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Joltin' Jim McCoy
While he never had a chart-topping song, Jim McCoy has managed to make a lifelong career in the hard-tumble music business. He performed all over the country, recorded for a major Nashville label, helped introduce Patsy Cline to the airways, and ran his own record company featuring regional acts from West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
Now 72, Jim and his wife Bertha own The Troubadour, a nightclub and restaurant on Highland Ridge in the Morgan County countryside near Berkeley Springs. Named in honor of Ernest Tubb, the "Texas Troubadour," the club is decorated with photos and memorabilia from Jim's long career. A barbeque fashioned in the shape of a giant six-shooter is located out back along with a spacious patio, a sloping lawn, and an outdoor stage for live music. The McCoy family lives in a complex of mobile homes nearby.
Just a few hundred feet away, James Wesley McCoy was born on April 11, 1929, to Peter Wesley and Carrie Virginia Henry McCoy. After a musical career that took him to more than a dozen states, Jim finally moved back to the old homeplace in the mid-1980's. On summer days, Jim can be found tending his garden of tomatoes and onions, some of which are used in the restaurant and some of which he simply gives away to friends. He's been gardening since he was a kid and claims, "The tomatoes coming off these hills are the best anywhere." When he was growing up, Morgan County was renowned for tomatoes and had an active tomato canning industry - an industry that died out because of a tomato blight in the 1940's.
The McCoy family earned much of its cash in those days by cutting timber. One day, young Jim decided, "There has to be a better way to make a living than holding this old crosscut saw." That better way - a career in music - was still some years off, but it seems to have been part of Jim's thinking from an early age.
When he was 13, Jim learned to play guitar from Pete Kelly, one of his neighbors on Highland Ridge. "He played the prettiest guitar I ever heard," Jim says. "I told my dad I want to play the guitar, but I couldn't even tune it. Pete would come over once a week and tune the guitar and teach me chords." Two of the songs he recalls learning from Kelly were "Wildwood Flower" and "You Are My Sunshine." Their music was the contemporary "hillbilly music" of the 1930's and '40's, which they mostly learned from records and radio.
Peter McCoy encouraged his son's musical inclinations. He bought him a guitar from a Montgomery Wards catalog and recordings by country singer Ernest Tubb. The teenager listened for hours to Tubb and to Bob Wills on the family's windup Victrola, and the Texas Troubadour became Jim's personal idol. At age 14, Jim walked and hitchhiked 40 miles to see Ernest Tubb perform at Conococheague Park near Hagerstown, Maryland. Jim got to meet his hero that night, and afterwards, they exchanged letters. Three years later, Tubb stopped and phoned young Jim while driving through Berkeley Springs. "Boy, I thought that was something," Jim says. Even today, he says of Tubb, "I just loved the guy so much."
Inspired by Tubb's deep voice and by the modern, amplified country sound emerging in the 1940's, Jim began singing and playing with his pal Ken Hoffman at Jack Waugh's tavern in southern Morgan County. Before long, Jim branched out to perform with Slim Belford. Slim later became the fiddler with bluegrass greats Bennie and Vallie Cain who also got their start in Berkeley Springs. In addition, Jim performed with regional favorite Sammy Moss and fiddler Sonny McCumbee, a member of a well-known Berkeley Springs musical family.
Jim and these other musicians played live gigs and radio shows all over an area where an hour's drive can take you from southern Pennsylvania, through western Maryland and West Virginia, and into Virginia. The teenaged McCoy's first time "on the air" was on WJEJ in Hagerstown in about 1945. He recalls his father hauling him to the radio station in the family's 1934 Studebaker in the wee hours for the 6 a.m. broadcast so that Jim could perform two songs with Bud Messner and his Saddle Pals, a popular band from nearby Pennsylvania.
While Peter McCoy never said much about his son's budding musical career, he was always supportive. Sometimes they would even string up lights near their farmhouse on Highland Ridge, and Jim would perform for neighbors from a wagon bed, perhaps foreshadowing the outdoor stage Jim later built behind The Troubadour.
Jim soon had an itch for his own radio program. "I wanted to play so bad that I got a 30-minute show on WINC in Winchester, Virginia," he says. "I didn't even have a car to get there. I bummed a ride anyway I could." He talked Rumsey Unger, who ran a general store south of Berkeley Springs near the Virginia line, into paying five dollars to sponsor his half hour.
WINC was one of the few stations that was heard far and wide in those days, covering a good bit of the northern Shenandoah Valley and nearly all of West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. The station's Saturday morning lineup consisted of a string of 30-minute country music programs. Others on the air at that time included Sammy Moss who had a popular honky-tonk style reminiscent of Hank Williams, and Alan Greenfield, a Gene Autry-influenced singer from Martinsburg.
