Mac R. Guthrie
“A mountain man goes to war carrying his fiddle.”
The story of crew chief Mac Guthrie by Crystal and Greg Guthrie
Mountain Man goes to war carrying his fiddle
Mac Guthrie enlisted in the Army on January 11, 1942, after registering with the Selective Service the prior October. Important note; enlisted, not drafted. To be clear, he volunteered in a time of war.
He was born and raised in West Virginia, in the northern part of the state along the Ohio River (in Wetzel County). Mac was the youngest son of seven children and was the only male to have any male progeny Similar to many young men who experienced their teenage years during the Great Depression, he completed a couple of years of high school and then started working. In Mac’s case, his job at the time he joined the war effort was as a laborer on the nearby pipeline (likely being built to transport natural gas, which is plentiful in the area). But, his job was not how he lived; he was a talented young musician.
His family had immigrated to Virginia (that would later become West Virginia) in the late 1700’s, mainly coming from Scotland. West Virginia became a state in June of 1863 after seceding from Virginia and rejoining the Union. Mac’s paternal grandfather (Reverend James Guthrie 1822-1888), was not only a Corporal in the Union Army during the Civil War but was elected to one of the first sessions of the West Virginia State Legislature in 1870. His maternal grandfather (Reverend John Mason McKimmie) also served in the legislature from 1895 – 1915. Forming a new state can take some divergent thinking, and this family had it in spades.
The music and cultural traditions of the British Isles were still strong during Mac’s youth. Unlike modern times, music was a part of daily life, in the kitchen, on the porch, at parties, and at church. Everyone sang a part, played an instrument, or both. Mac’s talent was rare though, and people were starting to notice.
Mac and friends formed an Old Time band during his teenage years, and he decided to play the banjo. This was a unique and challenging instrument, and likely more interesting to Mac than playing the fiddle like his Dad, Sanford, did. However, life had different plans for Mac. He was a divergent, creative thinker who drew pictures, built and fixed things in an elegant way, and had an excellent memory. For example, his given name was ‘McKimmie’ (his mother Ruth’s maiden name). In general, everyone called him ‘Mac’, but when he was a boy in school, kids would tease and call him ‘Kimmie’. So, at the age of 16, he took this into his own hands and went to the nearest county office to file a name change to ‘Mac’.
The band landed a weekly gig on the local radio station, WWVA. This was quite the coup as WWVA was a CBS network station, operating at 5,000 watts, hosting the historic Saturday Night Jamboree from Wheeling, WV. During the 1930s, this show was an uplifting and entertaining diversion from the struggle of the Great Depression, with listeners tuning in from far away homes spread across central Appalachia (20 states in all, plus Canada). (We don’t know if Mac’s band made it into the Jamboree, but we do know they performed regularly on WWVA.) In fact. things were going great, until the fiddle player quit the band. The guys showed up the following week for their regular spot, and afterwards, the Station Manager said they needed to find a fiddle player or they would be replaced. The guys talked about what to do– did they know anyone who would be available so quickly, and was good at playing the songs they knew? Nope. Next best option, who had access to a fiddle? That’s when they all looked at Mac.
So, he sorted out how to play a few songs for the next week’s broadcast, and then he kept on playing his newly favorite instrument. At the age of 21, he entered the Old Time Fiddle Contest on a dare. These contests were hotly contested, and the fiddlers were known for playing alternate tunings which made their instruments sound like the bagpipes and hornpipes from their historic homelands in the British Isles. Mac played Listen to the Mockingbird, a ballad that included bird sounds with robin, woodpecker, whippoorwill, etc. And, he won. He never entered another fiddler’s contest. That decision was based on the ‘been there, done that’ ethos. He would be remembered far and wide for his musical talent.
Mac attended basic training in Fort Hood, Texas. Interestingly, a few decades later, his son Gregory would be stationed there during his service in the Army. Mac had to make a will before he left home. He wanted to ensure that his Mother would be provided for, so he made the will out to his younger sister Beatrice with the stipulation that she would take care of her. At the end of his service, Beatrice would not give the will back to him and quipped “maybe someday it will be worth a lot of money to me!”, just certain that his fiddle playing was going to make him rich and famous.
Mac’s Mother, Ruth and his younger sister Beatrice
After basic training, Mac shipped off to North Africa in November, 1942. During his time in the war, he served in the 79th Fighter Group in the Army Air Corps as a P-47 Thunderbolt Crew Chief. The aircraft was his responsibility. The 79th had campaigns in several theaters of operation including Egypt-Libya, Tunisia, Sicily, Naples-Foggia, Rome-Arno, Southern France, Germany, Balkans, North Apennines, and Po Valley. This happens to be the plane that Gerry Teldon flew for a time (“Mister Lucky”, X27). See his story for some colorful tales about how Mac helped him learn about the plane and prepare him for some dangerous escapades. Mac served with the 79th until August 29, 1945, a few months after Germany had unconditionally surrendered. During his time overseas, he sent letters and pictures back home to his parents, a few of which are shown below.
