natural ability to entertain an audience made him one of the most beloved musicians in the state. He ran a sawmill for his living and was known in Clay County to be one of the finest sawyers in the area. Ira passed away in 1987. Photograph by Steve Payne.
Woodford “Woody” Simmons was a multi-talented musician from Randolph County. A fierce competitor, he has won countless prizes for his accomplished fiddling and banjo playing. He was born in 1911 on Becky’s Creek near Huttonsville, and lived close by in Mill Creek. Woody had many stories to tell about his long and adventurous life in the mountains, and he has been one of West Virginia’s most colorful personalities. He passed away in 2005. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Virginia Myrtle “Aunt Jennie” Wilson was born in 1900 near Henlawson in Logan County. She learned her banjo playing and ballad singing from the many talented family members and other musicians in her coalfield community. She was among the first women in her region to play the banjo. Strong-willed and articulate, Aunt Jennie became a folk legend in her later years and had a festival named in her honor. She passed away in 1992. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Fiddler Mike Humphreys was born in 1919 in Elkview, Kanawha County. His pure and polished fiddling, along with his quiet and genial personality, earned him the respect and admiration of all who knew him. Mike was equally comfortable with old-time, bluegrass, and country music styles. A popular performer at local festivals, Mike also appeared regularly on radio and television throughout the Kanawha Valley and in other parts of West Virginia. Mike Humphreys passed away in 1986. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Russell Fluharty, “The Dulcimer Man,” was born in rural Marion County north of Mannington in 1906. Adept at playing several instruments including the mountain dulcimer, Russell became a champion of the hammered dulcimer and is often given credit for popularizing this ancient and beautiful instrument in West Virginia. Russell was a tireless supporter of local history and folk culture, and he promoted-and performed- traditional music at every opportunity. Russell Fluharty passed away in 1989. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Phoeba Cottrell Parsons was born in 1908 near Arnoldsburg in rural Calhoun County. Phoeba (pronounced Fee-bee) grew up surrounded by music and dance and became a fine banjo player while still a young girl. Her father John Cottrell was a fiddler and he taught young Phoeba to play the fiddlesticks; she later became a skilled flatfoot dancer and ballad singer. Phoeba enjoyed sharing her talents with others well into her 90’s, even thrilling an audience with a little flatfoot dance when she was in the right mood. She lived in Calhoun County near the town of Orma until her death in 2001 at age 93. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Fiddler Ernest “Ernie” Carpenter was born in 1909 in rural Braxton County near the Elk River town of Sutton. Descended from a long line of musicians and pioneering river men, Ernie’s fiddling echoed the stories, legends, and musical styles passed on to him by his forebears. Many of Ernie’s tunes, which he later passed on to a new generation of fiddlers, commemorate important events in the history of his family and other early settlers in central West Virginia. Ernie Carpenter passed away in 1997. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Sylvia Cottrell O’Brien was born in 1909 in a remote area of Clay County, and lived on the family farm where she was raised. A respected banjo player, Sylvia was equally revered for her knowledge of traditional mountain ways and her unassuming and ingratiating personality. Sylvia’s brother Jenes Cottrell, who passed away in 1980, was also a popular figure at West Virginia folk music gatherings and was a talented instrument builder. Sylvia played one of Jenes’ banjos. She passed away in 2001. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Bonnie Collins is one of West Virginia’s best-loved storytellers. Born Bonnie Mae Starkey in 1915 on Franks Run in Doddridge County, she learned singing and instrumental skills from family members early in her life. It is her unique gift for humor and storytelling, however, that has brought her well-deserved recognition across West Virginia in recent years. A popular performer, Bonnie attended the first Vandalia Gathering in 1977 and has served as a judge for the state Liars Contest several times. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Andrew Forrest “Andy” Boarman was born in 1910 in Berkeley County, and lived his entire life in the apple orchard country of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Best known for his unusual and intricate finger-style banjo playing, Andy also was a fine autoharp player, instrument builder, and instrument repairman. His barbershop in Hedgesville doubled as a music store and instrument repair workshop until the shop closed in 1974. Until his death in 1999, Andy remained active with his music and was a frequent participant at fairs and festivals across the state. