Pastor plays folk with his flock

Pastor plays folk with his flock

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Some bands begin in garages while others get their start in the classified ads. The Rev. Bill McCoy’s folk group might have been helped by a little divine providence.

McCoy formed his group, which performs as Bill McCoy and Friends, around 2006 when he became senior pastor at First Presbyterian.

He’d had a similar band at his last church in Pennsylvania and noticed there were some very talented musicians in his Charleston congregation. McCoy invited them to a jam session and then formed a group to perform for a children’s sermon.

After they re-grouped for a youth Sunday service, members of the congregation began urging McCoy to form a permanent band.

“People said, ‘When are you going to do that more?’ ” he said.

They now play together almost every week at First Presbyterian’s Sunday morning service and rehearse each Wednesday night.

The band will perform two concerts during this year’s GoodNight concert series on New Year’s Eve, playing at 7 and 9 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church on Virginia Street East, where McCoy is pastor.

McCoy was a musician and a folk singer long before he was a preacher. He began playing at coffee houses while he was a student at West Virginia University and continued playing gigs to earn money while he attended Pittsburgh Seminary.

He became a regular on the popular Jamboree U.S.A. while living in Wheeling in the 1980s.

“Whenever there was a cancellation, they could call and they knew I would come,” he said.

Performing on the show also gave him the chance to perform alongside some of country music’s biggest stars, including Tammy Wynette, Tom T. Hall, Alabama and Ernest Tubb.

Those influences still come to bear, even in the pulpit. In church, the band plays traditional hymns and contemporary Christian music as well as folk and bluegrass-styled gospel songs.

“We’ll do ‘I’ll Fly Away’ or ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ ” McCoy said.

Outside church, their repertoire is even more diverse.

“We play anything from James Taylor to Ricky Nelson to John Denver and traditional folk and gospel,” he said. “Anywhere from country to folk rock.”

McCoy said the band develops its song arrangements organically. Most of the musicians can play by ear, so there are no written-down parts.

“We sort of mix and match. We just play around with it. We say ‘mandolin might sound good on it,’ and we give it a try. It’s a lot of like jazz, in that we sort of improvise and see what comes out,” he said. “We just sort of play together and let it develop as it goes.”

They try to choose songs that match the musicians in the band, many of whom are multi-instrumentalists.

McCoy sings and plays his 12-string guitar, and occasionally he breaks out his harmonica. Mary Odin, First Presbyterian’s music director, plays piano and fiddle with the group.

David Pearcy plays bass guitar and keyboard. Andy Stewart plays guitar, mandolin, keyboard, percussion and sings. Brett Webster alternates between guitar, mandolin and banjo. Adele Holmes and Kristy Zak sing.

“With that foundation, we pick songs that work well with the group we have,” he said.

They also try to choose songs that connect with the audience. McCoy said that’s important, whether you’re preaching a sermon or singing a folk song.

“You have to want to communicate heart to heart with people when you sing,” he said.