Charleston, West Virginia

Music City, West Virginia

Charleston has a music scene to rival towns many times its size.

By Ryan Vance

I know what you’re thinking. You see the words “West Virginia” and “music” sharing a sentence, and visions of fiddles and banjos start dancing through your head. It’s true, we do have plenty of bluegrass and old timey music in these parts. But the scene here in Charleston—West Virginia’s capital city—is so much more than that.

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Taping in progress

Mountain Stage is the crown jewel of it all. For 35 years, this nationally syndicated NPR show has hosted some of the biggest stars of Americana music. Townes Van Zandt, Norah Jones, Nickel Creek, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, R.E.M.—name a roots music artist and, chances are, they’ve played this stage. 

While the radio show is a fantastic experience unto itself, trust me, attending a taping at the West Virginia Culture Center takes things to another level. Not only do you get to see your favorite bands perform live, you also get to hear songs and stage patter that won’t make the broadcast. And, to beat it all, the tickets are only $23 in advance.

As you can imagine, shows do sell out. But here’s a tip—arrive about an hour early for the show and wait outside the door. More often than not, a few last minute tickets open up. The trick is getting in line before your fellow Mountain Stage fans.

A word of warning: You might attend a taping to see one band you like, but you will undoubtedly leave with at least three new favorite artists. I once attended a show to hear Shovels & Rope. But after the final song, I found myself emptying my pockets at the merch table to buy LPs by Robert Ellis, Hiss Golden Messenger and Kat Edmonson.

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Down by the River

Another headlining act is the free Live on the Levee concert series, held each Friday night from Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day weekend on Charleston’s front porch, Haddad Riverfront Park. This summertime favorite is like a block party for the whole city; there are food trucks and tents set up by local restaurants, people anchor their pontoon boats behind the stage and, of course, there’s the music.

Live on the Levee’s schedule always includes a huge variety of musical acts, from country to classic rock to R&B. These include notable touring acts from all over the country. But ask anyone, it’s the local bands that steal the shows year after year.

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If you’re looking for that classic rock club atmosphere, look no further than The Empty Glass on Charleston’s East End, which boasts live music seven nights a week. For more than 30 years, this classic club has been a favorite stop for rock bands passing through town. The Glass has hosted stadium-filling acts like The Drive-By Truckers, Gov’t Mule and Derek Trucks Band, as well as cult favorites like Unknown Hinson and Southern Culture on the Skids (who have sold out each of their performances in recent memory).

The Glass is also the place to go after a Mountain Stage show. The club hosts a jam session after each taping, and you’ll see members of the Mountain Stage house band ripping it up onstage—often joined by members of visiting bands.

The club hosts a jam session after each taping, and you’ll see members of the Mountain Stage house band ripping it up onstage—often joined by members of visiting bands.

A little ways across town, you’ll find The Boulevard Tavern. This downtown watering hole books bands on Friday and Saturday nights. And while it doesn’t draw the same kinds of national acts as its big sister The Glass, The Tavern is a great place to see West Virginia musicians do their thing.

A few months back, the bar hosted an album release concert for Morgantown-based indie rock group Hello June. The night also featured singer-songwriter William Matheny, who is Appalachia’s answer to Elvis Costello, right down to the glasses and Fender guitar. It was one of the finest nights of music I’ve ever experienced.

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Second Acts

But let’s say you’re looking for something a little smaller than Mountain Stage or Live on the Levee, and nightclubs are just a little too loud for your tastes. There are plenty of places in town to enjoy small, intimate performances.

Taylor Books Café is an obvious choice. Known as “Taylor’s” to locals, this independent bookstore/café/art gallery/movie theater is the cultural heart of the city. Each Friday and Saturday night, you’ll find singer-songwriters, string bands and the occasional jazz ensemble playing in front of the big picture windows looking out on Capitol Street.

My wife and I caught country singer Tyler Childers playing at Taylor’s on a rainy Friday night. It was just him and his Martin guitar—no sound system, no band—and you could have fit the audience into a mid-size SUV. A few years later and Childers is now touring with John Prine, playing all the big festivals and winning fans nationwide.

On the East End, check out Blue Grass Kitchen. This place is mostly known for its farm-to-table cuisine, but the bar hosts live bands a few times a week. Be sure to pop in if you see the gypsy jazz band Dread Pirate Roberts or the classic country group Blue Yonder are playing. And order the meatloaf. I’m not joking.

The city’s West Side also has a few venues for small shows. Most folks know Kin Ship Goods as a place to buy quirky t-shirts, sweatshirts and other cozy swag, but the shop is also known to host the occasional indie band. Heck, a few years ago Kin Ship snagged Bonnie Prince Billy for a Friday night gig. I’m still bummed I missed that one.

Just around the corner, Elk City Records has also hosted numerous in-store performances by jazz groups, bluegrass ensembles and others. Even if they don’t have a performance scheduled during your visit, it’s worth stopping by for the impressive selection of vintage vinyl. Owner Phil Melick also keeps a selection of albums by local artists.

Mountain Stage host Larry Groce always ends his shows the same way. “Go out and hear some live music wherever you are, just as soon as you can.”

In Charleston, the biggest challenge is deciding which venue to hit up first.

Tap your toes in Charleston, WV
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