As Bill Jenkins sees it, music is so much more than melody, rhythm and lyrics. It's a part of our history, he says. A part of who we are, both individually and collectively.
Jenkins, the Gloucester County man who has been singing traditional songs for more than a half-century, will be playing The American Theatre in Phoebus on Saturday with his band, The Virginia Mountain Boys. And the soft-spoken gentleman sounds almost defiant when he explains why he will open that show with "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia."
"A lot of people take offense to this song, and that grates on me," he says. "I'm proud of the state of Virginia and everything that's part of it, for better or worse. That song is such a part of our family that when my mom died, we sang that song in church – I might add, with a large contingent of black people who were there holding hands and singing that song like there was no tomorrow. That song is such a part of my heart."
Jenkins acknowledges that he will change a few words from the original lyrics, but not the tone of a song that professes love for his home state. It's a fitting choice, as Friday's show will mark his induction into the Virginia Musical Museum in Williamsburg.
He is 69 years old now, but still singing many of the same songs he learned growing up on the Middle Peninsula. Some of them are the mountain ballads his father sang. Others are spirituals and traditional tunes he picked up from African-American workers on his grandfather's farm – melodies they used to establish a cadence while working in the fields.
Regardless of the roots of a particular song, Jenkins said he cherishes the opportunity to pass it along to new generations.
"This music is such a part of America," he said. "And it's right here. It's where we are. It's still living. It's not a forgotten thing."
Bill Collier, who has been playing the stand-up bass for the Virginia Mountain Boys since 1997, says he has never seen anyone who can match Jenkins' ability to craft a connection between the singer and the song.
"It's something he grew up with, and it's embedded in his soul," Collier said.
"This is the music that's supposed to come out of him – real old, old stuff. We sing it as it was written," Collier said. "That's how he learned it and how he taught it to us. We knew these songs before, but we learned so much more about them from being associated with Bill."
When it's suggested that the songs seem to come from Jenkins' heart, Collier replies: "Even deeper than that."
Jenkins talks about this music with a reverential tone in his soft voice. These are songs that helped get him through difficult times – military service in Vietnam, the deaths of loved ones – and he considers himself blessed to be able to perform them.
That's what he says this honor from the Virginia Musical Museum means to him: the chance to share this music with a new audience.
"If there's someone who wouldn't normally listen to this music," he said, "and that person hears it and says, 'That's not bad, I think I'll listen to it again,' then you've done your job for all of your life. Just one person. The whole thing is to keep the music alive."
When he first learned that the museum planned to honor him, Jenkins' first instinct was to stress that he shared the tribute with his entire band. He said he was almost embarrassed to tell the other musicians of the honor because he feared that they would feel slighted. But the bond between these band members is as tight as the intricate harmonies they sing on stage.
"There is a camaraderie that you rarely find," Collier said. "It's something that's out of this world and not found in too many bands. We are really more like a family, and everything falls into place like a jigsaw puzzle."
Buddy Parker, who operates the museum, said the Jenkins exhibit will feature his first acoustic guitar, as well as the original suits that Jenkins wore with his first band. Parker says that after the show at The American Theatre, people will be able to come to the museum in Williamsburg and "see what this man is all about."
This honor is just another part of what has been a big year for Jenkins. In March, he and the group played at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., making the 50th anniversary of the show at that same venue that launched his career when he was still a teenager. Jenkins joined legendary comedian Jack Benny as the only performers to play shows at the National Press Club 50 years apart.
Looking back over the road he's traveled to this point, Jenkins gets wistful as he talks about good times and lean times. About long rides between shows, with the mandolin player keeping everyone awake in the car while trying to work out a melody at 3 a.m. He talks about the graciousness shown to him by older stars such as the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family, and about playing alongside legends such as Earl Scruggs and Joan Baez.
"It's all like a faded dream," he said. "I look back on it now and I think, 'Why didn't I take pictures of this and that?' The whole experience has been like a wonderful wheel that has just turned. So many wonderful experiences.
"It has made me a much better person, I think, than I would have been if it had not been a part of my life."
Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479.
Want to go?
Who: Bill Jenkins and the Virginia Mountain Boys
Where: The American Theatre, 125 East Mellen St., Hampton
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Info: hamptonarts.net or 757-722-2787