Sounds of Railroading Musicians

Jimmy Costa

Jimmy Costa is a well-known as a musician who plays the fiddle and banjo, sings and instructs classes in traditional mountain music at festivals and workshops across the state. He also is a devoted curator and conservator of the artifacts of his regional heritage. The dual grandson of a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway conductor on his mother’s side and a switchman on his father’s, Jimmy grew up in the railroad town of Hinton, West Virginia, a division point on the C&O, hearing stories, tales and songs related to railroading in southern West Virginia. Equally well known and respected as a storyteller, Jimmy combines that with his mastery of several instruments to share a large collection of railroad songs and performs them in an authentic traditional style on fiddle, banjo, harmonica and guitar. He knows many of the stories, tales and lore that relate to railroading in southern West Virginia. Now living near the C&O Railway’s Big Bend Tunnel of John Henry fame, he is the best-known local resource for John Henry lyrics, stories and lore. Jimmy is a collector of railroad relics and ephemera, including widely known engineer Billy Richardson’s oil can!

Roy Harper and Johnny Bellar

Roy Harper and Johnny Bellar are a musical duo with a large repertoire of railroad music. Ninety-three year old Roy, a retired railroad brakeman from Manchester, Tennessee, has devoted his life to continuing the music traditions that he heard as a child while listening to the likes of Uncle Dave Macon, Arthur Smith, Sam and Kirk McGee, Riley Puckett and Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers is remembered as "the singing brakeman." “No one in the country," says music historian, Dr. Charles Wolfe, "does old Jimmie Rodgers songs better than Roy.” Roy began performing professionally, singing and playing guitar and harmonica, more than 60 years ago. In 1999, he was inducted into the Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored with numerous awards, including the Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award, which he received in 2003 from the governor of Tennessee. Roy has recorded more than 20 albums, including a series of projects for Old Homestead Records.

Johnny Bellar is famous as a Nashville session musician, and is a virtuoso player of the resophonic guitar, an acoustic instrument played with a metal slide invented in the 1920s and popularly known as the dobro. He is a regular on the Nashville Now television program and on the Grand Ole Opry. He began playing the guitar at age 14 and the resophonic a year later. After high school, Johnny began playing with the legendary Stoneman Family in 1974 and continued touring with them until 1984. He appeared on such shows as Hee Haw, the Ralph Emery Show and the Tommy Hunter Show. In 1987 Johnny worked his way into the Nashville studio scene.

William Sherman Holstine

William Sherman Holstine, known as “Junior,” lives in Emmons, West Virginia, within 20 yards of the railroad tracks that run up Coal River. Junior is a life-long fiddle player who learned from family and community sources. He does a realistic train imitation from years of listening to steam trains pull through Emmons, along with a large bag of railroad tunes and songs. Junior rarely performs publicly, preferring to play locally with friends and informally for drinks and tips in local taverns. His recent CD, “Old Jake Gilley,” on the Augusta Heritage label, is his first-ever recording project. Junior will perform with Gary Wayne Jordan, his nephew, a master of the harmonica.


Emily Miller and Jesse Milnes

Jesse Milnes and Emily Miller are a prominent duo from the Elkins, West Virginia, area. They trade off on fiddle, guitar and harmonizing vocals while performing a wide variety of Appalachian regional railroad music. Jesse is a West Virginia fiddle champion and is widely known for his finger picking guitar style. Both teach instrumental and vocal harmony during the Augusta Heritage Center’s popular Summer Sessions. They have performed on the nationally broadcast A Prairie Home Companion and The Mountain Stage radio shows on National Public Radio. They have toured widely across the United States and Canada, in Australia, and throughout Europe. Their recorded music includes “Cherry River Line,” a CD of music, including railroad songs, collected in and around West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, two duo CDs, and several discs with The Sweetback Sisters, Emily’s touring band.