This story was originally published in the July 2023 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit

Written by Pam Kasey

Photography Courtesy of

The Hammons Family Fiddle and Banjo Contests and World-Class Jam have a long and melodious history in West Virginia. 

If we could jump in a time machine and go back to the 1960s and 1970s, we’d get a firsthand glimpse of West Virginia at the center of an international folk revival. Young people who’d grown up on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came from around the world to hear folks born at the turn of the 20th century playing traditional mountain music. Festivals cropped up across the state, from the long line of cars waiting to get into the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair at Cedar Lakes to the muddy environs of the Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival in rural Clay County. A new generation that, mostly, looked and dressed a little differently was learning at the feet of traditional musicians who’d been alive longer than radios or even cars had been around.

It was really cool to be from West Virginia during this time. Some loved visiting here so much, they stayed for good. “Back to the landers,” as they came to be known, began escaping the rapid-paced anxiety of big cities to absorb our ways of farming, quilting, cooking, weaving, carving, telling stories, and, most certainly, how to play eerily ancient tunes that had been around since pioneer days.

Old Ways and Fiddling Royalty

When Pocahontas County started its own heritage festival in 1967, the name captured our own ’60s vibe: Pioneer Days. It was a tribute to those who came before and a way to pass the heritage along to young people. Couples squared-danced on flatbed trucks. Children quilted, churned butter, and ate lots of food. Women demonstrated old-timey ways of spinning, weaving, quilting, and recaning chairs. The Presbyterian church barbecued chickens on open grills. The parade showcased farriers crafting horseshoes and families decked out in the finest of frontier fashions, driving their horses and buggies down Marlinton’s main street.

But what a lot of people remember best is the music. The finest players in the region came together to jam and compete. It was a golden era of old-time fiddling. One contest regular, Randolph County’s Woody Simmons, once took the top fiddle prize shortly after he narrowly survived a truck wreck—just one of the 300-plus blue ribbons he captured in his career.

But most of the attention centered on the Hammons family. Folklife specialists such as Alan Jabbour, who would soon found the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, and his colleague Carl Fleischhauer recorded a collection of Hammons music, stories, and photos that would become a landmark in Appalachian studies. Dwight Diller, who passed away earlier this year, spent years documenting the Hammonses. He called them “the last of the 1700s-type people remaining.”

Lee and Maggie Hammons, born in the 1890s, and Sherman and Burl, born in the first decade of the 20th century, offered up an abundance of examples of long-forgotten ways of hunting, fishing, digging ginseng, and moonshining, but mostly playing old-time music. 

Their kin were West Virginia fiddling royalty. Edden (pronounced “Edn”) Hammons (1875–1955) was arguably one of the best fiddlers in Mountain State history. Stories about Edden’s competitiveness and obsession with playing are legendary, as are stories about his entire family. As one tale goes, Edden’s older brother Pete (1861–1955) once got into a fight with a fellow who bit down on his fingers, to which Pete screamed, “Let go! You’ll spoil my fiddling!”

Gerald Milnes, retired folk art coordinator at the Augusta Heritage Center, was one of those young folklorists captivated by the Hammonses when he first came to West Virginia in the ’70s. He says what made them so special was that “they took us backwards through this time machine–like travel while the modern world was advancing into the digital age. As folk artists, their shared values, in an unbroken chain—connected us to earlier times.”

Bringing the Music Back

Pioneer Days is still a vital link in that chain. It’s scheduled this year in Marlinton for July 6–8. Over the decades since it began, only one thing really fell by the wayside: those old-time fiddle and banjo contests. By the late 20th or early 21st century, most of the older musicians had passed on, and younger people seemed to be losing all interest in old-time ways. But that’s changed in recent years, demonstrated by soaring attendance figures at old-time and bluegrass music festivals. And that live music was profoundly missed during the peaks of COVID-19.

