Andrew Adkins: 'If You Think Local Music Isn’t Good, You’re Not Looking Hard Enough'
Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats ranging from Jordan Andrew Jefferson to Heavy-Set Paw-Paws, Of the Dell to False Pterodactyl and beyond.
But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day is coming up (not to mention A Change of Tune’s second birthday), we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new #WVmusic interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers and Parkersburg singer-songwriters to West Virginia music venues and regional artist management and beyond, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene.
And today, we are chatting with Fayetteville singer-songwriter and storyteller Andrew Adkins. And boy, does he have some stories to tell. So let’s get to our #WVmusic chat, shall we?
Andrew Adkins’ newest release is Wooden Heart. Hear more #WVmusic on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic and subscribe to our RSS / podcast feeds!
On his musical origins:
I was in a band called Public Enemy… [laughing] I was Chuck D’s first hype man until I was replaced by Flavor Flav [laughing]. No, I’ve always loved music. My parents loved music. My dad was a big Harry Chapin fan, and my mom was a huge Beatles fan. I got to go see Kenny Rodgers and Dolly Parton in concert. I was always exposed to music, and I always loved every part of it, whether it was a record, whether it was an 8-track, whether it was Joe Cocker or the “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” story.
I was always obsessed with words and putting words together and making them rhyme. It’s like this brilliant puzzle. When you write a song, you literally create something out of nothing. It did not exist until you made it exist, and I was always obsessed by that. I didn’t really play the guitar; my parents bought me a guitar when I was 12, and it was really hard. It’s still under my bed. It’s not a good guitar [laughing], which is why I didn’t play it back then.
On one of his first experiences performing live:
I used to come to this party in Fayetteville that was a big jam every year, and no one would ever play with me. I was offended by that, and it hurt my feelings, so that gave me a complex where I wouldn’t play out in front of people. Then years later, a gentleman by the name of Ben Criner who started The Wild Rumpus with me told me that no one would play with me because I didn’t know how to count to four. And I didn’t know what that meant, so he picked up a guitar and taught me. I didn’t realize that music had to have a time, rhythm and meter. Because I thought words were the most important part, so I would change chords where the words needed them to. So the first measure would have 29 beats in it, and the second measure would have seven beats in it. So when he sat down and taught me, that just changed my whole world. That’s when I really, really started writing songs.
On starting his band The Wild Rumpus:
We were a bunch of raft guides in Fayetteville. We played every Saturday night, and other raft guides would hang out and drink and dance and yell at us songs to play. We knew 20 songs, cover songs mostly, but that’s not I wanted to do. So I would write songs during that week just for that Saturday night. I would simplify my songwriting so other musicians could jump right in.
We did that, then people started offering to pay us money to play. And I was like, “What? You can get paid doing this?” So when we decided to start playing gigs, I didn’t want to be a cover. I’m not bashing cover bands, but it’s just not my thing. I started writing songs like crazy, and we would do a three-hour show with all original songs. Some were better than others, but at least we weren’t playing cover tunes.
On cover bands versus original material:
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been on tour and not very many people show up at our show. “Oh sorry, there’s a real popular cover band playing down the street. They’re playing “Wagon Wheel” seven times tonight, so everybody’s down there.” We were in New London, Connecticut, and we had to compete with a Def Leppard tribute band, and we drove by that club on the way to our club, and there was a line going down the street. And no one showed up at our show because of that. I think cover bands are an issue everywhere, not just in West Virginia. Even though here, it seems like a lot.
It’s very difficult to make a living playing music when you’re out there banging out original songs. I understand that people want to go out to a bar and have fun and hear songs that they know. But guess what? If you go out and see an original band, eventually their songs will be that way as well. I think that’s a huge issue: people don’t give bands a chance. There are so many great bands right now in West Virginia, and the reason why those great bands might not stay together is because it’s hard to compete with Joe Q “Ride Sally Ride” down the street playing your favorite hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Those songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s are classics because you’ve heard them a million times. But if you go see this other great band who has wonderful songs, those are going to be classics and you’ll know those.
I used to tell people on stage that I wrote songs. And then I stopped saying that. I stopped telling people I wrote the song. And it changed my whole career. Because when you tell someone that you wrote the song, they immediately click into hyper-judgment. They’re going to judge your words, your melody, just everything about it. But when you don’t tell them, they’re more open about it. Then after the show, they’ll come up to you and say, “Oh man, that one song you were singing was so great. Who wrote that?” And you’ll say, “Well I wrote it. I wrote all these songs.” To which they’ll respond, “Wow, you’re a good songwriter! I like your songs.”
But the reason I don’t tell people about that is because a songwriter told me one time, “Who are you to dictate their listening experience? Don’t tell me what I should be thinking when I’m listening to this song because I want to have my own emotions and my own reaction and interrupt it for me.”
On labels (especially in country music):
When people ask what kind of music I write, it pains me to say country music. But guess what? I’m from the mountains of West Virginia; that’s what I write. But I write country music in the sense that I’m from the country, and I sing about the truth of being from the country. None of my songs have a tailgate or Budweiser or misogynistic treatment of women, but none of my songs are on the radio, either.
