Like his West Virginia home, Chance McCoy’s path may be full of twists and turns and ups and downs, but he’s sure glad he’s followed it.
It began in Harper’s Ferry. Went out West. Then back to the eastern panhandle and down to Monroe County. On further down to Floyd, Va., over to Nashville, and now back to Monroe County.
And along the way, he picked up a Grammy.
“Harper’s Ferry is a really magical place,” McCoy said of his childhood home along the Appalachian Trail. “We’d go hiking all the time, swimming in the river, camp out in the woods just a mile from home. … I had this cool upbringing in nature, and I think that’s what really influenced me musically.”
And then there was the shed, a little homemade clubhouse on the family property where a young McCoy spent hours creating adventure and a teenage McCoy spent hours — well, doing things he says were best kept from his parents’ sight. But it was during those teenage hangout sessions he demonstrated an ability he’d gleaned over the years from his father, a carpenter who had been a professional musician in his younger days, playing with small rock-n-roll bands in places like Charlottesville, Va., and Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s. (“He played some with Emmylou Harris back in the day,” McCoy noted, as if it were a small thing.)
“I always had a guitar in my hand and I had a knack for picking up songs,” McCoy said. “I could hear it and then learn how to play it. I was a human jukebox for my friends when we’d hang out in that clubhouse.”
Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Nirvana. “I loved the acoustics elements,” McCoy said. “Classic rock. Grunge.”
But his love for nature — and supportive, artistic parents who always encouraged McCoy to do what he loved — sent McCoy down another path for a little while. He left home after high school, and for four years he lived out of the back of a pickup truck in the American West, serving as a wilderness and whitewater guide.
“I’d take people down the river, the rapids, and we’d camp and cook on the river for a week,” he recalled. “A hundred and thirty-five miles. No road. It was great.”
He eventually came home, dabbled in carpentry and tuned in to something that, despite his “mystical upbringing in the woods by the river,” he hadn’t noticed until his early 20s — traditional West Virginia folk music.
Gerry Milnes, a fiddle player and folklorist, gave a presentation at the local library.
“He talked about West Virginia music, played some West Virginia tunes,” McCoy recalled. “I had never really heard traditional West Virginia folk music at that point. I didn’t know West Virginia music until Gerry came that day.”
Milnes had awakened a new and insatiable interest within McCoy. “I wanted to learn to play the fiddle, but I thought I was too old to start,” he said. “I knew people who started playing classical violin when they were 2. So I thought, ‘no way,’ but I loved it so much I started trying.
“I think I was around 23 or 24 when I bought my first fiddle,” McCoy said.
Then, for six or seven hours a day, with cotton balls in his ears, he practiced. He started traveling to fiddlers’ conventions, watching other people play, getting up enough courage to join in on the fringes of open jam sessions at places like Clifftop’s Appalachian String Band Festival. He took classes at Augusta Heritage Center during the summer. He learned from masters at Vandalia.
“About four years later, I was actually a pretty decent fiddle player,” McCoy said.
“Pretty decent” is an understatement. McCoy was winning fiddle competitions left and right, including the West Virginia State Fiddle Championship. Then, he won it on banjo. Then, on dulcimer. In one single weekend.
“There was this guy who would win the dulcimer championship at Vandalia every year. Lives on Anthony Creek. One year, he handed his dulcimer to me and said, ‘It’s time for you to win this year.’ He let me use his dulcimer, and I surprised myself.”
McCoy took his first prize winnings and bought his first dulcimer.
“That was a really serious paycheck for me,” he said. “I was really, really poor. Sometimes I really crossed my fingers just knowing I had to win just so I could have enough money to buy the gas to get back home. Or sometimes that was diaper money. … Some of those years were really by the seat of my pants.”
But it wasn’t just about needing money to support a little one at home.
“Those acknowledgements of my talent in the folk music scene were a huge feather in my cap,” McCoy said. “Every one of those little ribbons is a really, really big deal to me.”
He still has them, and they mean every bit as much to him as the Grammy that would later join them.