Photo: Mac Guthrie, P-47 Thunderbolt Crew Chief, and Gerry Teldon, X27 Pilot, Italy, WWII
Photo: Mac Guthrie, taking care of hygiene and laundry somewhere in the Mediterranean
Photo: Flying Skull Christmas Card to Mac’s Father, Sanford Guthrie
Photo: Mac Guthrie, U.S. Army Air Corps
Photo: Mac Guthrie, U.S. Army Air Corps
After returning home from war, Mac purchased some adjoining property to the Guthrie family land and started a VFW in the nearby village of Wileyville. The veterans played poker on what later became his family’s dining room table (a gorgeous piece made from solid walnut, which was hidden under a coat of black paint at the VFW). Mac took up the carpentry trade for an income, and started a pattern of working on projects to save up some money, then traveling to play music across the country. He went to Nashville for a while (adding to his celebrity status back home) and did some session work in the 1950s, including for Marty Robbins among others. He hated it. The money machine of Nashville took the joy out of playing the fiddle for him, so he left and went back to focusing on live and radio performances as opportunities arose.
Photo: Mac Guthrie (on left) and band, late 1940s
One of these cross country trips included a visit with his cousin, Foster McKimmie, who was living in California. On his return trip, he stopped off to visit another cousin, George Kirkland, who lived outside of Indianapolis, IN. George was married to a woman named Patsy, whose family was originally from Tennessee but had all relocated to Indianapolis in the 1930s to work in the car plants located there. (One of the many ‘Hillbilly Highways’ of the Appalachian diaspora). Since there was family in town, it meant they needed to have a party. So, Patsy called her niece, Lois Gass, and invited her over. Lois had just started a painting of a tree. She never finished that painting (and gave up on her potential new hobby). Why? She was about to be occupied elsewhere. Now mind you, it took a little coaxing on Patsy’s part (since Lois was the headstrong type), so she sweetened the offer: “George’s cousin Mac is in town and you’ve never heard anyone play the fiddle like him. You just have to come over!”. Patsy may have had ulterior motives as Lois was a pretty and hard-working single mother who ‘did not have time for dating’. Life had other plans…
Mac and Lois met at the dinner. They were quite taken with each other (and yes, he did play a few songs with George accompanying him on the guitar). When Lois’ 9-year old daughter, Jonna, met him, she immediately liked him and invited him to her Grandma’s home for dinner. Mac decided to stick around for a while George and Patsy had a spare room (so it wasn’t an inconvenience) , and he started courting Lois. He was ready to start a family.
There’s an old joke from the hills that ends with a punchline of ‘it did not take him long to look at the (hot) horseshoe’. Mac proposed to Lois, she said yes, and he went back to West Virginia to settle up his affairs. He asked what kind of engagement ring she would like, and Lois, always the practical one, said she’d prefer they put a down payment on a house. That is exactly what they did!
Photo: Mac and Lois Guthrie, celebrating their wedding, 1965
The year was 1965, and suddenly, the rambling, handsome fiddler from West Virginia had a new family in his wife Lois, and his adoptive daughter Jonna. Mac was twenty years older than Lois but that age gap wasn’t an issue. She was very practical and mature, despite looking young with her gorgeous skin and hair. They were true partners and ahead of their time. Lois learned how to be a carpenter’s assistant and Mac helped Lois with the finer points of cooking (such as making ‘Diavolo Sauce’ which he had tasted and loved during his time in Italy). Mac used to bring men home from work on a moment’s notice to join the family for dinner. Lois always had enough food and iced tea for everyone, playing the perfect hostess despite working full time in the nearby Cabinet Fabrication Plant as a Customer and Operations Manager.
Photo: Mac and Jonna, adoption day, 1965
Mac would make regular visits to West Virginia, taking Lois and Jonna back home to visit with their new family. Things were very different on these trips for Jonna, who up until that time had only experienced life in the suburbs of Indianapolis. She met lots of Mac’s cousins including those that lived in Wheeling (and commented on how she was so pretty and “definitely a McKimmie”) as well as visiting Cousin Phoebe who lived up a steep hill outside of Hundred, WV. Not only were visits with Phoebe memorable for her delicious cherry pies (made with cherries from her own tree and a little lard in the crust), but also because when they visited in winter, the final leg of the trip was unusual. They had to park the car at the bottom of the hill and travel uphill in the snow on a sled, being pulled by a donkey! Mac continued working as a carpenter, and in his spare time renovated their house outside Indianapolis, and played music wherever and whenever possible.