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Fiddler Wilson Douglas was born in 1922 on a farm in rural Clay County in an area known as Rush Fork. Wilson was an accomplished fiddler with an intricate personal style and an ancient repertoire. Descended from several generations of Clay County Douglases, Wilson was also closely related to the local Morris and Carpenter families who together represent some of West Virginia’s deepest musical traditions. Wilson’s musicianship and his open and generous personality helped to make him a central figure in West Virginia’s traditional music community. Wilson Douglas passed away in 1999. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Jane George wears many hats. Born Jane Taylor in rural Roane County in 1922, she is a fervent supporter of West Virginia’s folk heritage and has devoted her adult life to teaching and promoting the traditional arts. Basket weaving and highland dancing are areas of special interest to Jane, who was instrumental in establishing several heritage arts educational programs in the state. Today, Jane George and her talented husband Frank can be found at the Vandalia Gathering and anywhere the folk arts are celebrated in West Virginia. Photograph by Michael Keller.
William Franklin “Frank” George was born in 1928 in Bluefield, Mercer County, later moving to Roane County where he now lives with his wife Jane. Frank is a respected fiddler and an authority on the history of West Virginia traditional music. He is particularly interested in the Irish and Scottish roots of mountain culture. In addition to the fiddle, Frank plays the Scottish bagpipes, the pennywhistle, the fife, the mountain and the hammered dulcimer, and the old-time banjo. Frank frequently performs Celtic music with the band Poteen. Photograph by Rick Lee.
Nathaniel H. “Nat” Reese was born in 1924 in Salem, Virginia, moving to Itmann, Wyoming County, in 1928. He now lives in Princeton, Mercer County. Nat grew up in the coal camps, surrounded by gospel, swing, and blues music. A former coal miner himself, Nat later turned to music as a profession, plying his skill as a guitarist and singer in a wide array of musical styles. Today Nat is a consummate performer, focused primarily on the traditional blues and swing music he learned as a boy in the coalfields. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Elmer Bird, “The Banjo Man from Turkey Creek,” was born in rural Putnam County in 1920. Elmer learned his music from family members and neighbors on Turkey Creek, and as a young man he began making local appearances with his fiddling cousin George Bird. Later, as a solo performer, Elmer developed an impressive “double drop-thumb” banjo style and attracted a wide following both within West Virginia and across the country. Elmer Bird passed away in 1997. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Fiddler, whistler, and singer Emmett M. “Lefty” Shafer was born in rural Roane County in 1915, and recently lived in the Charleston area. A clean and meticulous fiddler, Lefty won literally hundreds of awards over the years including the 1987 award for the West Virginia State Fiddle Champion. Though he was a formidable competitor, Lefty was also a patient and encouraging teacher who shared his musical knowledge with many aspiring fiddlers over the years. He passed away in 2004. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Fiddler Glen Smith of Wirt County was born in Woodlawn, Virginia, in 1923. He moved to the Elizabeth area about 30 years ago to work in the timber industry. Since that time, Glen has become a fixture at West Virginia traditional music events, winning numerous awards for his fiddling and entertaining audiences throughout the state with his dry sense of humor and his hard-driving musical style. Glen Smith passed away in 2001. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Dancer Brookley Rush Butcher and his wife Ruby Jewell Salyer Butcher have been instrumental in teaching and promoting international folk dance in West Virginia for the past 50 years. Rush was born in Braxton County in 1923, and Ruby was born in Fuget, Kentucky, in 1928. The pair met while they were students at Berea College, married, and moved back to West Virginia. Since then, they have lived, farmed, and taught dancing in Nicholas County. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Brooks Smith from Dunbar, Kanawha County, has been playing the banjo for more than 60 years. Equally comfortable with clawhammer or traditional finger-style playing, Brooks has won many awards at festivals and music competitions across the state. He is a decorated Army veteran of World War II, and a retired draftsman for Union Carbide. Brooks is well-loved for his generosity with his music, particularly by the many younger musicians with whom he has shared his talents. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Norman L. Fagan was the first commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History and had a profound impact on the cultivation of the state’s traditional arts and culture. An early advocate of recording, documenting, preserving and presenting the folkways of West Virginians, he is credited with founding the Vandalia Gathering in 1977 and ensuring the festival’s growth through its first years. As commissioner, Fagan also was instrumental in the effort to build the Cultural Center in the State Capitol Complex as a nationally acclaimed showcase for West Virginia performers, artists and craftspeople. Photograph by Michael Keller.
