The West Virginia Town Defying Stereotypes

The fiddler breaks a string mid-song. The band being an instrumental trio, the change is noticeable immediately, but the fiddler strums on. Her face makes a slight grimace at moments where the string is particularly missed. Thunder roils outside.

She wears a black tunic, black ankle boots and dark rimmed glasses. Between the fiddler’s style, the drummer’s civil-war era mutton chops and the guitarist’s undercut haircut which breaks for a mop of perfectly curled hair, this trio doesn’t seem like the kind of entertainment found in a town with a population under 600.

Lightning strikes as the band makes an impromptu string break. Outside are two men in tees and trucker hats. When a bolt hits in the distance they become illuminated momentarily, seen caressing one another’s cheeks and kissing tenderly. Thomas, West Virginia isn’t what comes to mind when you think of West Virginia.

Last year my husband Carl and I went on a Google quest to find the best bluegrass venues in Appalachia — The Purple Fiddle of Thomas WV jumped out in our search early on, and only being a three hour drive from our Pittsburgh home, seemed like the perfect stop for a weekend road trip. Just this month we returned from our second trip to Thomas. We’ve yet to seek out another bluegrass destination. There’s been no need.

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We had no expectations for our first visit. After learning The Purple Fiddle was both a music venue and a guesthouse, we reserved a room, spent a few minutes listening to the band who’d be owning the Thursday stage, then chose to be surprised. On the drive down we passed small towns, some with healthy main streets, others with boarded up general stores. There were curving mountain roads, state parks and creeks around every turn. Arriving in Thomas, the main street took less than one minute to drive the length of, but the businesses crammed in surprised us — A pottery shop, vintage store, coffee shop, artist studios, multiple antique sellers, fresh grocer, luncheonette, and at the end of the street: The Purple Fiddle.

Dubbed by locals as “The Fiddle”, we checked in through Cathy — A late thirty-something with wavy red hair and cowboy boots. She showed us into the Guest House next door, into our sunlight filled room. Decorations were minimal. A vintage typewriter and a throw blanket at the foot of the bed brought a touch of gray into an otherwise bright white room. It felt clean and warm and cozy and we couldn’t have asked for more at the $80 pricetag.

With the band hitting the stage at 7:30 we had a few hours to fill, and while Thomas’ main street shuts down at 5pm, there was enough sun left for a short hike to the nearby Black Water Falls state park (another hit onto the #girlsnwaterfalls tag I’ve owned on Instagram) and a beer at Stumptown brewing in the neighboring town of Davis. Carl and I split a flight as we chatted with the bartender Dylan, a former Pittsburgh resident who moved to the area for the rock climbing opportunities available. A large balloon shouting “50” hung beside him, and inquiring about the occasion, learned it was the owner’s 50th birthday. The owner who, as it turned out, happened to be sitting next to us at the bar. A small but sprightly woman named Cindy, she and Carl shared the same birthday, so the few of us cheersed together, then we departed just as Cindy’s son arrived, an angsty looking twenty-something with bottled jet black hair spiked with gel.

Back at the inn we freshened up and make the 32 second journey from our room to The Fiddle next door, arriving just in time to see each table being set with fresh flowers. Good Morning Bedlam is the band of the evening, A “midwest folk” quartet. Carl had been brushing up on their albums the week leading up to Thomas, and was adorably excited. We sat down and ordered a grilled cheese and veggie burger — The Fiddle being the only place in Thomas serving dinner, we were impressed by the food and the beer menu. There were bottles of Orval from belgium and drafts pouring the local Stumptown IPA.