McCoy and his first wife — an organic farmer — struggled to afford a place in Jefferson County large enough for three and a garden on a fiddler’s budget.
“Most people make a decision at some point to have a more stable career,” McCoy said. “So I did some carpentry, some construction. But my hands were all messed up. I couldn’t play anymore. I’d be shoveling or drilling all day, and my hands would get really stiff at night. ...
“My dad was what really encouraged me,” he said. “He told me, ‘You’re a much better musician than you are a carpenter.’ ” So McCoy stayed on the folk music path and hoped for the best.
“You couldn’t buy a salt box for less than a quarter million,” he joked. But in 2008, property just about anywhere was expensive.
McCoy had been performing occasionally with the Lilly Brothers in the Beckley area around that time, so, as he drove, he started keeping an eye out for available affordable land somewhere between Shepherdstown and Beckley. But all the land in Pocahontas County seemed to be national forest, and all the land in Lewisburg proved far too expensive for a fiddler’s budget. That’s when someone suggested he consider Monroe County.
“So I went down there and was just blown away. I had no idea how beautiful and lovely it was,” he said. “It was super cheap property with a beautiful farmhouse with an incredible location on Indian Creek.”
And soon, it was his. But the homesteader-musician dream proved short-lived. McCoy and his wife spent a couple years there before they split. Meanwhile, McCoy had made a go at musical success with his own string band, Chance McCoy and the Appalachian String Band, with Ben Townsend — a Romney native famous in his own right — on banjo.
“We were young, hungry and scrappy,” McCoy recalled. “We were wild and crazy … driving around playing crazy little gigs and sleeping on floors. It was pretty fun, but we would come home poorer than when we left on tour.”
It wasn’t long before the band broke up.
“We went our separate ways. I was jaded at that point about trying to do folk music as a professional musician,” he said. “I had no success. I just hadn’t seen a path forward after all that time and effort. I didn’t even really see a way up the ladder.”
McCoy found himself struggling to support his young son in a run-down, dirt-floor cabin in Floyd, Va., where he taught music lessons at the country store to put food on the table.
“I stopped playing. Stopped performing. Stopped concerts. I put down music for a while. Tried doing some carpentry. I was teaching lessons while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do again,” he said. “I went on hiatus. … I was in a really tough spot financially, living on food stamps in a crummy cabin in Floyd. Then, Old Crow called me out of the blue. They’d heard about me and wanted me to come and audition.”
Of course, McCoy was already familiar with Old Crow Medicine Show. Anyone in the old-time music world knew about the platinum-selling alternative bluegrass band. But McCoy knew them for another reason, too. A year earlier, just before his band broke up and he stopped performing, his string band gave one of its final performances at Floyd Fest.
“They had us in a little dance tent, and we’d had a horrible sound check,” McCoy recalled. The sound check was so bad that McCoy’s band’s set got started late and overlapped with the main stage performance, Old Crow Medicine Show. “As soon as they hit the main stage, they were just so loud that everybody ran over to see them. We were left in the dust in that little, crummy tent. They totally crushed us. … I remember thinking, ‘why even compete with a band like that?’ ”
Now, here was that band, asking him to audition to join them. It was a no-brainer.
“I’d never met them. Just remembered getting stomped at that festival when their main stage sound came on.”
It was 2012, and McCoy had to rent a car to make the drive to Nashville.
“We really hit it off. We came from the same kind of music and traditions and just really clicked,” McCoy said. “Four other people auditioned for the same spot. All of them were pro ringers from Nashville. But they just really liked my music, my personality, and that I knew all this traditional music really deeply. A week later they called and offered me the job.
“I said, ‘Yeah. Heck yeah!’ ”
McCoy took his instruments — and the writing pen he’d put down during the years when he’d concentrated on traditional folk music — and moved to Nashville. It took some adjusting.
“I went from being able to walk out on my deck without a stitch of clothing on, to where all of a sudden I could see into the neighbors’ windows,” he said. “It was hard. A tough, rough transition. But I made the most of it while I was there. Raised my son.”
