Few regions in the U.S. are as filled with the magic and lore of American songwriting than that of Appalachia.
From The Carter Family, to Doc Watson, to Dolly Parton, to Old Crow Medicine Show, the wide-spanning region has spawned countless influential American songwriters over generations, and will likely continue to do so. There’s something in the soil, the mines, the mountains, and the air, and Woody Woodworth and The Piners can attest to that.
The band, consisting of Woody Woodworth, (guitar, vocals) Rich Stine, (lead guitar) Jonny Wood, (bass) Ian Blackwood, (fiddle, mandolin) Dylan Harris, (harmonica) and Andrew Crislip (drums) hail from Richmond, Virginia, and make their own brand of Americana music.
Last year the band put out their live record, Live at Richmond Music Hall, which features their hits “Cherokee Maggie,” “Long Way Down,” and the John Prine classic, “Please Don’t Bury Me” along with several others.
I sat down with Woodworth at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Festival last month to discuss the band’s roots, how it felt to be playing a festival of that magnitude, and more.
So can you give us a little background on you and the band?
So we’re from Richmond, Virginia, and the band name “The Piners” came from the bygone expression, “to pine.” And I’ve been writing since I was about 13. When I got a guitar the first thing I wanted to do was write my own stuff.
No Beatles songs or anything?
Well I grew up kind of in the beginning of the grunge era, but country music was such a big part of our household and my grandparents’ household. There was always country music playing. Traditional country music. Saturday nights they watched the Opry. Anyways, once I got that guitar, there wasn’t nothin’ anybody else could tell me, but it took me a long time before I felt good about singing my own music to other people. It can take a long time to get there. Anyways, life goes by, and you chase all these other things, and I just got to the point where I wanted to focus on that and take a chance on it.
How long has the band been playing together?
So the band has been officially together since 2016-ish. Early parts of the band came with me to Bristol and we cut our first record right around the corner on Moore Street at Classic Recording Studios. I had a vision for it- I had all these songs I had written for a long time, and a lot of the stories and characters were based on Virginia Appalachian themes and out of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. So I titled the album Virginia. And I wanted to do Bristol because it was the birthplace of country music.
How does it feel to be playing an event of this magnitude again?
It’s almost unbelievable for an artist like me. We’re very independent, you know, and there’s no one backing us in that sense. And we came here through word of mouth, and got the invite from the organization. So number one, I’m extremely honored to be here. I love what The Birthplace of Country Music does, and I’ve loved this festival for a long time. And to experience it as an artist is just an honor.
And you know, it’s a weird time- it’s during a pandemic, there’s a lot going on like politics, rules and regulations, but you’ve just got to look past all that and try to see the good. Again, I’m just honored and thrilled to be here, and it feels almost like a homecoming to me. I literally had the vision for the Virginia record in 2016, came here on a mission to put it out, and it just feels like things have come full circle since.
Do you feel the past year and a half has helped or hindered your creative process and artistic drive?
That’s a good question. There’s no right way, and everyone has their own process for writing, but the human experience for me is where I get a lot of my inspiration. Being interactive with humanity and hearing someone talk, hearing stories other people tell- and it has been hard to write. I did write a lot, but it’s been by repetition and trying to do it. But I did come across a few songs I liked and felt like are pretty good. In my process not everything makes the cut. I throw away more stuff than I keep.
So with the writing process during the pandemic, even though time seemed to slow down, which I appreciated, I found myself reading a lot. So reading and podcasts is where I started getting more inspiration from.
What does success as a songwriter or a musician mean to you?
Well, it’s hard to figure out when you reach achievement. And I don’t know that I ever will, but I think it’s something that I’ll always be hungry for. Chasing the perfect song more than the perfect sound. I love great songwriters. So that’s what I get drawn to. I don’t know what “done” looks like, I don’t know what “success” looks like, other than I feel the most like myself when I’m playing for people on stage or in a studio recording. Success is just getting my music out there so others can hear it, and hopefully it can impact them in a positive way. That to me is success. That connection with humanity.
And you know, I was going through a real hard and weird time in my life around the time I turned 30. I started a career, and life was moving faster than I wanted it to. And I felt like I was leaving a lot behind that I hadn’t achieved yet. And then I had family and personal struggles, tensions, and I had a point where I had to get help for that. For me it was something that was an outlet to help me through my mental health process. So hopefully in turn [my music] can be a gift for someone else.