MILTON - The Mountaineer Opry House will host a special performance Saturday, Sept. 30, featuring two of the Mountain State's best musicians.
For many years now, Johnny Staats has been known as one of the best mandolin players in the business, an artist who can play everything from bluegrass to swing to country. One interesting aspect of his story is that he is a musician who was smart enough to keep his day job at UPS. While that has hindered his ability to tour and gain a wider audience, it also means he will be that rare entity known as a musician with a pension in a few years. It also enables those in and near West Virginia to see and hear this excellent musician play on a regular basis.
From Ripley, West Virginia, comes Robert Shafer, a premier guitarist who has won the prestigious National Flatpick Guitar Championship in Winfield, Kansas, twice and has taken the guitar champion mantle in other states such as Kentucky, Ohio, Alabama and Tennessee. He has appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, at the Kennedy Center and has performed with many great artists over the years including Kenny Baker, Uncle Josh Graves, Bobby Taylor, Robin Kessinger and more.
Staats' and Shafer's latest album, "Music from the Mountains," features their musical magic being applied to standard bluegrass tunes and more swinging fare. The combination of these two special pickers is what makes their performances a fascinating experience.
"Johnny and I have known each other for 30 years," Shafer said. "The duo thing started when a mutual friend of ours up in New York City wanted us to come up and play at some places in town. But, there was no guarantee on what we were going to be paid. We were just going to go and play, as they say, 'on spec.' In other words, whatever money we could pick up from the door and from CD sales, that was what we would be bringing home. We didn't want to carry the whole band up there because it would be a lot more expensive and we couldn't guarantee a paycheck. So, we did that (went as a duo), and it worked out pretty well financially and musically."
Once the environment presented the opportunity to play as a duo, things began to click between Shafer and Staats.
"We sat down and played some tunes that we both knew together, and it worked," Shafer said. "At that point we started to think, 'There might be a market for more of these shows.' We have a good time and we know each other well enough musically where it is pretty easy. It's not like we have to sit down and do a lot to get ready for a show. We just show up and say, 'OK, here is what we're going to play first. Here is what we're going to play second.' We kind of play off of the top of our heads."
When magic happens between the two, Shafer will take the time to write down his solos in musical tablature so as to be able to recall what worked months or years later. That way, the inspired music that happens between Staats and Shafer is captured and built upon for future shows.
"Our music is a lot of traditional stuff played with a progressive feel," Shafer said. "On our latest album, 'Music from the Mountains,' we took some tunes that people will recognize, and we did our own take on them. On 'Leather Britches,' which is an old traditional fiddle tune, we took some chances with it. So, it is mainly familiar material that you have not quite heard played in this groove before. We'll do Bill Monroe and Kenny Baker's 'Jerusalem Ridge' and then do some gypsy jazz things, so it is a mixed bag."
Johnny Staats and Robert Shafer perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Mountaineer Opry House, just off I-64 at the Milton exit. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $5 for kids 12 and under. More information can be found at www.mountaineeropry.com and 304-743-5749.