Nestled back up in the hills through ten miles worth of winding, climbing road off I-64 is Hinton, West Virginia It was 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning, August 26, when I snuck into Hinton under the cover of darkness and fog. I always feel a little bit like an invader when I drive into some small town in the wee hours of the morning, especially one so deep into W. Va. but my purposes here this weekend were pure – I was here for JescoFest 2006.
Jescofest?! What is this? And who’s this Jesco fellow anyway you might be asking. Plainly stated, Jesco White is The Dancin’ Outlaw.
Jesco’s father, D. Ray White was featured on the 1986 PBS documentary Talking Feet where he displayed his native Appalachia dance style that combines tap and clogging. Jesco learned this style of dance from his father and has gone on to be known as the King of Mountain Dancing.
“My dancing is a gift from my father,” said White. “He took the two things he loved the most (tap and clog dancing) and turned them into one.”
Sadly, Jesco is one of the last of his kind.
JescoFest is a two-day celebration of Jesco White, as well as a fund-raiser to help Jesco with firewood and coal to heat his trailer during the cold winter months. Jesco has been on disability since he was 17 and unable to work. He currently survives off of $600 a month. Though the subject of two full-length documentaries and the subject of many country music songs, (Jesco is mentioned in Big and Rich’s “Comin’ to Your City” and the Kentucky Headhunters “Jesico”) Jesco has received very little in the way of monetary compensation for any of these endeavors.
“All these people in the entertainment business are willing to capitalize off of my name and I ain’t seen a dime from any of them,” said White.
“I ain’t asking Big and Rich for much, maybe $100 bucks and a thank you. Really, only Hank III has done right by me,” White said.”
Jesco and several residents of Boone County, W.Va. are mentioned in Hank Williams III song “The Legend of D. Ray White.”
The festival also puts a spotlight on the poverty stricken areas of the Appalachia. Many residents of the area face the same problems as Jesco White, living in sub-par housing, barely able to provide for their families, many with learning disabilities or mental problems that for whatever reason, they are unable to receive government assistance. According to the 2000 census, people living below the poverty line in W. Va. hovered around 16 percent with the rate climbing to nearly 20 percent for those living in rural areas of the state.
Jason Sells, event organizer, is a friend of the White family. It was during conversations with one of Jesco’s cousins that the idea for a festival first came up.
“I was talking to Katie (White) about what we could do to help Jesco get through the winter and she suggested that we do a festival,” said Sells.
Prior to JescoFest, Sells had no experience planning an event of this magnitude, but friends of Jesco banded together to make it happen.
“A whole bunch of folks came together and we got a myspace account going for the festival. We got a website built and the ball started rolling,” said Sells.
“I would say 90-95 percent of the contacts and such we made with bands and what-not were through myspace. Within a month of having the mysace page up we were getting literally thousands of calls and emails,” Sells said.
But as the planned day drew closer, Sells still faced the issue of no location.
“For whatever reasons – prior commitments and such, most of the places we contacted couldn’t accommodate us. Ron Smith suggested I speak with Ray Nutter in Hinton to see about playing there,” said Sells.
“If anyone could get this into Hinton, it was Ray Nutter,” said Smith.
Owner of Unkl Ray’s Bar in Hinton and Ray Nutter casts a long shadow in the city, the folks of Hinton agreed to host the festival on the word of Nutter.
All told, 25 bands from across the country made the trek to Hinton to play pro bono for the show. While the days were supposedly divided into a rock-n-roll Saturday and a country oriented Sunday, each day featured a mix of talents and tastes as diverse as the crowd.
For 82 year old Daw Gill of Sandstone, W.Va., a chance to see the “Dancing Outlaw” perform was a dream come true.
“I’ve wanted to see Jesco dance for about as long as I can remember,” said Gill. “I was sort of afraid that he wouldn’t be performing anymore so any chance to see him – I’m there.”
“Jesco’s gone through so much in his life, he’s an inspiration,” said Casey Thromeburg who drove the nearly 200 miles from Greensboro, N.C. to see Jesco dance.
“Through it all, he’s remained true to himself, there aren’t that many performers out there like him,” Thromeburg said.
Headlining Saturday’s performance was the Hip-Hop act 8-Bit. Members of 8-Bit originally hail from Boone County, W. Va. but currently live in the Los Angeles area.
“When I talked to the guys and told them what was going on, they were more then excited about coming out and helping Jesco,” said Sells. .
The band was able to get sponsors to help fly them and their equipment across the nation and perform Aug 26.
For Sunday’s performance, headliners J.B. Beverley and the Wayward Drifters made the trip from Washington D.C. to play.
“Jesco is a true outlaw who does things his way,” said Beverley, “What with the issues he’s facing, coming down here and playing to help raise money for him is the least we can do.”
For the grand finale, J.B. Beverley and the Wayward Drifters were joined by country music performer Joey Allcorn for an inspired rendition of Hank III’s “The Legend of D. Ray White.” While the band played, Jesco kicked up a dust storm as he danced to the music while an enthusiastic crowd cheered him on.
With the success of this year’s festival, Sells wants to continue the movement into an on-going yearly event.
“We definitely learned a lot from this year’s festival and we’re looking into making this a yearly event,” Sells said. “Hopefully next years will be bigger and better and the lord willing, we’ll keep on keeping on.”