News of the passing of Bill Withers at age 81, a giant among music writers and performers, marked a bittersweet loss - but also an immense pride - because Bill was a true icon in our native West Virginia. Like Bill, I was part of a rural family that carried no education, he from the coal fields of Slab Fork and me from the farm lands of Halleck, (unincorporated.) At 17 he joined the Air Force, among the first responders back then and he remained so until he died. His beloved music played on to lift people from the dread of the coronavirus pandemic. His gift to us started when he left the service and the music began to pour out, a reminder of who he was, where he came from and the lasting love for his people who despite everything lived in a time when it was still considered "showing off" to have talent in Appalachia.
He never lost that sense of humility, returning to West Virginia in the 1970s when the arrival of his hits made him the true king of music, giving concerts and taking time to go out to area schools and share his story, encouraging kids along the way. I had started work at my first real newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, in the capital city, where I found the mainly male newsroom was all too glad to let me cover the music scene. Bill came to Charleston, performing at a hall where he was wildly appreciated. Both of us finished our assignments and he was talked into visiting a nightclub that had a very good trio playing as the house band for 10 years.
Bill walked in to find a revered, amazed silence before the crowd jamming the place let loose with whoops of joy: One of our own was at the top of the charts and, yet here he was among us, just like anybody else who'd come to listen to the music of others. Bandleader George Legg, never shy about asking area musicians to sit in, called Bill up and wondered if he'd sing his tunes with the band. I'll never forget how thrilled he was to dart up, smiling, and croon among a list of others "Ain't No Sunshine." There was nothing but sunshine for all of us. The band's drummer asked Bill if he'd dance with me and, why yes, he would. He didn't think it over just took me into his arms, then onto the floor and floating. The dearest night of my life.
Sunday night as I watched what should have been the Academy of Country Music awards but instead was a host of artists singing from their homes, the show concluding with a long Walmart commercial. It featured a bevy of young employees from stores across the country - mostly the south - with junior titles and fabulous voices, passing along the lyrics of "Lean on Me." These were just a few of Bill Withers' youngsters, mentored from afar. He would be so proud.
A former Providence Journal reporter, Martha Smith is a Warwick resident. .