And he wrote songs. While rehearsing for his first tour with Old Crow, McCoy started writing with the band.
“They wanted to write with me, and that’s basically when we wrote “Remedy.” It was my first collaboration with them. I played and wrote on that album,” he said.
“Remedy” won a Grammy in 2015 for Best Folk Album. Today, the award sits on a shelf in McCoy’s Monroe County home, a welcome far piece from the hustle and bustle of Nashville.
“Having high speed internet and cell service would be very helpful right now,” he laughed from a Lewisburg business where he parked with a good cell signal for the phone interview on which this article is based. “But I love the neighbors, love where we live, the property. I love being back in West Virginia. I didn’t like Nashville. It was too hot, too flat, and too polluted. But it had a great music scene.
“Nashville was definitely not the place for me. I love the mountains and clean water and whitewater kayaking,” he said. “West Virginia is just a special place. Once you live here, you don’t want to live anywhere else.”
Fortunately, McCoy kept his original Monroe County farmhouse. He’d rented it out over the years. Sometimes renters paid. Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes, they damaged things. So, since moving back to it in 2018, McCoy has put his old carpentry skills to work making home repairs and a garden framed by what he describes as “an end-times zombie stockade” to keep out the wildlife.
“It’s been this crazy, uphill battle for two years,” he said.
But he’s in good company. While in Nashville, McCoy met Jackie Turner, a model and former Miss England who had come to Nashville to work as a liaison for Virgin Galactic.
“We fell in love, and then Old Crow was winding down. It seemed like a good time to move back to West Virginia,” he said. Turner joined him. “She wasn’t so sure at first. … But she likes it now.”
McCoy’s relationship with Old Crow remains intact.
“They didn’t tour much last year,” he said. “It was the first year I haven’t been with them since 2012. … This year, I’d suggested ‘let’s play music,’ and they said, ‘yeah, that sounds great.’ But then Covid.”
So McCoy has turned his focus to solo projects. Singles like “Sugar Babe” and “No One Loves You (The Way I Do),” among others, feature a unique, groovy smooth blend of bluegrass and rock-n-roll, and are available for listening at chancemccoy.com.
“The hard thing is that when I was with Old Crow, all my time was focused on that band. I couldn’t do anything else because it was a full-time gig.”
Not only is McCoy working on original music, he’s filming old-time music tutorials which he shares on his Facebook page, scoring Hollywood films from his home studio, and producing music for other recording artists.
“I mean, this is a beautiful place to be. I’m so glad to be here, but I’d like to bring more music to the area, have a music center in Monroe County,” McCoy said. He’d like to host a destination recording studio on his farm, welcoming artists from around the globe for weeklong farm retreat recording sessions.
And who wouldn’t want to record in the studio of a Grammy-winning musician who’s now scoring films for Hollywood?
“Last year, I got really lucky with film work, so we’ll see if that continues,” he said. A music business friend in Nashville pointed filmmakers to McCoy, and one scoring job has led to the next. One of them led to actor and producer Ethan Hawke, who found McCoy’s work well suited for his new Showtime original miniseries, “The Good Lord Bird,” based on the 2013 novel of the same name. The series is currently running on Showtime and features music by McCoy.
“We filmed in Richmond last summer,” explained McCoy, who also plays a small role in the miniseries about abolitionist John Brown’s (played by Hawke) 1859 raid on the U.S. Armory at Harper’s Ferry — the very place where McCoy started.
The Harper’s Ferry connection is purely coincidental, but McCoy doesn’t seem surprised his path brought him back there. He’s learned that if he follows that path wherever it goes, things usually work out.
“I want people in West Virginia and Appalachia in general to feel inspired,” McCoy said. “Don’t give up, and don’t feel like you have to be following in anybody else’s footsteps. Everybody’s journey is his own journey. Follow your own path and it works. I’m in a shack in Monroe County scoring films. There’s no set path in the arts. Arts are always crazy and wild and twisting and turning, and the only way we can figure out what our path is is just to keep at it.”