In 1970, it was a snowy, cold March. A little early for planting potatoes, but Lois (always on task) informed Mac one Friday morning that if he wanted her help getting the potatoes planted, they needed to do so by the next day. Along came Gregory on Easter Sunday (two days later). Mac was over the moon! A son to carry on the Guthrie name! His middle name would be Scott in a nod to his family’s Scottish heritage. Greg had a natural gift for keeping the beat as Mac played his fiddle for his baby boy.
Photo: Greg as an infant, listening to Mac play the fiddle, 1970
Twenty months later, another baby came along. Good thing Mac had expanded that house… Crystal was born shortly before Christmas and the family was complete. Lois had stopped working full-time to take care of the little ones, and Jonna (who was now in high school) performed the usual big sister duties with great skill including being sweet, supportive and helping watch the kids while Mac and Lois were outside working in the garden or running errands. Jonna played violin in the orchestra at school, a different style from Mac’s fiddling but enjoyable as well. Greg and Crystal spent their days playing together, getting into lots of mischief and generally having a good time. Music was a daily thing in their home, and they also attended the shows that Mac played for the public.
Photo: Lois, Crystal (in lap), Jonna, Mac, and Greg, early 1970s
Photo: Jonna, Greg and Crystal, early 1970s
Once Jonna graduated from high school, Mac and Lois sold the house in Indiana and moved with the young kids to West Virginia. (Jonna stayed in Indiana to complete cosmetology school and eventually a B.A. in Human Sciences management). Mac wanted the kids to grow up experiencing the beautiful nature and surrounding community as he and his siblings had. Even though his parents had since passed away and his remaining sibling, Beatrice, was living in California with her family, the land and community was still there in Wetzel County. This move was challenging for Lois, who was known as “Mac Guthrie’s Outlander Wife” in West Virginia. There were traditions and cultural norms that she wasn’t familiar with, and their young kids were the only ones in Mac’s circle of friends. Nonetheless, Lois made it work.
And, work they did. The house they moved into was on the adjoining land that Mac had purchased after the war. This was not the house he grew up in (which was located further up the property and had renters living in it). No, this house was perfectly situated on a nice, flat part of land beyond the 100 year floodplain, with gorgeous views and a mountain behind it to help shield it from the weather. Minor issue…. it was a four room shack that had never been outfitted with plumbing. No big deal, it will be fun, right?
The family moved in August and Mac had enough time (with Lois’ help) to make some basic modifications before the winter snow set in. Bath time meant that they heated water on the stove and poured it into a big stainless steel basin that sat on the floor (imagine a scene from Little House on the Prairie). Going to the bathroom before bed that first winter meant that Greg and Crystal had to pull on snow boots, a coat, grab a flashlight and run through the snow to the nearby outhouse. The kids thought it was a great adventure and had no idea that this wasn’t a normal experience for everyone their age! Lois was married to the man of her dreams, so even though she understood the difference (and disliked outhouses) she made it work.
Mac proceeded to do what he’d done before and built out a 12-room house with 4 porches so that there was plenty of room for everyone, including Jonna for when she decided to come to West Virginia. He also continued to play music with his friends at house parties, family reunions, and on big stages at festivals and other events. Greg and Crystal were schooled on the finer points of being a famous musician’s children and understood that Lois had a zero-tolerance policy for misbehaving in public. They also watched her graciously stand by Mac in the receiving line after his shows, smiling at people and chatting with them before they made their way over to Mac. She would learn their names and an interesting fact before handing them over to Mac, so that he could have an authentic conversation with his fans. Many of them had remembered seeing him grow up and begin performing in his teenage years, and had followed his music ever since. They would share personal stories and memories, which Mac had no way of knowing, but Lois helped build the bridge in the conversation so that they felt appreciated. Mac did a similar thing when he was on stage, regardless of the level of musicianship of the people he was playing with, Mac would conduct, give them cues and adjust quickly to smooth over any mistakes that were made. For those that understand live music performance, you know that there are always mistakes. That’s part of the thrill.
It was now 1975, and Mac was 57 years old. He had told Lois that he would live into his 90s, and she had no reason to think otherwise. Mac was very active, ate a healthy diet of food that they mostly raised and cooked themselves, and had the energy and appearance of a much younger man. But, he started feeling different– not his energetic self. Easily tired. Something was wrong. He went to the doctors at the VA Hospital in Clarksburg, WV. They performed testing, and tried to determine what the issue was. They said that he had ‘heart disease’ but couldn’t identify the root cause. If only this had happened about 10 years later, the innovations in medical technology would have helped. But, it was 1975. So, they gave Mac a diagnosis and told him he could undergo experimental heart surgery, which had a high chance of him not getting up after the surgery. This wouldn’t work– he had a wife and two small children at home. So he asked what his other options were and how long would it give him? Option 2 was medication, and possibly 5 years to live. So he took that option.