A native West Virginian from a family that includes a long line of talented musicians, Bob Kessinger has won numerous awards at competitions and festivals around the state for his artistry on the mandolin. The nephew of famed fiddler Clark Kessinger, he was an outspoken advocate for the preservation and promotion of traditional music and culture. Kessinger was born in 1926 and grew up listening to his father and uncle play music. He learned to play the banjo and mandolin at an early age. His sons Robin and Dan have followed in his footsteps. Bob passed away in 2005. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Mack Samples is a well-known folklorist, musician and square dance caller. A native West Virginian, he has spent his entire life learning, collecting and sharing the traditional stories, songs, dances and folk culture of the Mountain State. He is well known in Appalachian music and literature circles and has traveled the folk festival circuit for a number of years as a singer, guitarist, fiddler and square dance caller. Samples is a regular at the Vandalia Gathering, the West Virginia State Folk Festival and the Stonewall Jackson Jubilee, both as a member of the popular Samples Brothers band and as a solo performer. He is the author of four books set in West Virginia, and he has written a number of newspaper columns and magazine articles on a variety of subjects related to the traditional folk arts. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Carl Rutherford was born in 1929 in War and could trace his family’s roots in McDowell County back to the 1890s. At the age of 18, he went to work in the coal mines and was deeply moved by the determination, suffering and hardship he witnessed under ground. Rutherford preserved a unique and challenging style of guitar playing passed down within his family and community. His blend of mountain blues, old-time, big band, country, honky-tonk, and gospel music styles are reminiscent of the music heard in the southern coalfields during the 1920s. He was also an award-winning songwriter whose distinctive compositions are about themes familiar to West Virginians: coal mining, faith, romance and his mountain home. He passed away in 2006. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Lester McCumbers was born in 1921 in southern Calhoun County, and carries on a rich tradition of fiddling, singing and guitar playing that has thrived in his family for generations. He has performed widely for more than 60 years with old-time and bluegrass music groups, appearing at concerts, contests, festivals, square dances and on radio shows throughout West Virginia and elsewhere. He has maintained his music as an important part of his life, developing a personal style of playing and singing marked by sincerity, drive and emotion. McCumbers continues to pass on his musical heritage to others, including family members, apprentices and countless workshop participants. He and his wife and performing partner Linda have known each other since childhood. They were married in 1937 and raised nine children as they performed with a variety of bands. For four years in the mid-1960s, they hosted a weekly radio show on WSPZ in Spencer. The couple’s first CD recording, “Old Timey,” was released in 2002 and features 26 of their old-time fiddle tunes and songs. Photograph by Michael Keller.
A native of Mount Hope, Ethel Caffie-Austin is known as West Virginia’s “First Lady of Gospel Music.” She began playing piano at the age of six, started accompanying church services at nine and directed her first choir at age 11. Throughout her life, she has carried on a rich tradition of African-American gospel singing, piano playing and worship. She has taken her music and ministry into prisons, schools and government housing projects, and has performed at festivals across the country and in Europe. She also is in demand as a clinician and often presents gospel workshops in conjunction with the Vandalia Gathering. She founded the Black Sacred Music Festival at West Virginia State University in Institute and has several recordings and an instructional videotape to her credit. She was the subject of a 1999 documentary film entitled “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” and a 1997 Goldenseal magazine article, “Hand-Clapping and Hallelujahs: A Visit with Ethel Caffie-Austin.” Photograph by Michael Keller.
