They’re With the Band: Crandall Creek Spans Generations to Top Charts
MOUNDSVILLE — Jerry Andrew’s guitar had been shoved under the bed at his Moundsville farm for so long the strings disintegrated. Kathy Wigman Lesnock had already cried in her tea a couple of decades ago — convinced a lackluster journey from just over the Pennsylvania border to Nashville was the end of a songwriting dream.
Fast forward to 2021.
Both musicians’ careers are risen from what looked like the dead. Their bluegrass band Crandall Creek hit No. 1 four times on Grassicana — an industry mainstay — in just the last year.
Now partnered with four like-minded 20 somethings, they’ve packed out the Purple Fiddle, Canaan Valley’s music mecca. They performed at Oglebay’s summer concert series.
They’ve spread out in a luxe guest house during one gig. They’ve bunked en masse in a leaky dormer above a motorcycle shop after another.
And, they’re loving it all. They’re with the band.
“I’ll go where it goes,” Lesnock said of embracing their unexpected wild ride. “This is our last chance.”
Andrews feels like their sudden success is a matter of preparation meeting right timing and, possibly, divine intervention.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this intellectually or financially at an earlier stage of life,” he said. “Now we are.”
A QUIRKY ROAD
Getting to 2021 has been a long, quirky road that included a pause of several decades for both local musicians.
Andrews, who said he was born wanting to perform, did. He was briefly part of a country group called Sweet Harmony before marriage, children and work became so all encompassing he actually forgot he owned a guitar until his nephews wanted to learn to play.
He found and hauled out the instrument and, on a whim, tried to enroll in a songwriting workshop. A phone oddity wound up directly connecting him to the workshop giver, industry businesswoman Donna Ulisse, who was simultaneously trying to call the event organizer.
She wound up inviting Andrews to bring a couple of his original songs to her workshop for a live demo of song craft.
“I’m thinking, ‘I don’t sing, I’m barely a player,’ “ Andrews said. But, he did it. To mixed reviews. “She said, ‘Oh, that was really nice.’ Then she flayed me.”
They became friends anyway. He even wound up promoting her for a couple of years, before starting Crandall Creek in 2015 and tracking down musicians and another songwriter to round things out.
He heard about Lesnock’s writing cred, stalked her on the internet and pounced when they happened to be in the same place.
Lesnock had never wanted to perform, but the idea of singing at a gig or so a month in addition to being able to write sounded OK, particularly given past disappointments in the industry.
Lesnock actually started writing music as a teen. But, similarly, family demands that included caring for aging parents made music a dream that had to be set aside.
She made a brief attempt in her 30s — after her husband and father gave her a guitar — to get into the writing side of the business. She traveled to Nashville and even performed her original work at a songwriters’ venue called the Bluebird Cafe.
“Nothing ever happened with that, other than I met great people and got to play my songs,” Lesnock said of the reality of family vs. the time needed to pursue a music career.
“I’m sitting at a little bistro table in Nashville crying in my tea, ‘I’m never coming back,'” she said of what she thought was her final effort. “But my parents passed away, my kids grew up. The time that you never thought you’d get to have suddenly appeared.”
So did the right musicians to round out the group. Eventually.
Dustin Terpenning, a history teacher from Wintersville, Ohio, came along by 2018 on banjo and mandolin.
And after a series of partners that either didn’t have the right sound, couldn’t travel or left for whatever reason, what is now the rest of the band appeared, as well.
There’s Abby Latocha McClure, a college student from Mannington, W.Va. on lead vocal and mandolin; Hanna Livingston, a college student from Frostburg, Md. on fiddle; and, mostly recently, Mason Atha, a college student from Jane Lew, W.Va. on bass.
That mix is so new, some members weren’t even on Crandall Creek’s 2020 CD “Headed South,” the one that’s charted well and involved two other bizarre breaks.
(A breakwise aside: Valerie Smith — an artist with her own record label — heard one of Andrew’s original songs on Facebook and called with a potential offer to release what became “Headed South” for them.
Andrews was convinced someone was pranking him until Smith told him to look at his caller ID. “It was a 615 number,” he said. “Nashville,” Lesnock added in a gleeful whisper.
Additionally, Alan Cackett, a notable British reviewer, liked “Headed South” so much he gave a stellar review they hadn’t even known was coming.)
But, there’s a third CD in the works — on their own Copper Mountain Records label and recorded through Wheeling’s own Jamie Peck Productions. Gigs have now turned international. Think Canada in 2022 and a video being produced for Australia’s public television.
“Before we knew it, it was out of control,” Andrews said of what has turned into way more than one gig a month. “A good out of control.”
Solidly booked and freshly respected, Andrews said Crandall Creek is poised to take the steps needed to become profitable.
This summer, the group has a “showcase” at the International Bluegrass Music Association convention. That means major festival organizers and industry leaders will have a chance to hear them perform live.
It’s the thing that income-producing careers are made of, he said, noting he and Lesnock (and their respective, uber-supportive spouses) are funding the group’s expansion, sometimes giving all gig proceeds to their younger band mates.
While the group is already accessible through Spotify and Youtube, Andrews is also pursuing play on a more profitable satellite radio venue.
They’ve also taken the unusual step of bolstering a non-profit arm of their music used for fund-raiser concerts with a college scholarship.
It was a move meant to give back, but has drawn a nod of approval from industry leaders.
“We’re only being who we are. We’re not trying to anybody else,” Lesnock said of making such choices. “It just feels natural to do what we’re doing.”
Crandall Creek has another ace up its sleeve, as well. They remain committed to original music. The latter is what drew reviewer Cackett’s attention.
“Most up-and-coming groups tend to rely on established songwriters and updated versions of old standards,” Cackett wrote in his review. “West Virginia’s Crandall Creek … produced a second album full of well-written songs that reflect the group’s gift for compelling storytelling.”
Andrews and Lesnock, who write nearly all the band’s songs, laughed at how they arrive at that unique blend of bluegrass, folk, acoustic country and gospel.
Lesnock writes slowly and methodically, with a guitar and paper. Andrews prefers his cell phone. “I write 100 miles an hour because I’m afraid to lose it,” he said. “We can tweak later.”
He believes there will be more songs to tweak. Crandall Creek is all in, he said. “I absolutely believed we would head where we’re heading.”
Readers who would like to hear Crandall Creek can visit their website. The group will next perform in the Ohio Valley on Aug. 13 at Moundsville’s Strand Theatre.