MORGANTOWN — A great deal of time and effort goes into publishing a song on an album, but often little is known about the people that make it happen. Travis Stimeling, an assistant professor of music history at WVU, has undergone the task of documenting the lesser known creators of country music. Stimeling’s Nashville Sound project focuses on records produced between the 1950s and 1970s in one of the nation’s music centers.
Nashville Sound will be a collection of oral stories, records and experiences of session musicians, many of whom were present for iconic recordings by artists such as Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton and other classic country stars. Session musicians provided professional “fill” music, such as back-up drums or bass, among other things.
Although they worked in the background and often did not have their names on album covers, the work of these session musicians has been heard everywhere.
One such session musician that Stimeling has studied is Charlie McCoy from Fayetteville, W.Va. McCoy did recordings with everyone from Bob Dylan to Elvis Presley. He has been in the business since the 1960s and will soon record his own solo album.
With Nashville Sound, Stimeling hopes to get the stories of these session musicians out to the world. He’s spent the last three years learning their craft and getting their take on creating country music, offering a different perspective than the album artist.
“Too much of the time, we focus on recording artists,” Stimeling said. “My goal is to look at the people who are working day-in and day-out in the [background].”
Session musicians traditionally had three separate recording sessions throughout the day, each lasting about three hours. They would record four songs per session and worked five to six days a week. With this schedule, a 20-year career could amount to tens of thousands of sessions and songs.
“They wouldn’t necessarily see it this way, but I think the best analogy is factory work,” Stimeling said. “They would just keep producing music every day and would have to come up with new ideas, new hooks and ways to draw your attention to a particular song. I find that whole line of work absolutely fascinating. I can’t imagine being that creative every day.”
Stimeling will spend the next year compiling his research into a book. His teaching will be put on hold until the 2018 school year. Funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the West Virginia Humanities Council and the WVU Faculty Senate will provide the tools he needs to see the project to its conclusion. He hopes to finish it the right way and in a timely manner so the musicians, some of whom are in their 80s and 90s, can see their stories told.
Nashville Sound is very much a passion project for Stimeling. When asked how the country music genre inspired him, he said, “Country music is the music I grew up on. It’s the music that was always there. It was the music that to me spoke the most truthfully about my own experience. It helped me to get connected to the people in my community.”