A native of Mannington, Patty Looman is a hammered dulcimer musician, mentor, teacher, promoter, and tune collector. She has become a living example of the spirit of music and its joy, and has influenced the lives of many students within and outside of West Virginia. Music has always played an important part in Patty’s life. When she was young she studied organ, piano, cello and trumpet and was exposed to the hammered dulcimer by West Virginia masters Russell Fluharty and Worley Gardner. Patty is the most active hammered dulcimer performer in West Virginia and the busiest dulcimer teacher, currently seeing more than 40 private students. She also teaches group classes at Garrett Community College in Maryland and at the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops in Elkins. She was the recipient of the 2004 B. B. Maurer West Virginia Folklife Scholar Award, which honors a person who has contributed to the preservation and perpetuation of Appalachian cultural heritage. She is the honoree and namesake for PattyFest held yearly at Camp Muffly, a 4-H camp nestled in the rolling hills south of Morgantown. She also is a master artist in the West Virginia Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, chairs the Mountaineer Dulcimer Convention of West Virginia, and performs in bands such as Hammers and Strings. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Lou Maiuri is a nationally acclaimed flatfoot dancer and square dance caller from Summersville, Nicholas County. The son of Italian immigrants, Lou was born in 1928 in Fayette County and grew up in the upper Kanawha Valley. Visits to Pocahontas County exposed him to traditional mountain dance at an early age. Lou is an impassioned advocate as well as a skilled teacher. He travels throughout the state and across the country, performing and presenting dance workshops and sharing his infectious enthusiasm for Appalachian dance. He is pictured here at a dance workshop in Oklahoma in 1998. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Everett Lilly is an iconic figure in the world of traditional mountain music. Born in 1924 in Clear Creek, Raleigh County, Everett and his brother “B” – better known as the Lilly Brothers – are credited with bringing authentic mountain and bluegrass music to audiences in New England and Japan during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Everett’s piercing tenor voice, his driving mandolin and fiddle playing, and the pair’s repertoire of old-time songs and “brother duets” struck a chord with a wide variety of audiences. Everett is revered as a pioneer in the popularization of rural Appalachian music. Photograph by Michael Keller.
Bobby Taylor is a fourth-generation fiddler from the Charleston area, regarded as one of the most accomplished musicians of his day. Born in 1952, Bobby learned his music from his father, fiddler Lincoln Taylor, as well as from master musicians Clark Kessinger and Mike Humphries. Bobby’s clear tone and unparalleled technique have earned him numerous contest prizes and the universal respect of his peers. He is a tireless advocate for the music, as well, and has coordinated music competitions at the Vandalia Gathering for more than 30 years. Bobby also serves as director of the State Archives Library in Charleston. Photo by Tyler Evert.
Buddy Griffin, a Nicholas County native who grew up in Braxton County, is a master musician on several instruments and a dedicated teacher and mentor. Raised in a musical family, Buddy began performing at an early age, excelling at banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. He traveled extensively, appearing and recording with many top-name bluegrass and country music artists. In 1997, he returned to West Virginia and taught music at Glenville State College, where he was instrumental in developing the world’s first degree program in bluegrass music. Buddy remains active as a performer and teacher of bluegrass and traditional music. Photograph by Tyler Evert.
Mike, Dave and Tim Bing are accomplished old-time musicians from the Huntington area with family ties to Wayne County. With Mike on mandolin, Tim on banjo, and Dave on fiddle, they have performed as the Bing Brothers band, and have taught and traveled widely. Mike Bing is the founder of the Allegheny Echoes heritage arts education program. Dave Bing, a respected woodworker and violin maker, also plays the banjo and guitar. Tim Bing has won numerous awards for his distinctive clawhammer banjo playing.