We got cozy, laid back, and on came the band. Looking around I was a bit concerned about the audience — Ourselves included, there were only a dozen looking up at the stage. When the band began to play the guitarist and cellist had smiles a bit too put on. For their first song I was a bit too awkward to truly enjoy it. But, during their next few ballads I began to pick-up on something. Thursday night is the night to be at The Purple Fiddle. On Thursdays, the audience joins together. They stomp. They shout. They clap. They support the band, and each band member nods to each audience member at some point throughout the night while making eye contact. They take their cues from the audience, and the audience does what it can to let them know they’re appreciated. On Fridays and Saturdays there’s a crowd, but larger crowds mean less intimacy. When the room is filled up each audience member shirks responsibility for making the band feel loved. A sedated mob mentality kicks in and folks seem to be content at watching the band from a distance. But on Thursdays… on Thursdays we’re here for one another. And it’s a party.

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Good Morning Bedlam’s members are all in their twenties and they fit together jaggedly — There’s the guitarist and lead singer, tee-shirted, ponytailed and wavy haired. The cellist with her heeled booties and highly maintained short short hair, who sings with the saccharine smile of a theatre major, but who moves languidly. The banjo player with his knee length gray blazer, bowler hat, loose gray trousers and tight satin vest — He only plays with his eyes closed, but his fingers move at lightning speed. And finally the fiddler, standing no taller than 5’2’’ with her boxy white tee shirt and blue jeans, her tightly curled hair is loosely ponied behind her ears and when she sings, oh my when she sings! Her voice is bluesy and folksy and haunting and I spend most of the evening watching her.

The crowd claps when prompted and shouts when a string is plucked particularly hard. We’re here for it. After the show I tell the fiddler we came to Thomas to see them for Carl’s birthday. It’s not entirely true, but it’s certainly not a lie.

Our next Thursday in Thomas came one year later — Just after Carl’s birthday we arrived late-afternoon after a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob house in Ohiopyle and a trio of waterfall hikes in Swallow Falls State Park. A cold and rainy morning gave way to a cold and sunny afternoon, and by the time we splayed onto the bed at The Fiddle, we were exhausted.

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A hot lunch at Hellbender Burrito in Davis was our reviver. An unassuming place from the outside, Hellbender has over 700 Google reviews, a 4.6 star rating, and a menu that’s incredibly vegetarian friendly. We had a surprisingly good cucumber and tofu special dubbed “Goofy Foot” along with a Stumptown IPA — Just what the frosty day needed. The beer list extensive, the burritos winners, and the bathrooms X-Files themed, this was a treasure to find.

This burrito paved the way for the following three nights. Thursday, Friday and Saturday saw days filled with forest and waterfall hikes, afternoons stuffed with burritos, and nights in the Purple Fiddle, catching three shows from three very different bands.

Thursday’s band, Ferdinand the Bull, was a Pittsburgh native, just like ourselves. It felt odd to travel for hours to see a band who plays throughout the city with frequency, but the members seemed at home in the West Virginia venue. The lead singer, mid-twenties decked in flannel with a mop of shoulder length brown hair and three day old facial scruff, sang with a folksy voice fitting for the mountains. His co-singer had a higher pitched and crackly Avett Brothers-esque sound, and would rock back and forth in skinny jeans while plucking a mandolin. Behind them stood a glasses-and-button-down-shirt-donning standing bass player, and the percussionist (my favorite member!) sitting on a speaker and drumming it with brushes. Out of all the members he seemed the most bored, with a resting frown face and trucker hat on his wavy hair, but every now and then something would catch his eye and he’d smile the widest grin.

The only thing that made it apparent the band was comprised of out-of-towners was the girlfriend of one band member sitting in a front row seat, wearing a floor length head scarf of pink tulle and victorian ruffled skirt, who would take to blowing bubbles towards the stage throughout the show.

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The set list was two parts original songs and one part covers. Again, the Thursday performance began with only a dozen in the audience and were shy to clap, but at the show’s close every single person was up and dancing to a cover of “Take On Me” sung by the crackly voiced co-pilot. Throughout our hike the next day I had a slight pain in my knee and realized mid-afternoon it was from 2+ hours worth of stomping with that leg the night prior.

