Jim and his wife Bertha own The Troubadour, a nightclub and restaurant on Highland Ridge in the Morgan County countryside near Berkeley Springs. Named in honor of Ernest Tubb, the “Texas Troubadour,” the club is decorated with photos and memorabilia from Jim’s long career. A barbeque fashioned in the shape of a giant six-shooter is located out back along with a spacious patio, a sloping lawn, and an outdoor stage for live music. The McCoy family lives in a complex of mobile homes nearby.
Just a few hundred feet away, James Wesley McCoy was born on April 11, 1929, to Peter Wesley and Carrie Virginia Henry McCoy. After a musical career that took him to more than a dozen states, Jim finally moved back to the old homeplace in the mid-1980’s. On summer days, Jim can be found tending his garden of tomatoes and onions, some of which are used in the restaurant and some of which he simply gives away to friends. He’s been gardening since he was a kid and claims, “The tomatoes coming off these hills are the best anywhere.” When he was growing up, Morgan County was renowned for tomatoes and had an active tomato canning industry – an industry that died out because of a tomato blight in the 1940’s.
The McCoy family earned much of its cash in those days by cutting timber. One day, young Jim decided, “There has to be a better way to make a living than holding this old crosscut saw.” That better way – a career in music – was still some years off, but it seems to have been part of Jim’s thinking from an early age.
When he was 13, Jim learned to play guitar from Pete Kelly, one of his neighbors on Highland Ridge. “He played the prettiest guitar I ever heard,” Jim says. “I told my dad I want to play the guitar, but I couldn’t even tune it. Pete would come over once a week and tune the guitar and teach me chords.” Two of the songs he recalls learning from Kelly were “Wildwood Flower” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Their music was the contemporary “hillbilly music of the 1930’s and ’40’s, which they mostly learned from records and radio.
Peter McCoy encouraged his son’s musical inclinations. He bought him a guitar from a Montgomery Wards catalog and recordings by country singer Ernest Tubb. The teenager listened for hours to Tubb and to Bob Wills on the family’s windup Victrola, and the Texas Troubadour became Jim’s personal idol. At age 14, Jim walked and hitchhiked 40 miles to see Ernest Tubb perform at Conococheague Park near Hagerstown, Maryland. Jim got to meet his hero that night, and afterwards, they exchanged letters. Three years later, Tubb stopped and phoned young Jim while driving through Berkeley Springs. “Boy, I thought that was something,” Jim says. Even today, he says of Tubb, “I just loved the guy so much.”
Inspired by Tubb’s deep voice and by the modern, amplified country sound emerging in the 1940’s, Jim began singing and playing with his pal Ken Hoffman at Jack Waugh’s tavern in southern Morgan County. Before long, Jim branched out to perform with Slim Belford. Slim later became the fiddler with bluegrass greats Bennie and Vallie Cain who also got their start in Berkeley Springs. In addition, Jim performed with regional favorite Sammy Moss and fiddler Sonny McCumbee, a member of a well-known Berkeley Springs musical family.
jimguitarJim and these other musicians played live gigs and radio shows all over an area where an hour’s drive can take you from southern Pennsylvania, through western Maryland and West Virginia, and into Virginia. The teenaged McCoy’s first time “on the air” was on WJEJ in Hagerstown in about 1945. He recalls his father hauling him to the radio station in the family’s 1934 Studebaker in the wee hours for the 6 a.m. broadcast so that Jim could perform two songs with Bud Messner and his Saddle Pals, a popular band from nearby Pennsylvania.
While Peter McCoy never said much about his son’s budding musical career, he was always supportive. Sometimes they would even string up lights near their farmhouse on Highland Ridge, and Jim would perform for neighbors from a wagon bed, perhaps foreshadowing the outdoor stage Jim later built behind The Troubadour.
Jim soon had an itch for his own radio program. “I wanted to play so bad that I got a 30-minute show on WINC in Winchester, Virginia,” he says. “I didn’t even have a car to get there. I bummed a ride anyway I could.” He talked Rumsey Unger, who ran a general store south of Berkeley Springs near the Virginia line, into paying five dollars to sponsor his half hour.
WINC was one of the few stations that was heard far and wide in those days, covering a good bit of the northern Shenandoah Valley and nearly all of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. The station’s Saturday morning lineup consisted of a string of 30-minute country music programs. Others on the air at that time included Sammy Moss who had a popular honky-tonk style reminiscent of Hank Williams, and Alan Greenfield, a Gene Autry-influenced singer from Martinsburg.
“That was fun days,” McCoy says, but then he smiles and concedes, “but it really wasn’t very good radio.” For a time in the 1940’s, Jim moved to Baltimore where he worked in the nail mill at Bethlehem Steel, but a strike and a layoff later, he took a job with Montgomery Wards as a salesman. When Wards offered him a transfer to the Winchester store, Jim jumped at it and resumed his musical career.
It was during this period that he earned his long-standing nickname, Joltin’ Jim McCoy. He was so busy doing radio shows and what he terms “schoolhouse” jobs, not to mention working full-time at Montgomery Wards to pay the bills, that someone remarked that he was always “joltin’ around.” The name stuck. Jim’s band was called the Melody Playboys, a name inspired by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys whose brand of Texas Swing music was much admired by Jim McCoy and many of the other Eastern Panhandle musicians of the era.
There were memorable moments at WINC, even if it wasn’t “very good radio” on a bigtime scale, and even if the “pay” was simply free advertisement for the weekend’s live appearances. Nothing, however, quite stood out like the morning in 1946 when a 14-year-old girl named Virginia Hensley walked in and asked to sing with the band. “I talked to the boys and they said, ‘Yes, let’s give her a chance,'” says Jim. He was just 17 himself, but he already had a reputation for sharing his stage and mike with other performers.
The girl – who in the 1950’s would be better known as Patsy Cline – bowled everyone over. “Boy, we knew right off that this girl was something else,” Jim says. For the next month, she joined Joltin’ Jim and the Melody Playboys on Saturday mornings. The young Cline had a strong voice and was especially effective on ballads. Her feature numbers included “Lovesick Blues,” “San Antonio Rose,” and “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey,” which was to be her showstopper for years. “She was the only person I ever met in the music business who could say to the band, ‘We’re going to do this in [the key of] C,’ and she would start out singing, and it would really be in C,” Jim recalls.
Taken from troubadourlounge.com/home/more-info/about-jim-mccoy/
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