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Arts & Culture

A Champion Guitar Player Continues the Family Legacy While Handing the Music Down

Robin Kessinger-3.jpg
Zack Harold
/
WVPB
Robin Kessinger is a world champion flatpicking guitar champion, a style of music that transfers traditional fiddle tunes to steel string guitar. He learned much of his repertoire from his uncle Clark Kessinger, a renowned old-time fiddler.

If you know one thing about the Newport Folk Festival, it’s probably this:

In 1965, folk wonder boy Bob Dylan took the stage with an all-electric band. He changed the course of rock music forever, but also enraged some traditionalists in the process. Pete Seeger was apparently so disturbed by the noise that night he threatened to cut the power with a hatchet.

But this story concerns a performance that happened the following year, at the 1966 festival. It was electric in a different way. No hatchets involved.

This performance occurred during the festival’s fiddle contest. Up to the mic stepped a man in a sports coat and slacks. He had a Colonel Sanders string tie around his neck, a fedora over his white hair and a fiddle under his chin. It was St. Albans, West Virginia’s own Clark Kessinger.

The 70-year-old Kessinger ripped into the traditional fiddle tune “Sally Ann Johnson,” dancing behind the microphone like a man a quarter of his age. The surviving footage is grainy, but you can see the wicked grin on his face.

He’s smiling because this kind of music just makes you happy. But he’s also smiling because he knows he just might be the best fiddle player alive. And because, just a few years before, he thought his days as a professional musician were over forever.

Kessinger was born in 1896. He started playing fiddle at a young age and, when he was still a kid, his dad would take him around to local honkytonks, where the boy earned more in tips in one night than his dad made all week.

Clark joined the Navy during World War I. After he got out, he started entering local fiddle contests — and taking home top prize every time. By the end of that decade, he was making best-selling records with his guitar-playing nephew Luke. The duo was billed as the Kessinger Brothers and their recording of “Wednesday Night Waltz” sold a million copies for Brunswick Records, making them one of the first country artists to achieve that level of success.

Then came the Great Depression, which put an end to the Kessinger Brothers’ recording career. Luke, a hard drinker, died of cirrhosis of the liver. Clark found work as a house painter. He got married — a few times — and raised a bunch of kids. He still played the fiddle for local dances but it seemed like his days as a professional musician were over.

Until the folk revival of the 1960s. A new generation of fans discovered those old Kessinger Brothers recordings. Interest was so high Clark went back out on the road. In 1964, at the age of 68, he took first place at the renowned Galax Fiddler Convention in Galax, Virginia. Two years later, he was at Newport. Two years after that, he played on the Grand Ole Opry. And in between all those high-profile gigs, he appeared at folk festivals all around the country.

His second chance at a music career ended almost as quickly as it began, though. In 1971, Clark was at the mic at yet another competition when he suffered a severe stroke. He collapsed right there onstage, and though he survived, he could no longer play fiddle.

Yet despite this tragic setback, Clark was about to usher in the next chapter of the Kessinger family’s musical legacy.

Not long before his stroke, Clark had a visitor at his St. Albans apartment. It was his nephew, Bob Kessinger and Bob’s 15-year-old son Robin.

Bob was an accomplished mandolinist, and had shown Robin his first chords on a guitar.

“That’s how I started playing. He needed a guitar player, so I started playing guitar with him,” Robin said.

Robin took to the instrument and started picking up songs anywhere he could, even from his Saturday morning cartoons.

“These really old cartoons you hear a lot of fiddle tunes on there. Like the buzzards flying, that’s ‘Arkansas Traveler.’”

He also learned songs from his dad’s recordings of this renowned old fiddler.

“Dad played Clark Kessinger albums and he had reel to reel tapes. I was indoctrinated that way. I was familiar with a lot of the tunes for as long as I could remember.’

So when Clark started sawing off a few traditional tunes — “Billy in the Low Ground” and “Done Gone” — Robin joined in on guitar.

“I backed him up. I played the chords,” Robin said. “He gave me a big compliment. He said ‘Bob, he sounds like Luke.’ I knew how Luke was.”

Luke, of course, was Clark’s late nephew.

After his stroke, Bob helped take care of Clark, so Robin got to spend even more time with him. And though he couldn’t play anymore, he still managed to pass down some of his musical knowledge to his great-nephew.

“He listened to all kinds of music. That’s one of the things I learned from him, was to listen to all kinds of music. And if you can use it in what you already know, you can make it better that way,” Robin said.

Robin took what he learned from Clark and began winning some contests of his own. He picked up titles in Kentucky, Ohio, Georgia and West Virginia. Just like Clark, Robin won first prize at Galax — though on guitar, not fiddle.

In 1985, he won the National Flatpicking Championship in Winfield, Kansas. He’s finished in the top five of that competition 10 times, more than any other competitor in history.

But for all the trophies, medals and ribbons he’s won through the years, there’s one that means more to Robin than any of the others.

Robin Kessinger-4.jpg
Zack Harold
/
WVPB
Of all the plaques, ribbons and trophies he has received, Kessinger is most proud of his "Sammy." The award is given by the Pinch Reunion to Good Samaritans who have made the world a better place.

The trophy looks a bit like an Oscar, but it’s called a “Sammy.” He was presented with it in 2001 at the annual Pinch Reunion in Pinch, West Virginia. Sammy is short for “Samaritan,” as in “Good Samaritan.” They give the award to people who have made the world a better place.

“It’s like a lifetime achievement for sharing my music and teaching,” Robin said.

Not only is Robin one of the most decorated musicians in American folk music, he has also dedicated the last four decades to teaching budding musicians like Bob Gilmore. Gilmore’s son Michael took lessons from Robin for a while. He lost interest when sports and other things came along. But years down the line, Gilmore ran into Robin at a music festival.

“I asked him if he was still giving lessons and he said ‘yeah,’” Gilmore said. “He said ‘I’ll take Michael back whenever.’ I said ‘Well, Michael’s not interested. I’m talking about me.’”

So he began meeting Robin every week at the Fret ‘n’ Fiddle guitar shop in St. Albans, where Robin keeps a small upstairs studio. That was 10 years ago. Their relationship is so mature now they interact less like teacher and student and more like two old buddies. Their lessons look more like living-room jam sessions.

“I’ve probably shown Bob more family tunes … I just keep digging up stuff I haven’t played in years,” Robin said.

Robin Kessinger-2.jpg
Zack Harold
/
WVPB
Bob Gilmore, a longtime student of Robin Kessinger, keeps an eye on his teacher's fingers as the pair play a traditional fiddle tune.

In fact, Robin schedules Bob as his last session for the day so they can take as long as they want.

“When he’s showing me stuff there always seems to be a story behind these tunes,” Gilmore said. “He might tell you where the song came from, what it’s about, what was going on at the time. So it‘s little more than the music you get with this, too.”

Clark’s music also lives on in the Kessinger family. Robin taught his son to play guitar and he’s picked up some contest wins of his own. His name is Luke.

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.


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