Local musician Joanna Burt-Kinderman notes, “Many of us were reminded of all the things we really missed while being apart, and in a burst of Facebook reminiscing, Richard Hefner, whose Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys were a big part of the early festival, was talking about how wonderful the fiddle and banjo contests were in the Pioneer Days of the past.”

So, in 2022, Burt-Kinderman and other local musicians joined forces with the Pioneer Days Committee to bring the contests back. Just like the selection of “Pioneer Days” to title the festival back at the beginning, it didn’t take long to come up with a name: The Hammons Family Fiddle and Banjo Contests and World-Class Jam. “Why not name it for the county’s most influential and beloved family of old-time musicians?” she asks. With marketing and publicity assistance from fellow musician Ryan Krofchek, Pioneer Days again had its old-time music contests. After last year’s rousing success, Pioneer Days has dedicated all day Saturday, July 7, to old-time music contests, concerts, and jamming.

Burt-Kinderman gives much of the credit to the Pioneer Days Committee. “I can barely take this on at this level. If it weren’t for these fine folks partnering, this event would never happen. We have acts on two stages all day. In addition, some of the very best West Virginia pickers—such as Mark Lilly, Alan Johnson, and Buddy Griffin, who was just elected to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame—will be playing in designated places with anyone who’d like to pick with and learn from them. We’re creating a space to celebrate and share music in formal and informal ways, turning the entire town into the place where anyone who loves traditional music will want to be.”  

Enriching the Legacy

Richard Hefner, who helped inspire the contests’ rebirth, will be there again with his band, just as he was in the first years of the festival. Hefner was lucky enough to grow up in Pocahontas and play music with the Hammonses. He vividly recalls them being the main attraction, even when they weren’t playing. 

“What I remember the most back then is the music,” he reflects. “I remember Fred Burns pulled a flatbed stage onto the football field to use as a stage. Sherman Hammons comes walking in. He has his hands in his pockets and walks over right in front of the stage. I said, ‘Sherman, get up and play one for these folks here.’ Instead, he gets up there and gobbles like a turkey. Young people were here from all over. They absolutely loved it!”

While Hefner’s Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys have changed lineups since forming in 1968, they still carry on the same musical traditions—part of that unbroken chain from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s to the 2000s. 

Last year’s event drew an impressive turnout and top-notch contests. Steven Casto of Marlinton won the clawhammer banjo, and Lee Dunbar from Eagle Rock, Virginia, took the bluegrass banjo blue ribbon.

The fiddle contest was a barn burner, as previous champions of the Vandalia Gathering, State Folk Festival, and Appalachian String Band Music Festival faced off against one another. Tessa Dillon of Monroe County edged out Jake Krack, now a member of the renowned Pocahontas County–based Bing Brothers Band—who, you guessed it, also learned from the Hammons family. 

Photographed by Will Price

Dillon, when she was just nine years old, had been a student of Krack’s at Allegheny Echoes, a traditional music and arts camp in Pocahontas County co-founded by the Bings. Krack took more pride in his second-place finish last year than old Edden would have, telling reporter Carolyn Cleaton of The West Virginia Daily News, “Taking second place to your student, there is no better win.” 

And if we could jump back in our time machine to the 1990s, we’d see Krack learning from two other generations of Mountain State fiddle greats: Melvin Wine and Bobby Taylor. Just to drive the point home even more, 9-year-old Virginia Vale Cyfers of Huntington, one of Dillon’s students, took home the youth-fiddle blue ribbon.

“Winning is always fun,” Dillon says. “While contests are just one piece of the pie in old-time music, the case of a student beating a former mentor and her young student showing up, competing, and winning in her division shows that the tradition is living and progressing from past generations through the present.”

Musicians are still time traveling in Pocahontas County, handing down old-time tunes from generation to generation just like the precious family heirlooms they are. That’s a big part of why, more than 50 years after the first Pioneer Days, it’s still really cool to be a West Virginian.