If there’s anything to be said about the inaugural Whizzbanger’s Ball at the Summit Bechtel Reserve in Glen Jean, West Virginia, it’s that it served as a long-awaited point of intersection for many.

During William Matheny’s Saturday afternoon set, the guitarist, songwriter and frontman cracked a joke with a similar observation.

“Finally, a family reunion I don’t have to be anxious about,” Matheny, a native of Mannington, West Virginia, who now lives in Morgantown when he’s not on the road, said in his usually dry manner. 

The “family” Matheny was speaking about were the musicians up and down the two-day festival’s bill – and thousands of music lovers in the crowd he and other performers had crossed paths with over the years – including me.

As a result of my enthusiasm for West Virginia’s music scene (when it was relatively underappreciated by the wider world), I’d gotten to know Matheny and many others featured on the bill at the Whizzbanger’s Ball. I spent weekends in someone or another’s van, traveling with him and other musicians to Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville or some random gig – simply in hopes of getting a first-hand view of life on the road. By mere happenstance, I found myself embedded from time to time – an experience one can only pursue and fully seize in their 20’s. 

The 2024 Whizzbanger's Ball was held at the Summit Bechtel Reserve, home of the national Boy Scout Camp. Photo: Meg Osborne for Whizzbangers BAM
The 2024 Whizzbanger’s Ball was held at the Summit Bechtel Reserve, home of the national Boy Scout Camp. Photo: Meg Osborne for Whizzbangers BAM

So it was only natural to find myself among a few thousand people who had all gathered in southern West Virginia to celebrate the seemingly exponential and limitless success of artists that are backed by Whizzbang Booking and Management. 

That company – founded by Huntington native Ian Thornton – was spawned out of the bustling music scene there 10 to 15 years back. I know this because, like many of the old friends I ran into around the grounds of the Whizzbanger’s Ball, I had a front-row seat as it all started.

Whizzbang’s clients have quickly evolved into a nebula of talent who’ve crossed paths with one another in some way that only a detective’s corkboard with red string or permanent marker could truly illustrate.  

Take for example rising folk stars John R. Miller and Darrin Hacquard, who spent time in the long-running West Virginia-based string band The Fox Hunt. There’s also El Dorado, a side project of sorts from the core of Tyler Childers’ backing band, The Food Stamps, and Doug Woodard – all from Huntington. Longtime Huntington DJ Brett Fuller – who performs under the moniker Charlie Brown Superstar – is also on the Whizzbang roster, as is guitarist Jeremy Short of Kentucky (who brought up Huntington-area songstress Sasha Collette for a mini-reunion during his set) and Buffalo Wabs and the Price Hill Hustle of Cincinnati. 

There’s also Of the Dell, a total force in power-pop fronted by fraternal twins and eternal wisecrackers Corey and Cody Hatton – also from Huntington – who opened the festival on Friday afternoon. The Hatton brothers and their drummer are still in their mid-to-late-20s, proof that Huntington may now be experiencing a second wave of talent.

But there’s other names that have been added to Whizzbang’s client list – performers who don’t quite have the same, deeper-than-roots connection to the immediate region but fit in perfectly next to those who weren’t far from home while on the stage in Glen Jean. There’s Tommy Prine, the youngest son of legendary songwriter John Prine. And Joselyn Hampton – who fronts the funk-soul outfit Joscelyn and the Sweet Compression – put on one of the most rousing sets of the weekend, proving Thornton’s keen ear for talent. 

The point is simple: Whizzbang is becoming a who’s who of names, largely from Appalachia, either fully recognizable or deserve to be. Pull up any of the tour dates on the roster, and it’ll take no time to realize these artists are booked solid. 

John R. Miller is a guitarist, singer, and songwriter from the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Photo: Meg Osborne for Whizzbangers BAM
John R. Miller is a guitarist, singer, and songwriter from the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Photo: Meg Osborne for Whizzbangers BAM

While the artists on Thornton’s roster represent an ever-growing document of music from Appalachia and beyond, there’s simply no denying that the weekend’s big draw was neotraditional country star Tyler Childers. After cutting his teeth around Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia, and Lexington, Kentucky, and dive bars across rural Appalachia, the now 32-year-old Childers is one of the biggest names in all of popular music. 

I’d gotten to know Childers from his gigs around Huntington and continued to see him play once I had moved to Charleston in late 2012. And as I started my career in journalism, I wrote articles and columns for Charleston newspapers about his songwriting and what was to come in terms of his inevitable success. (For the record, I don’t claim to have some clairvoyant ability, I simply had an outlet to put down in print what everyone who’d seen him by that point was thinking themselves.)

But I had also gotten to know Childers on a level that somewhat transcended the typical relationship between a journalist and a subject – he had crashed on my couch at times between gigs in the more rural parts of southern West Virginia. My brother and I also ran a short-lived record label called Twin Cousins that put on a showcase show in Chicago in early 2015. (Childers, Matheny, Miller and others who played that gig were featured on a cassette tape to promote that show – but good luck tracking down a copy or being able to afford one if you could even find it.) Childers and his now-wife invited me to their wedding (which, for reasons I’d rather not embarrass myself over, I didn’t attend). And after a July 2017 show in Morgantown, I drove Childers and Thornton to Washington, D.C., to catch a flight for his first solo tour of Europe.

I saw Childers and his band a few more times before the floodgates truly opened and the world beyond Appalachia caught on. But I had not witnessed the big, arena-sized production he and his band have been taking around the globe the past few years – drawing tens of thousands at their own shows and, even recently, serving as the opening act for The Rolling Stones. 

To be honest, I came into Childers’ Saturday set not knowing what I’d make of it. After all, music can feel very personal and to see this thing you’ve been close to erupting is difficult to comprehend – even if you knew something big was about to happen and remain infinitely proud of it and the people involved. 

But when Childers and The Foodstamps hit the stage and opened with “Whitehouse Road,” I looked around and saw thousands of strangers singing along and dancing to something I’ve known well for years. It didn’t matter that they never attended those small bar shows around the towns I called home. Childers’ show – a mix of songs more than a decade old situated next to recent chart-toppers – drew me back in, flooding my brain with memories of the early days and people I’d met along the way. 

At one point, Childers remarked his Saturday night show at the Whizzbanger’s Ball marked the end of a leg of his current tour – noting that it put him close enough to get home to Eastern Kentucky by the end of the night. 

The number of things intersecting during Childers’ set – and the whole festival, really – was palpable to me, as I’m sure it was for the musicians who played and thousands of others who saw familiar faces and enjoyed a weekend’s worth of music all coming together.

But while that intersection was rooted  – at least for me – in a particular set of people, places and memories, there’s little question Thornton, Whizzbang and the musicians on the bill simply saw an opportunity to slow down and enjoy the moment, even if not for long. 

Dave Mistich is a journalist based in Morgantown, West Virginia. Aside from his main gig working with NPR’s newscast unit and dealing with stories from around the world, he also is the co-editor of a The West Virginia Weakly, a newsletter that recaps news from around his home state. 

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.