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Friday night at The Fiddle is jammed. The pews in the back of the room, decorative throughout the week, are filled to capacity. The many members of The Jakob’s Ferry Stragglers fill the stage. A trilby-hatted banjo player plays beside a fedora-d fiddler standing next to the trucker hatted guitarist, beside the blonde slide guitarist, who stood in front of the wild haired standing bass player. The band members themselves are scattered throughout West Virginia and Pennsylvania, but this band is the most bluegrassy of all the bands I’ve seen at The Fiddle.

The fiddlers voice is soft, the kind of voice you’d want to sing you a lullaby (despite her chain smoking before/after the show and during intermission), while the banjo player has a twang that conjures up visions of the Smoky Mountains. Their songs tell of returning home to the hills to find long lost loves, drinking water from backyard wells and moonlit walks. Outside on the patio, a golden lab runs back and forth in front of the glass door, looking for its owner but so excited by the music. During banjo solos its tongue would hang down four inches longer as it beat its tail wildly.

Saturday night. This is the night of the black-wearing, string-breaking band — The John Stickley Trio. Admittedly, this was the band I was the least excited to see. We’ve brushed up on each band prior to seeing them at The Fiddle, but being an orchestral trio, the music never really revved me up. However, they became my favorite show of our three day weekend. Even a pair of siblings no older than 10 join in on the fun, standing in front of the stage practicing whipping their hair to the music. Each instrumentalist is so enraptured in what they’re doing. They close their eyes on occasion, rock their heads from side-to-side, bite lips, stomp feet. At times one member will catch the eye of another and a tiny smile will be unleashed along with a slight nod, as if to say “yes, this is what we get to do”. Their joy is palpable. Their presence on stage a treat.

When the fiddler makes a quick stage exit to try and patch their string up, the guitarist takes a few minutes to give the audience an impromptu ad for Blue Apron, stating that for someone who spends so much time on the road, “there’s nothing better than returning home to find a box of spoiled produce on their porch.” This trio knows how to entertain.

Our last morning in town starts at The Three Pigs cafe, the kind of spot that makes its own biscuits and has a small crowd out front before its doors open. A gem. The woman opening the cafe has dished out our burritos the last two days at Hellbender. Eating just enough cheese and carbs at 8am to not hate ourselves, we pop into TipTop cafe next door to grab our third cream cheese and blueberry pastry in as many days (for the road of course). Our barista is a long-term guest at the inn. Thomas and Davis are small. Cathy works at the market on main street (closed upon our 2019 visit). The owner of the vintage store does sound at The Fiddle. If “The Six Degrees of Thomas” were played, the average connection must be around 1.05. Dating in this town would be a nightmare.

We order our pastry and a large coffee. An empty cup with the cafe’s hot air balloon logo is plopped in front of us, and as we make our way towards the samovar station bedecked with cinnamon shakers and honey bottles we notice a few familiar faces. Each member of the John Stickley Trio stands near, waiting for their food order. The lead singer wears massive sunglasses that serve only one purpose at 8am. When I push down the coffee spout and notice the container has been emptied, he looks at me with a dead face as if to say he knows and recognizes this dilemma, but knows not what to do. I trade in the empty samovar for a full one, and he jumps on the brew as if it’s a holy elixir.

Thomas is a comfort to me, because each time I talk, watch or eavesdrop on folks here, I feel as if I understand humans more. Be it the Vietnam vet Tim who sits on his front porch on main street chain smoking and ashing into an umbrella container, striking up conversation with passersby and smiling widely as he talks about the book store he used to own, the shop owner who can be overheard telling tourists about their love / hate relationship with the town, only to be met with responses of this place being a heaven on earth, to simply hearing Netflix blast from a laptop in the first floor guest room at night. Visitors may put on a pretense, but those in the area live their lives as if the tourists weren’t there at all.

And because of this, they don’t seem to mind bubble-blowing urbanites or the queer couples kissing in public. They can be heard complaining of the snow or the cover charge at The Fiddle, or even of Thomas itself, but no matter where you are there’s something to complain about. Especially the weather.

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