"That was fun days," McCoy says, but then he smiles and concedes, "but it really wasn't very good radio." For a time in the 1940's, Jim moved to Baltimore where he worked in the nail mill at Bethlehem Steel, but a strike and a layoff later, he took a job with Montgomery Wards as a salesman. When Wards offered him a transfer to the Winchester store, Jim jumped at it and resumed his musical career.
It was during this period that he earned his long-standing nickname, Joltin' Jim McCoy. He was so busy doing radio shows and what he terms "schoolhouse" jobs, not to mention working full-time at Montgomery Wards to pay the bills, that someone remarked that he was always "joltin' around." The name stuck. Jim's band was called the Melody Playboys, a name inspired by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys whose brand of Texas Swing music was much admired by Jim McCoy and many of the other Eastern Panhandle musicians of the era.
There were memorable moments at WINC, even if it wasn't "very good radio" on a bigtime scale, and even if the "pay" was simply free advertisement for the weekend's live appearances. Nothing, however, quite stood out like the morning in 1946 when a 14-year-old girl named Virginia Hensley walked in and asked to sing with the band. "I talked to the boys and they said, 'Yes, let's give her a chance,'" says Jim. He was just 17 himself, but he already had a reputation for sharing his stage and mike with other performers.
The girl - who in the 1950's would be better known as Patsy Cline - bowled everyone over. "Boy, we knew right off that this girl was something else," Jim says. For the next month, she joined Joltin' Jim and the Melody Playboys on Saturday mornings. The young Cline had a strong voice and was especially effective on ballads. Her feature numbers included "Lovesick Blues," "San Antonio Rose," and "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey," which was to be her showstopper for years. "She was the only person I ever met in the music business who could say to the band, 'We're going to do this in [the key of] C,' and she would start out singing, and it would really be in C," Jim recalls.
Patsy Cline went on to sing with one local outfit after another, including groups led by Sammy Moss, Bill Peer, and Don Owens before finding her way onto Jimmy Dean's Town and Country Time TV show, which was beamed to Virginia and West Virginia from Washington, D.C. In 1957, she reached a national TV audience with Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, where she sang her first big hit, "Walkin' After Midnight." "I knew this girl was going to move forward. You could tell it at an early age," Jim says.
Jim always stayed close to Patsy and they sometimes performed together, particularly in the late 1950's before she moved to Nashville. Occasionally, the two would sing duets, with Patsy's forthright, bluesy voice entwining with McCoy's deep country sound. Unfortunately, no recordings of these performances are known to have survived, though Jim says he has searched for them.
After Patsy died in a plane crash on March 5, 1963, Jim McCoy and Sammy Moss were two of her pall bearers. A year later, Jim did the first of many radio shows remembering Patsy, a tradition he continues with a special tribute at The Troubadour in early March each year.
As Cline's career took off in the late 1950's, Jim stayed around Winchester and kept his day job at Montgomery Wards. Finally, he had to make a choice when he was asked to become the morning disc jockey at WHPL, a new station that debuted in Winchester in December 1960. "I wasn't really sure I wanted to do that because I had a pretty good job there at Wards, making $40 a week," he says. But he decided to make the leap into a fulltime radio and musical career. Things moved fast for the next few years for Joltin' Jim.
In 1961, Jim's first record was released on Nashville Records, a subsidiary of Starday-King, a major country label. The record, called "That's What Makes The World Go Around," was produced by Tommy Hill, a country music pro who had written several hits. It made a small splash. During his trips to Nashville, Jim visited Patsy Cline and her husband Charlie Dick, and he became closer to Ernest Tubb. He was invited to Tubb's home and hung out with him and some of the other Music City personalities of the time, including Ray Price, Willie Nelson, and songwriter Harlan Howard.
A couple of years later, Jim looked like he was about to break into the top ranks himself. His new one, "Which A Way, What A Way, Any Way," was a pick hit by Billboard, Record World, and Cash Box, which predicted, "A catchy new song, watch it go." The record, a humorous Larry Kingston-penned song about a missing wife, sounds fresh even today. "But it didn't go," Jim says sadly. "You know the business. It's very rough to make it." About the same time, the master tapes for his first LP were lost when the record-pressing company went bankrupt. Jim is not one to dwell on his disappointments, however, saying only, "There's been heartaches from this business."
Wisely, McCoy kept joltin' around and didn't put all of his eggs in the Nashville basket. He continued to perform locally and made frequent appearances across the Eastern Panhandle. Some of these performances included Jack Waugh's place in Berkeley Springs; the Old Orchard Inn (now Rainbow Road) in Rippon; Moose, Eagles, and VFW halls in Martinsburg; and even the famous Berkeley Castle in Berkeley Springs. Meanwhile, he stayed on the air at WHPL and promoted concerts featuring some of the newer country music acts. He also started a music publishing firm, publishing his own songs and tunes by other writers.