Gerald Milnes of Elkins, Randolph County, is a folklorist, author, filmmaker, teacher, and musician who has contributed immeasurably to the preservation and understanding of West Virginia traditional culture. He served for 25 years as Folk Art Coordinator for the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College, amassing more than 2,000 hours of audio and video documentation of native West Virginians engaged in folk life activities. Gerald is also an accomplished musician, winning multiple awards on both the fiddle and the banjo, and performing with the group Gandydancer.
Roger Bryant was born in Logan County in 1948, grandson of 1984 Vandalia Award recipient Aunt Jennie Wilson. After spending several years traveling and performing with his famous grandmother, Roger carved out a niche of his own, featuring his original songs and engaging stage presence. A U.S. Marine veteran, he later became the executive director of the Logan Emergency Ambulance Service Authority (LEASA) and director of the Logan County Office of Emergency Management. Roger continues to travel around southern West Virginia, emceeing concerts and entertaining audiences with his songs.
Ken Sullivan thought he would be a history professor. That is in fact how he began his professional career. Life had other plans for this son of the Appalachian coalfields. After only two years in academia, Ken became editor of GOLDENSEAL magazine—a position he held for 18 years—then executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council for the last 18 years. An astute scholar of regional studies and mountain literature, Ken has contributed much to the appreciation and documentation of West Virginia’s folk culture. He deservedly received the 2015 Vandalia Award, West Virginia’s highest folklife honor.
A native West Virginian, Hoffman discovered quilting in the summer of 1969 while visiting a high school friend. Hoffman knew she was meant to be a quilter the first time she had a thimble on her finger and a needle in her hand. Hoffman started quilting in earnest when, as a young bride, she moved to Europe with her husband. She discovered that she also had a knack for teaching, so as she improved her own skills, she was sharing with others. After returning to the United States – and home in West Virginia – she continued to work on her skills. She has won prizes for her own quilts and for quilting she has done for others, including awards at the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair at Cedar Lakes, Three Rivers Quilt Show in Pittsburgh, Pa., and shows in Virginia. She has won the Best Hand Quilting Award twice at the West Virginia Quilt Festival. Hoffman teaches a basics-of-hand-quilting class for West Virginia quilt guilds and has taught elementary school children to make a Log Cabin quilt block. She is active with the West Virginia Quilters, Inc. Hoffman is the first quilter to win the Vandalia Award, the highest folk life award presented by the state of West Virginia.
For more than 44 years, Good has been playing and making dulcimers in the hills of the Mountain State. A native of West Virginia, Good’s dulcimers have gained an international reputation. His work is a tribute to his creativity, ingenuity and talent. Handcrafted with his own touch with native West Virginia hardwoods and exotic woods, these instruments produce one of the most unique sounds in the world. And, while exceptional musicians treasure the dulcimers made by Good, there are many young musicians whose first – only – and favorite dulcimer have come from Mastertone Dulcimers. He handcrafts each dulcimer with a beautiful arched top and bottom, producing one of the finest and most unique sounds of any dulcimer in the world. Jim and his wife, Brenda, have been inducted into the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair Hall of Fame for their four decades of work with that event. Their dulcimers have won numerous awards and are cherished by some of the greatest dulcimers players in West Virginia and around the world. They have shared their dulcimers with the public at nearly every Vandalia Gathering since the first one in 1977. The mountain dulcimer is one of the only musical instruments that emerged from the mountains of Appalachia and one of the few instruments that originated in the United States.
