- Associated Press - Saturday, June 11, 2016

EDGEWOOD, W.Va. (AP) - He plays that guitar like he was born with his fingers on the strings.

Musicianship feels as natural to Steve Himes as breathing. Except for the grade school trumpet lessons when he learned to read music, he honed his musical skills alone, building on what he believes are God-given abilities.

Today, through his group, the Steve Himes Connection, duo gigs with jazz vocalist Danielle Conard and play dates with other musicians around town, he enjoys a reputation as one of the region’s top jazz and blues guitarists.

An Ohio native, he moved to Calhoun County as a back-to-the-land farmer, paid some musical dues in California then returned to West Virginia for good.

Through it all, he supported his music habit as a builder and woodworker. Those skills came naturally, too. Kind of freakish, he said.

At 68, he looks back on the journey so far with only a wistful but persistent whisper of regret: Maybe if he’d pushed that natural talent just a little harder.

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“I was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio. My dad owned a hardware store. My grandfather founded the store in the 1930s, and it was named after him, Carl D. Himes Inc. My dad went to work for him after he got back from World War II and was there until he retired and sold the business. I grew up in the hardware store.

“My parents weren’t interested in music much. My father’s father played the coronet apparently very well. He was in the Army band and became the director in World War I.

“Mother played a little piano, and I liked listening to her, but she wasn’t passionate about it. Her mother went to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. In her generation, just going to school at all was unique.

“I took trumpet lessons from my grandfather in fourth through seventh grade, but I realized that wasn’t the right instrument for me. But those lessons were helpful because they taught me how to read music.

“I was about 14 and was rummaging in my grandmother’s attic, and there was an old pot-bellied mandolin up there. It was all cracked and had maybe three or four strings on it. I thought it was a little guitar. I took it home and was banging around on those three strings.

“My dad came home from work one day with a set of mandolin strings and a chord book. He said, ‘What you have there is a mandolin.’ I strung it up and learned to play all the pop tunes, which was easy in those days because there were only three or four chords in any song.

“I thought, all right, I’m going to play in a band. We were Marvin Peabody and the Geese, just kids goofing around. The only place we played was in my basement. That was the summer after my senior year in high school.

“I went to college, Miami of Ohio. Nobody wanted a mandolin in their band. That wasn’t cool. I figured I’d better learn to play a guitar.

“I majored in sociology. I went to school to major in architecture but calculus did not agree with me. Plus it wasn’t fun. When you are a kid, you think you are going to be the best at whatever you do. I was going to be Frank Lloyd Wright.

“They put you in these classes where you just begin to realize this is not really how it works. So I dropped out of architecture right away and just started taking classes. I found sociology interesting. By the time I got to be a senior, that’s where I had the most credits, so I claimed that as my major.

“I took up guitar my freshman year. I came home for the summer and three months later, I was playing lead in a band. That’s all it took, just to have the right instrument. Except for the trumpet lessons, I never took lessons from anybody.

“I graduated in 1970. I started playing with a group called Jive Soup. We started playing the college town and driving to Cincinnati and Dayton, wherever we could find a job.

“After they all graduated from school, we moved up to Ann Arbor to play but realized there was no way we could support ourselves playing music. We were just starting to grasp that that isn’t really possible.

“One of the guys in the band was from Buffalo, New York, and brilliant as we were, we moved to Buffalo for the winter and played up there for a while. We were working for Kelly Girls and Manpower during the day and hustling for gigs for the evenings. We had a good time but finally went home and played around Ohio a little bit.

“Then I moved to West Virginia because I wanted to get back to the land. I had a bad taste about the music scene and decided I would just go hide in the mountains. I had some good friends who moved to Calhoun County and bought a little piece of heaven a couple of years before. I got a job and saved up some money, enough to buy a small farm in Orma. I lived there for a while.

“All my Buffalo buddies had moved to the Bay area of California. They asked me to join them, so I went out there for a year and a half and played in the Bay area.

“I literally took rolls of coins I had saved to buy a bus ticket. The ticket agent looked at me strangely when I handed him rolls of quarters, but I said, ‘This is all I’ve got, man.’ I got a ride from a neighbor as far as Dallas.

“In California, I learned to do construction work to support my music habit. I was working for a contractor doing remodeling, and I realized that hey, I can do this. So when I came back here, that’s what I did.

“I went back to the farm. Out in California, I met my wife, Missy Woolverton, and she wanted to come back with me. I told her it would be a real shock. She was a city girl.

“Once she got through the culture shock, she loved it. The farm was gorgeous. We had great gardens. It was just hard to get in and out of, two miles of muddy roads. About ‘87, we moved out to the hard road. We both started working in Charleston, an hour and 15 minutes commute each way.

“I was doing the contracting. With word of mouth, I never had to advertise. Selling music is not as easy. I would build furniture and cabinets for people, so I got into woodworking.

“I’m one of those people, if I see something, I can almost tell how it was put together. On the SAT test, a section on abstract reasoning shows you a box unfolded and asks what it looks like folded up or vice versa. I scored in the 100th percentile. It’s not because I’m smart. I’m just a freak, I guess. I can look at a building and know how it was built and know I could do it.

“There wasn’t much music in Calhoun County. That’s when I met the guys in that picture, Barney and the Bedrockers. We started playing in roadhouses.

“When I first moved up there, I met a guy who played piano. He said he played jazz. There was a piano at the community building. I carried my guitar and walked out the dirt road two miles and hitchhiked to the community building to play for a half hour with this guy. I had a great time, but I had to hitchhike back and walk up the road to get back in time to milk the cow.

“That was my music experience during that period. I also wrote some songs while I was up there.

“I started playing jazz right after college, with the band I went to Ann Arbor with. Wes Montgomery died in 1968 when I was in college. I was listening to the radio and heard the deejay say that legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery had died. I wondered who that was. I bought a Wes Montgomery record, and it was like, poof, wow, you can do all that with a guitar? I realized I didn’t know what I was doing.

“In ‘91, we moved to Charleston and bought this house. I started making the rounds to see who was playing where. I immediately got a job playing with Silver Penny.

“I love blues and jazz and R&B; stuff. I played quite a bit. You don’t get paid much playing in bars. You have to love it. If you don’t love it, there’s no reason to do it.

“We started the Steve Himes Connection in about 1996. I met Chris Allen, a bass player, and Chris Hudson, the drummer. That’s who I put my first CD out with in ‘98. We’ve been playing together on and off ever since.

“Mostly I play with Danielle Conard. We do a lot of duets. And we sing and play with other people. She will join me for the Wine and Jazz Festival and the Jazz Society’s Jazz Stroll in Clarksburg.

“We play at the Bistro twice a month and at Taylor Books once a month and we play at Louie’s at Mardi Gras once a month.

“I retired from construction last year. I hope I can do the music until I’m gone.

“I think I’ve been really lucky. Life is good. I’ve got my garden, my music and a nice place to live. Missy just retired. We are going to travel. I’d like to visit all the national parks.

“I wish I’d had more faith in my musical abilities, but I never took it seriously. Music is not an easy life. I understood early on that’s it’s a fine line between having a nice place to live and being homeless.

“Moving to someplace where jazz would be played, like New York or LA, you are competing with the best of the best. I’m a medium fish in a small pond here.

“My only regret is that maybe I would have tried to pursue the music more. I used to think if I had to play something I wasn’t really passionate about, just playing for the money, it would ruin the joy of music for me.

“One day when I was pushing 50, I was playing something I wasn’t enjoying so much musically. But I thought, you know, this isn’t so bad. I should have re-thought that 20 years ago.”

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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