- Associated Press - Saturday, May 6, 2017

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - At first, Jim Lange envisioned himself as the next Jimi Hendrix, or perhaps Glen Campbell with his own TV variety show.

Those dreams ended abruptly the minute he heard melodic classical music on a nylon string guitar, an instrument that spoke to his heart and, irrevocably, to his soul. Try ignoring that.

Despite the esoteric nature of that calling (just making it as a musician is tough enough), he has managed to survive while staying true to his muse.

To prepare, he earned a music education degree from West Liberty and a master’s in guitar performance from the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.

He teaches, writes music and performs regularly with other like-minded musicians. He’s also made a name for himself as host of an offbeat Sunday night music show, “Eclectopia,” on West Virginia Public Radio.

He’s intense, engaging and self-assured, all rooted in the satisfying experimental journey that has allowed him to indulge his eclectic musical leanings.

Hopefully, freshly 59, his story is far from over. But forget the happily-ever-after ending. A year ago, his wife died.

To keep grief at bay, he throws mind and body into exercise, embracing biking, yoga and hiking with the same unbridled fervency he brings to his music.

Maybe someday the pieces of his shattered life will fit again. But never in quite the same way.

“I grew up in Pennsylvania in a small town called Belle Vernon. My dad worked at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel as an electrician. I had a great childhood, lots of great memories.

“Sound has always had a profound effect on me and still does. We had a Laurel and Hardy record, a 78. There was the sound of a horse coming to a stop and that would send chills up my spine. When I listened to music, I had that same feeling. I was profoundly affected by music that way.

“I felt things and saw things differently. I guess you could say I was sensitive. Small towns are rough on those with artistic ambitions. Ask Bruce Springsteen. What are you going to do in a black-and-white world when your mind thinks in color?

“My father had open-heart surgery in 1968 and died unexpectedly at age 50 in 1971. I was 13. We had come to West Virginia as kids to visit my second cousin at Lake Chaweva. Mom was thinking, ‘What do I do now, with two boys?’ We were so wild. In 1973, my mother married my second cousin, so we came here.

“My stepfather heard I had been playing a guitar that the family had brought into the house, a plastic guitar from Sears. My brother was a wild teenager, so they bought this guitar for him.

“I had this theatrical flair, so I started strumming it and jumping all over the furniture. One day, my brother threw it on the floor and put his foot through it.

“That didn’t deter me. My stepfather said his cousin had a guitar and asked if I wanted to borrow it and take lessons. And that’s how it started. I was 12 or 13.

“I wanted to be Glen Campbell. He was very handsome, and there were a lot of girls. Most of us get into music for the opposite sex, truth be told. Then, like everybody else, I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix.

“I didn’t really think of it as being a career, how I was going to fit in with things.

“In high school, I was known as a guitar player by my friends. I didn’t play in any bands, but I took lessons. That’s a theme that runs through my whole life. I am absolutely fearless when it comes to learning about the guitar. I don’t care who it is. Nobody intimidates me. It’s all about learning. You pick up more from your peers than you do your teacher.

“Music was the only thing I really fit into. Like, what do I really do well? Music. But guitar is not exactly a solid career choice, but thought I could always teach. My parents said same thing: You need teaching as a backup.

“I was a music major at Wesleyan and quite a failure at it. My first experience was Introduction to Musicianship, ear training, and my grade was D minus. I didn’t understand how you could hear something and write it down.

“Now when students say to me, ‘I can’t do this.’ I say, ‘Let me tell you about me.’ I don’t think there is any failure that I have not done publicly or privately. But I love music so much I will never quit it.

“Wesleyan didn’t have a guitar program. One of the teachers said that Dr. Nels Leonard taught guitar at West Liberty. I started corresponding with him. He’s in his 80s now. I just visited him. I owe him so much.

“I’d had some classical training here from a guy who was basically a funk guitarist. Once I heard that nylon string, that was it. Most people gravitate to electric guitar or steel string. When I heard nylon string, it was love at first sight.

“Nylon string is just an absolutely intimate instrument, so rich in tone and beautiful. I knew that’s what I wanted.

“In ninth grade, my teacher was Buddy Davis. One day I walked in and he was playing something by this Italian guitarist composer from the 19th century. He said it was classical nylon string. I said I wanted to learn that.