On the rise of Appalachian music:
We have this authenticity about our music that it is the Appalachian sound. In “Americana” music, that’s what they’re after: that Appalachian sound. So what you have is a lot of young kids with beards, flannels shirts and tight pants, and they sing these songs about Appalachia (or try to), but it’s all fabricated.
The authenticity of music coming out of West Virginia right now can be heard and felt to where you just know they mean what they say and they say what they mean. Sure, we can listen to Britney Spears, but you don’t have an emotional connection to her songs other than a love of that time in your life.
On working in Fayetteville as a guitar maker:
My brain works all the time, so my hands have to work all the time or else I’ll get into trouble. I build guitars, banjos and mandolins, but mainly acoustic guitars. Which goes back to Appalachia and how wonderful it is, because I use a lot of wood from Appalachia that no one else will use. I try to use the wood from here in Appalachia because I personally think it sounds amazing.
It’s hard to convince people to play them over a Gibson. But I don’t even try to convince them anymore. I just hand it to them and let them play it. You can’t deny sound. When you try a guitar and hit it, you know when it sounds good. When people are asking about it, I just say, “Come to my shop and play one.”
On advice to folks wanting to get into music:
Take it serious. There’s nothing worse than showing up to a gig unprepared. So have a set list! Don’t stand on stage and say, “Well, what do you want to play next?” Don’t show up to a gig and ask the sound guy if they have an extra cable. Be professional. Dress like a professional. Act like a professional, especially if you’re an opening act for a band because they’re paying attention. If you show up to open for a band that’s on a much higher level than you, and you’re asking for a cable or dressed in flip-flops and shorts or you’re talking with your band instead of your audience, they’re not going to hire you again.
And to be honest with you, I didn’t know those things, and I’m not blaming you if you don’t know those things, but you should find them out. So ask me! I’ll tell you. I learned that stuff the hard way.
So my advice? Be prepared. Be professional. Be respectful. And don’t wear shorts or flip-flops.
On the name of his record Wooden Heart:
When I build guitars, I have scrap wood and it’s so beautiful, I can’t throw it away or burn them. So I have a woodshop filled with tiny pieces of wood that I save. Years ago, when my musical career wasn’t going as well as it is now, a friend of mine had a baby, and I wanted to get them a gift but couldn’t afford one. So I carved a heart out of cherry wood and gave it to them as a gift, and everybody loved it. Everybody started asking me for it, and I started making and selling them.
And then I got sick a couple years back, and I couldn’t tour with my band or work on making guitars. I just didn’t have the energy. So to keep sane and to keep some income coming, I kept carving wooden hearts. And that’s the thing about Fayetteville and how supportive they are: people were buying wooden hearts like crazy just because they knew I was in a tough spot.
A girl texted me one day and asked if I had any wooden hearts left, so I dumped them out on a table and took a picture of them, and she said, “That would make a great album cover!” Ever since then, Wooden Heart has been in my head for being an album. When I put out my first solo album, Wooden Heart just didn’t fit it. I don’t even know if Wooden Heart fits this album, but it’s just been hanging around for so long, I decided to use it.
I love writing songs, and I love creating stuff with wood.
On releasing Wooden Heart during the Brian Jennings Family Reunion in Fayetteville:
Brian Jennings was a dear friend of mine and everyone’s. He was a well-loved person and a great human being. He passed away two years ago from complications of cancer. I’m not very Facebook savvy, but there was a Facebook thing that was like “List 20 Things People Don’t Know About You.” Brian was a raft guide, he was a river manager, he was on the Olympic kayaking team, he was a ski teacher out in New Mexico, and just a well-loved person. And on that list on Facebook, he said that he knew so many people from so many different places, he wished he could get them all together once a year so they could meet each other. After he passed away, I promised his parents I would make that happen.
We called it the “friend reunion,” but really Brian made people feel like family. So that’s why I called it the Brian Jennings Family Reunion. People come from all over the world for this event. I wrote two songs for him to sing with us, and I finished them and sent them to him. He said, “Next time you play at the Rivermen (a rafting company in Fayetteville), we’ll do those songs.” Unfortunately, he passed away before he got to do those songs. Since I’m putting those songs on the album, I thought it would be great to put it out at the Brian Jennings Family Reunion.
One of the songs is called “Growing Older,” and it’s literally a conversation that Brian and I had. It’s his words; I just made them rhyme and put a melody to it. So that song’s taken a life of its own of being the anthem of that event.
Brian represented Fayetteville and West Virginia as good if not better than anyone I know. He was a good liaison to the people that live outside of Appalachia.
On the current state of #WVmusic:
West Virginia has some negativity floating around, just like any state, but we have brilliant people here, beautiful people here, and people who want to move forward. It doesn’t always get recognized because it’s always easier to recognize the lowest common denominator.
I think the Appalachian sound is as identifiable as Delta Blues or New York jazz. I really think that the Appalachian sound is that recognizable. We don’t have a machine pushing that. When somebody starts that machine, they’re met with a couple issues: they’re met with a lack of money, and they’re met with some hostility from folks who are a bit stand-offish. Sometimes people have great ideas that fail, so we’re a little skeptical.
But if we continue on the path that we’re on right now, I think West Virginia will become a music destination. I mean… why not West Virginia?
Music featured in this #WVmusic chat:
Andrew Adkins- "49 Pontiac"
Andrew Adkins- "Hardest Thing"
Andrew Adkins- "Getting Older"