photo of the Alleycats outside the Delmonte in Elkins, by Bill King.
The Tribble’s house stands out from the street because of the solar panels on the roof, and because even from outside you can hear the sound of 16-year-old Walter King warming up his fiddle. Beside him stands Nevada Tribble, with long, straight red hair and her banjo resting upright on the couch. Nevada is about to turn 17 and is the Alleycats’s oldest musician. Her 14-year-old brother, Riley Tribble, plays the mandolin and the upright bass. His bass is golden yellow and has a special significance for the Alleycats because it used to belong to Gene Boyer, their mentor and fourth band-mate, who passed away last May. He was 70 years old.
“Gene lived just across the alley,” says Riley. “And he originally played the bass. I actually play his bass right now because I got it after he passed away.” I picked up the bass and started playing it after an Augusta class. He played with us the first day. It was in the winter and we went in our garage.”
That was about three and a half years ago. Nevada, the oldest in the band, was just 13 years old. “We all learned to play our instruments separately, and then one day we got together in our backyard, and we just decided to see if we could play a tune together to see if it would work,” she remembers with a smile. “It was fun, so we decided to make a band. Gene got us our fist gig at the Pickens Maple Syrup festival. And so we drove up there and played for an hour. There weren’t very many people there because we got to play as a group on stage for the first time and get used to being on stage and stuff.”
Her brother Riley is quick to jump in to add, “then Sandy Burkey with the Maple Syrup festival asked us to come back the next year. And actually we got a lot more gigs in between with people contacting Gene, cause he knew a lot of people with Augusta.”
The three young musicians learned to play music by ear, mostly by soaking up the vibrant music scene that hovers around Elkins during the summer for the Augusta Heritage Center, when there is music almost every night of the week. Throughout the year, there are about a dozen old-time musicians in Elkins—many of whom have won awards at Vandalia and other competitions. Many of the musicians the Alleycats have learned from play at each other’s houses or at square-dances in town.
There’s Greta Fitzgibbon, who taught Nevada her first banjo tunes. And Andy Fitzgibbon and Jesse Milnes who have been teaching Walter fiddle. Riley learned mandolin from Jeremy Wanless and Karl Smakula— whose father Bob Smakula repairs and sells string instruments. Nevada says she remembers the day she went to his shop to buy her current banjo.
“It was really exciting actually, it was one of the best days ever, cause I went and it was like in Harry Potter where he goes and picks out his wand. That’s what it felt like because I went and tried out a bunch of different banjos and I picked out mine.”
“The fiddle I have now I got from Bob Smakula,” remembers Walter. “And it was during Augusta when he sets up his tent in the park. And I sat there for probably two hours just playing 20-30 different fiddles. I started out on the ¾ sized fiddle, which was a lot less expensive. I started saving up and then splitting the cost between me and my parents. The first one I was probably eight and I got the full sized one when I was probably ten.”
The Tribbles moved to West Virginia from Nevada about seven years ago—their father got a job with the Forest Service. Their family moved to Elm street, just down the street from Walter. Although they were neighbors, the middle school band was probably where Walter and Nevada first became friends. They each played the flute and later Riley played the trumpet. The three of them also learned to arrange music and experiment with contemporary songs from a workshop they do each year at the Randolph County Arts Center, called Lab Band, which is nothing like traditional middle or high school band.
“Middle school band is, everybody learns instruments. You couldn’t just bring a banjo to a middle school band,” Nevada says with smirk. “And you get sheet music, you learn to play it. But in lab band, or how we’ve made up our own band. You can just do whatever we want. At lab band we play music with other teenagers. It’s really fun because we get to play stuff that’s totally different. Like Pirate Metal.”
“Pirate metal is like electric guitars and loud,” explains Riley. “Gogol Bordello is the band. And we transformed it to our acoustic instruments and made it sound very similar actually.”
Last June the Alleycats were invited to play in Washington D.C. at the Hart Senate Office Building. It was just a month after their band-mate and mentor Gene Boyer passed away. Gerry Milnes stepped in and played with them in D.C. “It’s great to see kids taking an interest in the oldest traditional music we have in the state,” he says of the Alleycats.
“[Gerry] comes to our practices sometimes and helps us work on new tunes or teaches us lyrics to old time tunes,” says Nevada. “Gerry knows a ton about old time music, so it’s really awesome to have him helping us.”
Asked what she would like to see the band do next, Nevada says, “I hope we’ll write our own music…more. Walt’s already written a song, but I hope we can explore that more. Writing our own music instead of just old time tunes and covers.”
You can find more information about the Elm Street Alleycats on their Facebook Page.