“Think about it. I’m going into music, great career choice. And now I’m going into guitar, great career choice. And now I’m going even more obscure into classical guitar. So career-wise, it’s insane.

“But I didn’t fit into anything else. When something grabs your soul like that, you cling to it. Doors will open. Follow your bliss.

“I was completely, fervently in love with the nylon string classical guitar. That got me to West Liberty for three wonderful years with Nels Leonard.

“I learned about fingernails. A pick is percussive. The only way to elicit a proper sound out of a nylon string is cajoling, drawing the sound out, very delicate. If you don’t have longer nails on your picking hand, you just don’t get that sound.

“I took a year off, a difficult year, a wandering year. I was trying this and that and playing electric guitar and trying to figure out what I was going to do.

“My stepfather said I’d lost my focus. Of course I had. What support is there for a classical guitarist in a chemical valley town? Back when I was kicking around, there was zero. Everybody played electric guitar in a band. That wasn’t what my soul wanted.

“I started applying at different schools for my masters and got accepted at Peabody. My teacher said it was this one modern piece I’d played. He saw something in me the other master’s programs didn’t. That’s the difference in Peabody. They see the whole person.

“It took me four years. I had to completely redo my technique, relearn everything. When my students give me hell, I say, ‘Listen, you have not made the sacrifices I’ve made, so don’t whine to me.’

“By the time I graduated, I was a professional musician. But what was I going to do for a living? I graduated in December and partied through February. I moved back in with my parents.

“I applied to teach at different schools. Nobody needed me. Then UC said yes.

“My parents moved back to Pennsylvania. I lived out at the Lake Chaweva property. I applied and became music director at Grace Covenant Presby and I taught privately and tried to play gigs. That’s when the thing started happening with Lisa Peery, a flute and guitar duet, and we were really busy.

“The Velvet Brothers started in ‘89. It really goes back to ‘82 with my roommate and longtime friend, Craig Romeo, whose dad owned the Cantina. We had been goofing around as piano and guitar which has zero potential. We couldn’t play jazz, classical or rock. But it was fun.

“We added another guy and a drum machine and started playing weddings. That’s how Velvet Brothers got started, as a trio. We were active until ‘93.

“I was earning a living, but it wasn’t very much. While I was teaching at UC, a faculty member said there was an opening for a Sunday evening show, 6 to midnight, on public radio. I didn’t have any experience, but programming just came naturally to me.

“I was doing 30-second breaks and top of the hour ID, just babysitting the board.

“Then they had problems with one of the local programs and got rid of it and asked me to fill in for that. The general manager said, ‘Remember this isn’t a New York audience, so don’t play anything adventurous.’ I behaved myself. I was very bland. Nobody listened. Sunday night on public radio is the deadest of all nights.

“Then another program went away and I had two and a half hours to fill, and they said to just fill it with anything. I can program music. I just started doing it. I changed the format from not talking. It was “Sunday Night with Jim Lange.”

“You do something unconsciously until you realize you have a style. The new name, “Eclectopia,” comes from the Greek ‘to choose’ and then ‘topia,’ a place. That’s since 2002.

“I married Beverly in ‘93. She got sick when she started dialysis. She was an undiagnosed diabetic for two years. Her mother and aunt had it, but she didn’t want to know.

“I didn’t either. Heart disease runs on both sides of my family. I had open-heart surgery in 2010, a double bypass. I had 99.9 percent blockage.

“What ended Beverly’s life was a disease that affects 4 percent of only women. It’s called calciphylaxis. She would get really tired and her legs would really hurt. She began to get these bruises. It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen a human being go through. We were so close. Her death gutted me.

“The exercise after her death was just so I wouldn’t be in my own head. I would ride my bike until I was exhausted. I bike 70 to 80 hours a week. And I’m into yoga big time.

“I think I’ve had a good life, but losing Beverly was an undeserving blow. I’ve wrestled with that. I do have faith. I thought God and I had a deal. Evidently we did not. There is that expression that God’s will be done. It’s not for me to figure out why. It brought me to the lowest point I’ve ever been, and it still does.

“I do cardio, yoga, biking, walking, hiking, all that. I play music a lot. The Velvets are active again. And I play with my sextet, Terra Firma, and Ryan Kennedy. Ryan is a big part of my recovery. And I write music. So it’s full steam ahead.”


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

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