Growing up in a family where the truth was fluid, Bil Lepp became adept at spinning tales and exaggerating circumstances at an early age. A nationally renowned storyteller and five time champion of the West Virginia Liars’ Contest, Bil’s outrageous, humorous tall-tales and witty stories have earned the appreciation of listeners of all ages and from all walks of life. Though a champion liar, his stories often contain morsels of truth which shed light on universal themes. Be it a hunting trip, a funeral, or a visit to the dentist, Bil can find the humor in any situation. Lepp explains that while his stories may not be completely true, they are always honest. Bil is the author of six books and sixteen audio collections. His first children’s book, The King of Little Things, won the PEN Steven Kroll Award for Picture Book Writing, received a Kirkus Starred review, and favorable reviews from The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, The School Library Journal and other publications. It also won the Zena Sutherland Award, the Parent’s Choice Gold Award, was a finalist for the Irma Black Award, and was chosen to be West Virginia’s book at the National Book Festival. A storyteller, author, and recording artist, Lepp’s works have received awards and recognition from The Parents’ Choice Foundation, The National Parenting Publications Assoc., and the Public Library Assoc. In 2011, Bil was awarded the National Storytelling Network’s Circle of Excellence Award. Lepp has been featured 15 times at the National Storytelling Festival, and performed at major storytelling festivals, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and at corporate events and functions across the country. He performed at Comedy Central’s Stage on Hudson in Los Angeles, CA. Bil lives in Charleston, WV with his wife and two children.
Dwight Diller is one of a small handful of native West Virginia musicians actively engaged in preserving the traditional music of his state. Dwight was born in 1946, and grew up having instilled in him the mountain culture of east central West Virginia. His ancestors were some of the earliest settlers of the region around Pocahontas County. Dwight’s early interest in the old stories and the old music, led him to seek out the old people in his home area who were the repositories of this tradition. According to Dwight, ”I can’t remember when I wasn’t interested in the stories being told by and about the old folks from my region.” Then on his own, with a powerful desire to connect with his heritage, he did what we used to do. He paid a visit to his neighbors. Now with decades of playing and almost as many years teaching the old music, Dwight has long since come into his own as an interpreter of his heritage. His music continues to mature as he teaches the old music, its context, how not to mistreat it. This continual teaching year after year brings about changes in his internal personal growth which keeps his music always fresh. His music has the active ingredients that keep it in the spirit of the archaic feel without becoming a museum piece. It grows in depth like the traditional music of the 19th century central West Virginia mountains grew.
W. I. “Bill” Hairston of Charleston (Kanawha County) is a storyteller, old-time musician, teacher, and pastor. Originally from Alabama, Bill and his family moved to St. Albans in 1960 when he was 11. Through his storytelling, Hairston combines the rich heritage of Appalachian and African-American culture. He’s participated in every Vandalia Gathering since its inception and is coordinator of the event’s Liar’s Contest. He’s a member of the West Virginia Storytelling Guild, the Kentucky Storytelling Association, the Ohio Storytelling Network, and the National Association of Black Storytellers. He also serves as the West Virginia liaison to the National Storytelling Network.
Dr. Ron Stollings of Madison (Boone County) grew up immersed in old-time music and culture. He’s honored that tradition by coordinating opportunities that feature local musicians. He received the Governor’s Arts Folk Arts award in 2010 for his dedication to preserving old-time music and for his continued support of the Vandalia Gathering and the Appalachian String Band Music Festival.
Patricia “Pat” Cowdery of Elkview (Kanawha County) spent 31 years coordinating festivals and programs that incorporate all art forms and our traditional cultural heritage, including the Vandalia Gathering and the Appalachian String Band Music Festival at Clifftop—in addition to other programs at Camp Washington-Carver (Fayette County). She used her education and experience to develop programs, craft shows, and educational workshops, often blending together the traditional music, crafts, food, and gardening of West Virginia and Appalachia.
Since 1973, the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins (Randolph County) has facilitated cultural education through immersive and experiential workshops in music, craft, dance, foodways, and folklore. Augusta elevates traditional folkways, particularly those of the underserved communities of Appalachia and beyond. Dances, concerts, festivals, film screenings, cultural sessions, and other public events connect communities of learners and enthusiasts with master artists and culture-bearers year-round. Throughout its history, Augusta has nurtured a community of artists who share their talents and values in a cooperative, supportive environment.