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Musicians fear for future of Vandalia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's 150th birthday, a time to celebrate the state's culture and history, is having the unintended consequence of disrupting a longstanding celebration of the state's culture and history.

The Vandalia Gathering, an annual Memorial Day weekend festival of traditional West Virginia music and culture, has been scaled back and merged with the state's June sesquicentennial celebration.

And a lot of local musicians aren't happy about it.

"I've had people come into the store and they're calling their state officials because they're afraid they're trying to end it," said Joe Dobbs, who owns Fret 'n Fiddle, a music shop in St. Albans. "I think it's one of the great things that happens in West Virginia, and people in other states don't have anything like we do."

Vandalia will take place over two days in May, rather than the usual three. Many of the festival's features -- dancing, craft vendors, outdoor concerts and the liars contest -- will take place in June, rather than this weekend. There will be music, but most of it will be indoors, without many of the impromptu jam sessions that musicians say make Vandalia special.

Chad Ashworth has been to every Vandalia Gathering, starting with the first one in 1977, when he was 4 years old. His grandparents raised him, and when his grandfather died, Ashworth inherited his banjo. Ashworth will be playing in the banjo contest at Vandalia this year but said it will be different because everything will be indoors.

"I have a son who's 2 now. This will be the sixth year I've done the contest, and my son is not going to be able to sit on a bale of hay and have a roasted ear of corn and watch his father play," Ashworth said. "Vandalia is kids running around outside."

Many musicians said they understood the desire to emphasize the sesquicentennial celebration, but were scared that a scaled-back Vandalia Gathering could become the norm.

"So often, when things are scaled back, they never get scaled back up to where they were - and, of course, we won't know until next year," said Bill Kimmons, who will emcee the instrument contests at Vandalia and also perform with his a capella group, Bare Bones.

Kimmons' wife and bandmate, Rebecca, agreed.

"It's one thing this year to scale it back," she said. "My concern is that it will remain scaled back."

Pete Kosky also has been to every Vandalia Gathering. He won the liars contest at last year's festival and came in second in the old-time banjo competition. He will perform at Vandalia this year and also is concerned that the smaller version could become permanent, and something will be lost.

"I started going when I was 10 years old. I learned to play traditional music at Vandalia. I was hoping my daughter would learn to play at Vandalia," Kosky said. "I think that once you scale something back, it probably won't come back again."

Caryn Gresham, the deputy commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, said the state has every intention of holding a full Vandalia Gathering next year. She said that incorporating Vandalia into the sesquicentennial was done with Vandalia's best interests in mind.

"One of the things we hope is that, by celebrating Vandalia at the sesquicentennial, we introduce Vandalia to some people who haven't been for a while and we'll have an infusion of new people," Gresham said.

The timing might be entirely coincidental, but this is the second consecutive year that Vandalia has been scaled down in some way. Last year, for the first time, on-site camping was not allowed on the Capitol Complex. There will be no camping this year and Gresham did not know if there would be camping in the future.

"A lot of people travel, and they come back here and it's like a musician's family reunion, and they camp out there in the parking lot," said Mike Webb, a guitarist and longtime Vandalia attendee. "And people can't come because they can't afford a hotel room."

Robin Kessinger, a flatpick guitar legend and the founder of the state flatpick guitar championship, said the changes have the effect of dumbing down the festival.

"I personally know people who live for the Vandalia Gathering," Kessinger said. "Some people are going to go to anything that pops up, but then you've got the people that live and breathe for the music."

The fear that a scaled down Vandalia could become status quo is widespread among musicians, but there's also suspicion among some that the Division of Culture and History is not as appreciative of traditional music as it once was.

"The very governing body that's supposed to facilitate this is kind of rejecting it," Kosky said. "Vandalia used to be your weekend if you were a musician, now they're just giving us the back of their hand."

Norman Fagan was the state's first commissioner of Culture and History -- he retired in 1989 -- and he is credited with creating the Vandalia Gathering.

"It's such an enormously popular event, and I know the commissioner is completely committed to it," Fagan said. "They're probably trying to enhance the sesquicentennial by bringing something of proven quality into an unknown event."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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