For many bands, choosing the right name requires some intense deliberation.
Not so for Trae Buckner and his Appalachian string crew. At a festival in West Virginia, Buckner and his bandmates were casually picking an old-time tune in a field, when an obviously drunk guy walked up and started to listen. When the group finished the song, the inebriated gentleman blurted out, “Y’all ain’t nothing but a bunch of hillbilly gypsies.”
After sharing a laugh, Buckner and the rest of the group realized the moniker was too good to pass up. “From that point, the name stuck with us,” Buckner remembers.
Now, after more than a decade together, the Hillbilly Gypsies remain one of the hardest working bands on the underground regional mountain music scene—traveling to festivals and small music haunts with a high-energy live show that blends a traditional aesthetic with some progressive edge. The five-piece group formed out of a regular Wednesday-night old-time jam in their hometown of Morgantown, W.Va.
The picking party—still held weekly at the Morgantown Brewing Company—eventually became too crowded for comfort, so Buckner corralled some of the participating musicians and eventually formed the band.
“It grew to the point where it was a big mess,” Buckner says. “The jam got so ridiculously big that it was hard to hear anything. Four or five of us decided to take it around the corner to do some picking on the side.”
By 2001, the band started playing shows around the Mountain State and beyond, and subsequent years have been spent steadily gaining new fans through a diligent road ethic. On stage, the group creates a mood of front-porch authenticity, as members huddle around a single mic and deliver a sound that sits between old-time Appalachian string band music and hard-driving bluegrass.
“We find a middle ground between the two styles,” Buckner says. “Some purists probably cringe at the thought, but we jumble it all together. It’s our own brand of mountain music.”
The band combines deft picking and singing; tight solos and foot-stomping rhythms are elevated with joined vocal harmonies. Add in the occasional country ballad, some comedic mannerisms, and witty stage banter, and the group’s show becomes a wildly entertaining complete package.
Buckner handles guitar and clawhammer banjo, sharing lead vocal duties with his wife, Jamie Lynn. The band also includes Dave Asti on banjo and mandolin, Ty Jaquay on fiddle, and bassist Ryan Cramer.
This summer the band is planning to release its sixth album, West Virginia Line. While the band has plenty of its own material, it also doesn’t shy away from playing recognizable standards in the old-time and bluegrass canons. Sets are often filled with familiar gems like “Cluck Ol’ Hen,” “John Hardy,” and “Old Joe Clark.”
The group has been a featured performer at the Carter Family Fold, won the band competition at Delfest, and even taken its Appalachian sound to audiences in Europe. For this band, though, it’s not about the size of the stage. It’s an independent spirit, steeped in the purity of the music, that keeps the group relentlessly moving to the next gig—be it at a big festival, dingy bar, or backyard pig roast.
“We do it all on our own—grassroots style,” Buckner says. “We do just about every kind of gig there is. We keep trucking along, trying to build something with one fan at a time.”