About this time, he teamed up with Jean Alford, a Virginia singer-songwriter, and launched Alear Records. The third Alear release, "It's a Big Old Heartache" by Teenie Chenault of Richmond, looked like it would be the big payoff for their efforts. As the song gathered airplay, record distributors began calling, and they rushed to ship out more copies. Unfortunately, they were never paid for most of those records, Jim says.
McCoy and Alford recorded some of their product in Nashville, such as Al Hogan's version of "He Didn't Become Famous For His Song," a telling title if ever there was one. The records often featured tunes written by McCoy or Alford and were usually pressed by Rite Records or Queen City in Cincinnati.
By the late 1960's, the McCoy-Alford partnership became strained, and Jim started his own Winchester Records, complete with a label picturing a big apple to symbolize the Virginia city. A string of regional performers trooped through his studio at 314 Lanny Drive. Aside from recordings by Jim McCoy and Jean Alford themselves, the Alear and Winchester catalogues included material by country singers Mel McQuain and Frank Darlington, both of Martinsburg; gospel music performer Kenny Johnson of Hedgesville; and the fairly well-known Carroll County Ramblers from nearby Maryland. The majority of the singers they recorded were country artists, but there were also releases by The Lone Star - a folk-rock singer from Romney whose real name was John Mark Hott - and by The Smacks - a Winchester rock group. Most of the records were 45 rpm, but there were also a few album releases. The records were often well-received and won attention in their home areas.
McCoy generally produced and engineered the recordings himself, and even when a singer was less than inspiring, the sound quality of Winchester's output was surprisingly good. He mixed the sound while listening to small speakers, rather than big studio ones, so that he could hear what people would hear at home. Jim always sought what he calls a "bitey sound" for the guitar, a lively sound that could be heard on his own records. Jim says that he tried to keep a copy of everything he released, but just couldn't seem to hold on to them. Sometimes, a group would even walk out the door with the master recording.
For a time, Jim ran another label, as well - Master Records, which specialized in gospel music, some of it from black groups associated with Virginia churches. "I loved the black gospel," Jim says. "I'll tell you what, if you didn't have a little feeling when they got through, there was something wrong with you."
In fact, Jim's lengthening radio career eventually included a stint with WEFG, a Winchester gospel station that he managed for a while. He took a Bible course, did a late-night talk show called Heavenly Hot Line, and put together his own gospel group, The Golden Strings.
"After I left WEFG, I went back into country music," he says. "What do you call that? Backsliding?"
Jim continued on the air as a DJ and ran his recording company into the 1980's. With the help of his wife and daughters, he also operated several family businesses through the years, including a record store, a music shop, and an early convenience store.
In the mid-1980's, he and Bertha returned to the McCoy homeplace on Highland Ridge and built The Troubadour. While he intended to semi retire, Jim still finds himself working around the business daily. In addition to the club's country music decor and special events, there are regular Friday night steak feeds, and live bands on Saturday nights. Just as Jim McCoy gave young Patsy Cline a chance on his radio show in 1946, he's still sympathetic to young talent.
Not long after The Troubadour opened, singer Justin Tubb showed up on Father's Day 1985 to see the place that was named for his dad, and he took the stage for a few songs. "That was the greatest thing that has happened here," Jim says. Jim continues to be good buddies with Charlie Dick, Patsy Cline's husband. Each September, Charlie returns to Winchester and drives up to The Troubadour to attend the Labor Day celebration that Jim puts on in memory of Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, and Johnny Triplett who played steel guitar in the Melody Playboys for many years. As part of the event, Jim introduces new members to his West Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame, begun by Jim in 1992, is located in one room of The Troubadour. It consists mainly of attractive plaques mounted on the walls to honor the inductees along with a few photos and memorabilia. So far, the Hall of Fame includes Patsy Cline, U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, Little Jimmie Dickens, Penny DeHaven (another Berkeley Springs native), Bluefield singer Mel Street, and Larry Murphy a local country and rockabilly artist who died about 20 years ago. Jim plans to expand the Hall of Fame and hopes someday to build a museum dedicated to West Virginia country music artists, if he can find the funding.
Jim still listens to country music, but comments, "Today, there are no unique voices. They all sound the same. There's no Roy Acuff, no Johnny Cash, no Hank Williams, no Merle Haggard."
Jim keeps busy sorting through his memorabilia and trying to organize the master tapes of the music he has produced in his life. He talks of putting together a CD of some of the best cuts from Winchester Records and of finishing an Ernest Tubb tribute album that he started some years ago. "I'm still joltin'," Jim says. And you can bet he is.
This article originally appeared in Goldenseal magazine in Spring 2002 and is used with permission. For more information about Goldenseal or to purchase this issue go to wvculture.org/goldenseal
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