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Old-time musician Woodford “Woody” Simmons was born on November 13, 1911, in Randolph County on Becky’s Creek – just south of Huttonsville – to William and Florence Tacy Simmons. He recalled laboring “all the time” on his family farm. In summer 1925, when he was 13, he got a job working 10 hours a day grading the road between Huttsonville and Mingo.

About that time, he saved up enough from doing chores at school to buy a $15 fiddle from neighbor Smith Shreve. He taught himself to play “Soldier’s Joy,” “Ninety Days to Georgia,” “Mitchell’s Clog,” and other tunes by listening to local fiddlers, such as Charlie Bell and the McGee family, and the records of Fiddlin’ John Carson. He personally considered Edden Hammons to be the finest fiddler he ever heard live. Simmons blended these influences to form his own distinctive style of bowing and fingering that would make him one of West Virginia’s all-time champions.

While the fiddle was Woody’s best instrument, it was not his only one. His father made him his first banjo using white oak, a metal rim forged in his blacksmith shop, fencing wire for the frets, and tanned groundhog hide for the head. As he had with the fiddle, Woody taught himself to play clawhammer-style banjo by watching local players such as Cletus Johnson and his brother-in-law Floyd Swecker. He taught himself to flatpick a guitar by listening to recordings of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

By the 1930s, he was a formidable competitor, winning the first Mountain State Forest Festival fiddle competition in Elkins in 1930. He earned a little money fiddling for local square dances, but not much. He later observed, “A man could starve to death playing.” So he got a job working at a strip mine.

On May 23, 1934, he married LaVerne Tacy (1914-94), and, for a few years, she accompanied him on mandolin. They had one child together, William, born in 1936.

In 1935, he started doing radio shows in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with Jake Leary and his 13-year-old daughter Wilma Lee, who would eventually become a Grand Ole Opry regular with her husband, Stoney Cooper, all Randolph County natives. He also played on WMMN in Fairmont and WDNE in Elkins. In 1949, he put together a touring band with banjo player Arnold Selman and with his teenage son, William, on guitar. They played shows across southern West Virginia but could not earn a living at it. William, whom Woody described as a child prodigy, played regularly with his father until he was paralyzed in an automobile accident at age 27. He died in 1978.

In 1950, LaVerne opened a restaurant in Mill Creek, just north of Huttonsville, and Woody managed a Pure Oil Station down the street. For 15 years, he drove a truck hauling coal for the Carnation Milk Company, a career that was ended by a 1968 wreck that broke his spine in two places. As his paralysis slowly went away, he had to relearn the tunes he once knew by heart. He studied “Take Me Back to Tulsa” for months and won the fiddle contest with it at Pioneer Days in Marlinton. At that point in his recovery, it was the only tune he could recall. Little by little, the old tunes came back, and he compensated amazingly well for the partial paralysis remaining in his fingers.

Legend has it that Simmons won more than 300 fiddle contests in his lifetime. In the late 1970s, historian and musicologist Michael Kline noted that at age 67, “Woody Simmons is perhaps the most highly decorated local fiddler to come up in central West Virginia. His legendary smooth bowing style and effortless soaring phrases, and his combative approach to contest playing have won him the admiration of a large following of contest and festival audiences.”

On February 12, 1978, just weeks after his son’s death, Woody had a massive heart attack. Once again, he battled his way back to performing. On November 4 of that year, shortly after recovering from heart surgery, he won the fiddle contest at the Mountaineer Days Festival in Morgantown while wearing a heart monitor. The following May, he won three prizes in the fiddle and banjo contests at the Vandalia Gathering. That year, the state Department of Culture & History released his first album, All Smiles Tonight, on the Elderberry Records label. In 1983, the same state agency named him the third recipient of the Vandalia Award, West Virginia’s highest folklife honor.

But Simmons was far from laying down his fiddle. He continued to compete and win at festivals in the senior fiddle and banjo categories, and even in non-senior contests against much younger competition. In May 2003, he won the over-60 banjo title at the Vandalia Gathering at age 91. He died in Elkins on June 3, 2005, and was buried in the Old Brick Church Cemetery in Huttonsville. That year, the Pocahontas Community Cooperative released a two-CD compilation of his live radio tracks: Woody Simmons Live at WVMR and later an hour-long audio documentary about him, Double Geared Lightning.

Other than music, Simmons’s other great hobbies were cars and motorcycles. He often did trick stunts on his Harley-Davidson, sometimes standing up on the seat while fiddling away on “Orange Blossom Special.”

Woody Simmons discusses his playing and performs “Soldier’s Joy” as part of a 1984 BBC interview (accompanied on guitar by Michael Kline)

 

Last Revised on May 08, 2023


Sources

Tribe, Ivan M. Mountaineer Jamboree: Country Music in West Virginia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

Milnes, Gerald. Play of a Fiddle. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Kline, Michael. Woody Simmons: Recollections of a Randolph County Fiddler. Goldenseal, 5, 3, July-September 1979.

Cite This Article

e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia "Woody Simmons." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 08 May 2023. Web. 28 May 2024.

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