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  • Writer's pictureKevin Robison

Small Town, Big Impact: Fantasia on Appalachian Folk Songs

Big Stone Gap. If you've ever seen the movie or read the novel of the same name, you know I'm talking about a real coal mining town in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. Big Stone Gap is known for its strong sense of community where neighbors know and support one another, for its celebration of traditional Appalachian arts and crafts, and for its strong connection to literature in the best-selling novels by Adriana Trigiani. There's also a hearty theatre tradition in this region of central Appalachia, including the Roadside Theatre and its company of professional actors and musicians, the historic Barter Theatre where you could once trade fresh produce for a ticket, and the official outdoor drama of Virginia, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which has been staged in Big Stone Gap for over half a century. The town may not be as "big" as it sounds, but its rich cultural backdrop has nurtured a large and diverse array of entertainers, musicians and storytellers over the years. I'm very proud to be counted among them.

I was first drawn into this rich culture as a child in the 70s when the soul-stirring music of my church sparked a fascination with melody and harmony. Middle school had me stepping into the spotlight as one of the seven children in a memorable production of The Sound of Music, and my adolescent summers were spent onstage in the outdoor drama, whose story was infused with Appalachian folk songs and authentic instruments. There was also a strong work ethic in the arts that made a lasting impression on me. Yes, there were occasional onstage antics like those depicted in the Trigiani novels and in the movie Big Stone Gap, but they were not what I'd call the norm. Because people came from all over to see the outdoor drama, we knew we had to show up three nights a week to tell a good story. There wasn't much room for tomfoolery.

Although my interest in the arts had been piqued early on, it wasn't until high school that it took a more serious turn. During my junior year in 1982, a gifted teacher by the name of Jim Daugherty breathed new life into the struggling chorus program at Powell Valley High. With his rich sense of discipline, honesty and humor, Jim challenged his students to make the best music possible. In a few short years, the choral ensembles under his direction were quickly ranked among the best in the state, on par with much larger high school programs in metropolitan areas. He also had a gift for musical theatre and began a tradition of producing full-scale musicals every spring semester. Because of him, I played a leading role in a musical, I directed a musical, attended three all-state chorus events, and was the first to be inducted into the new choral hall of fame at PVHS—and all that in only two years. These formative opportunities—unheard of before Jim came to teach at Powell Valley—were pre-requisites for a college music degree, not only for me, but for many other students in the years that followed.

One of those students was my friend Roy Smith, now a very successful opera singer who's performed leading roles on the greatest opera stages in the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Deutsche Oper Berlin. Roy was a marvelous tenor in high school who earned the same accolades as me and more. He was a football player-turned-classical singer by the time he graduated high school, again because of Jim's efforts and guidance. Jim still tells the story of hearing Roy imitating an opera singer in the halls at school and pulling him aside saying, "In my office, young man. You're done with football."

Image of the cast of Oklahoma, PVHS, 1983
On the right, me "newly hitched" to Kim Neal Mays in Oklahoma at PVHS (1993).

After Roy and I left Big Stone Gap to pursue music degrees at different schools, we lost touch—something easy to do in the days before social media. We would occasionally hear about each other from friends and colleagues, plus whatever we stumbled across online. Then, in 2007, I saw a perfect opportunity for us to work together and I seized it. I was assistant conductor of Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles and suggested we invite Roy to join the chorus for a series of operatic concerts called "Opera Strikes Back". He loved hearing from me, loved the idea of the concert, and decided he would make it work with his schedule. I was thrilled to help build a concert with him as the guest star, especially since the concerts would mark my final performances with GMCLA. We had such a great time that week, catching up and reminiscing. The mutual respect was big and we agreed that more collaboration was in order. It was just a matter of time.

A year or so later, after my work had taken me to Atlanta, Roy contacted me with the idea of arranging some Appalachian folk songs for him to sing with orchestra. I eagerly agreed, and even spent some time playing around with ideas, but we needed an outlet. With other commitments at hand, it wasn't long before the idea was pushed to the back burner. It took fifteen years, but it got traction in 2023 when Roy returned to Virginia to perform with Symphony of the Mountains, a professional regional orchestra comprised of musicians in three states and based just forty miles from where we grew up. I drove up from Atlanta to attend the performance in Big Stone Gap, to reconnect with Roy, and meet the conductor, Cornelia Laemmli Orth. Being back in the mountains and seeing old acquaintances reignited my enthusiasm about making those arrangements happen. With Roy slated for additional performances with them in the summer of 2024, it appeared the timing couldn't have been better. I returned home, we worked out the details with the symphony, and I dedicated the next six months to writing what would become Fantasia on Appalachian Folk Songs for solo voice and orchestra. I think Roy got more than he asked for, but there it was, and he is apparently quite happy with the result.

Image of Roy Smith and Kevin Robison
Roy and me at his performance at Union High School (formerly Powell Valley High) in Big Stone Gap, October 2023.

Back in high school, neither Roy nor I could have predicted where our lives would take us, but our teacher Jim Daugherty seemed to know. He taught all his students to believe that great things were possible in music, whether you went off to college to pursue a degree or stayed right there in Big Stone Gap. I'm immensely grateful to him and for the many opportunities I've had in music because of where I grew up. I've worked with some incredible people, conducted in some great concert halls, and written a lot of music along the way; but to have the opportunity to celebrate my heritage, arts education, and friendship with Fantasia on Appalachian Folk Songs is meaningful beyond measure. It exemplifies my passion for storytelling through music, and represents all I learned in Big Stone Gap and beyond. It's the perfect celebration of a gift I would not have known had I not been born when—and where—I was.

Thank you Jim, thank you Symphony of the Mountains, and thank you Roy for this invitation to give back, four decades later. It's a tribute to the power of our amazing teachers, the rich culture of the Appalachians, and the sound of music in Big Stone Gap.


Fantasia on Appalachian Folk Songs will be premiered by Roy Cornelius Smith and Symphony of the Mountains July 19-21, 2024, with performances in North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.

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May 15

Our church and high school chorus are my best memories of growing up in Big Stone Gap. Remember The Baptist Four? I was terrified but you supported me and I became more confident. I was never the best however I was able to shake off the anxiety because of you. I think of this time in my life often and want to go back. It was the best time of my life. Thank you for the memories.

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