‘The Suite for Nelle: A Portrait of West Virginia’ brings bluegrass to the symphony hall

By Matthew Young, RealWV

NOTE: This article originally attributed the fourth song in the suite, “Elk River Blues,’ to French Carpenter. That was incorrect, and the article has been updated to reflect Ernie Carpenter as the creator of the song. Additionally, while the article refers to “bluegrass,” the style of music created and played by Jenny Allinder and Jim Mullins, and contained within the suite, is considered “old-time music.”

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The worlds of symphony and bluegrass came together at the MacFarland-Hubbard House in Charleston on Sunday, for the debut of “The Suite for Nelle: A Portrait of West Virginia.” 

Named in honor of Nelle Ratrie Chilton, the suite was arranged by composer Darol Anger, and features the uniquely-Appalachian stylings of fiddler Jenny Allinder and guitarist Jim Mullins. Rebecca Kimmons, the creative force behind the project since its inception, served as producer.

“Nelle Chilton was a quiet but staunch defender of the people of West Virginia,” Kimmons, a longtime friend of Chilton’s, told those in attendance. “She was a descendant of some of the oldest families who settled what we think of now as southern West Virginia. She had a heart for West Virginians of all stripes.”

In 2019, Kimmons said she and Chilton attended a performance of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra which featured an appearance from Tessa Lark, a Kentucky bluegrass fiddler. It was that performance which Kimmons credits for planting the creative seed. 

“As I sat there with Nelle, I kept thinking how wonderful it was,” Kimmons said of the evening. “But wouldn’t it be wonderful if a West Virginia fiddler might be featured? And of course the first person that came to mind was Jenny Allinder and her accomplice, Jim Mullins.”

To seamlessly blend the precision of an orchestra with the artistic melange of a traditional fiddler, Kimmons said she needed someone who “shares a deep appreciation for the old tunes associated with Appalachia,” and who “stands at the nexus of American traditional music, jazz, and new world music.” 

Enter Darol Anger.

“It was incredibly important that we had someone who understood what he calls the ‘great furry beast of the orchestra,’” Kimmons said of Anger. “The needs of an orchestra, and also the needs of traditional musicians who play by ear. Their great strength is improvisation.”

“Darol Anger understands the needs of an orchestra, and he understands the great gifts of improvised music,” Kimmons added.

Although Nelle Chilton sadly passed away on April 16, 2020, members of her family were on-hand for the suite’s debut. Much of the suite’s creation was made possible by the support and generosity of the Nelle Ratrie Chilton Charitable Trust. 

“When I say Nelle was a quiet defender, she avoided the spotlight, and was shy of being celebrated for the many ways she served the people of West Virginia,” Kimmons explained. “Nelle was not comfortable in the spotlight. She did her work quietly, and behind the scenes. I think she might be a little embarrassed to have an entire symphonic suite named for her, but certainly she deserved it.”

“One of the things she was brilliant at was bringing people together in this way, and watching life happen,” Kimmons added. 

Saturday’s debut featured a short live performance by Allinder and Mullins, with Anger accompanying,   followed by the full suite played via audio recording. “The Suite for Nelle: A Portrait of West Virginia,” is comprised of six songs over three movements, three of which come from Pocahontas County’s famed Hammons family. 

“The music that you’ll hear is the music that they (the Hammons family) played in their house, and on their porch,” Kimmons said. “And it’s sublime.”

Another of the songs, Kimmons explained, comes from Ernie Carpenter, and was “created as a lament for his family’s ancestral farm that was buried under the waters of the Sutton Dam.” 

The final two songs were composed by Jenny Allinder, Kimmons noted, adding that, “‘The Suite for Nelle’ has been built around the playing of Jim (Mullins) and Jenny.”

Lunch for the debut event was provided by a favorite of Nelle Chilton, 2023 James Beard Foundation Award finalist, Chef Paul Smith, and his staff from Charleston’s 1010 Bridge Restaurant, as well as Chuck and Nadine’s Black Oak Holler Farm. Friends of Old-Time Music and Dance served as the project’s fiscal agent. 

About Darol Anger:

Darol Anger is a founding member of the string-ensembles “the David Grisman Quintet,” and “The Turtle Island String Quartet.” Anger is a MacDowell and Ucross Fellow, and has arranged and composed for string orchestras and quartets, full orchestras, and jazz and bluegrass bands.

About Jenny Allinder:

Jenny Allinder was featured on the soundtrack of the 1995 West Virginia Public Broadcasting production of “West Virginia: A Film History.” Allinder is a five time winner of the State of West Virginia Fiddle Contest at the Vandalia Gathering, and has repeatedly placed in the Non-Traditional Band Contest at the Appalachian String Band Festival.

About Jim Mullins:

Jim Mullins has placed first in both the senior fiddle and banjo categories at the State of West Virginia Fiddle Contest at the Vandalia Gathering, and has been a finalist in banjo at the Appalachian String Band Festival. Mullins has also been a finalist at the Ohio State Clawhammer Banjo Contest. 

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