Photo: Crystal and Greg, late 1970s
Lois was devastated. She held out hope that he would somehow feel stronger after taking the medication for a while, and hopefully live longer. He started working strategically to finish building out the major portions left on the house, and showing Lois how to maintain things and take care of the farm and animals when he passed away. Despite all of the work in town and at home around the farm, he played the fiddle every evening and even worked in some stargazing.
These were precious years and they were living on borrowed time. Lois had started a bookkeeping business, doing taxes for small businesses in the area. Mac continued working on projects in nearby New Martinsville, including as Foreman for the new grade school that both Greg and Crystal would attend. These were formative years for the kids, but they didn’t know what was coming next. They were just busy being kids. Mac shared lessons with them as well, encouraging Greg to sing in his first public performance of Jimmy Crack Corn, and having him tune his bandmates’ instruments occasionally. Mac would also take his only son into the woods and teach the different types of plants and trees native to the family acreage. He told Crystal that “eating burnt toast will make you run faster,” and was so tickled that she loved drawing pictures of horses that one day, he came walking home leading a pony for her to ride. He also showed her how to observe the trees, flowers, rocks, and birds as they went on walks together. Years later, she would understand that he had taught her walking meditation. He also showed them how to swim, the old fashioned way. That included some basic paddling instruction and then one day throwing them into the creek in quick succession as he stood by in his vintage, canvas swim trunks, ready to rescue them.
It was February, 1980. Typical snowy weather for the mountains along the Ohio River. Jonna had gotten married the prior year in Indiana, and her first child was born on February 12. Mac and Lois were so proud to have a grandchild! But then, Mac started getting congested and feverish– he had caught the flu. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t well enough to go outside that Friday. He had a gig on Saturday night, and he wasn’t going to cancel. He went and played the fiddle for a small audience of his fans (wearing his black cowboy hat and a red & white checkered shirt) and then went home to continue resting. Sunday was not a good day, he was very ill. Lois was up around the clock taking care of him in the living room as he laid on a makeshift bed by the warm fireplace. She was scared, crying and praying. Mac was calm. He knew what was happening and comforted her. On Monday morning, Lois sent the kids out to go meet the school bus as usual, and then loaded Mac up to take him back to the VA hospital. The doctors said that he had developed pneumonia and hooked him up to oxygen, etc. The normal procedure. But, he was clearly weak. After he got some strength, he shaved (it had been a couple days) and tried something new with his signature mustache. He had mentioned the idea to Lois a few weeks prior. Then, he went back to his hospital bed and never woke up that Tuesday morning. The doctors at the VA asked permission to perform an autopsy to study his heart. Lois agreed. What they found was shocking– Mac had been born with a birth defect on his heart and had lived a full, active life into his late 50s without ever knowing or experiencing an issue. No symptoms until those final 5 years.
Word got out that Mac had passed away. People came from all around the area to the little funeral ceremony in Pine Grove, WV, that was held over the course of two days. When it came time to bury him, Mac’s best friends (and sometimes bandmates) served as the pallbearers, along with one of Lois’ brothers. It was a heavy load for them that day– they were carrying their friend who had always carried their songs. Friends decided to schedule a benefit concert to be held in the nearby town of New Martinsville. Over 500 people drove through the snowy mountains on a Saturday evening to turn out and honor Mac with music and memories. People continued coming by the house for years, dropping off freshly chopped wood, or perhaps a portion of venison or ham for Mac’s family. But, life was never the same without him. Jonna came to stay for a couple years, which was a big help because the family needed to stick together.
Five years later, Lois sold the house that Mac built for her, and moved the kids to Texas where Jonna was living with her young family. Greg was now in high school, and Crystal in middle school, both playing in the school band. Greg went on to join the Army and fate landed him at Fort Hood where Dad had gone to basic training. He started his family of three children and for the most part continued to reside in Texas after leaving the Army. For anyone keeping score, Greg also was the only or last male of the family line. In May of 2008 he and his wife Gina would welcome their only son Connor. He completed undergraduate and graduate school in Texas and is now a senior executive at a large global bank focused on cybersecurity.
Crystal went to undergraduate school at Texas Tech (she even convinced Greg to join her there for a semester) and then headed straight for New York City to attend grad school for her Master’s in Economics. She worked on Wall Street for a while, and then migrated to Seattle, WA where she could earn a living as an executive in the technology industry and spend every weekend in the mountains. She has traveled the world and, similar to her Dad, found her life partner in her 40s and is helping raise his 3 children, living in California. Jonna continues to live in Texas with 4 children and 7 grandchildren. Lois lives nearby her, and never remarried (although she received at least 2 marriage proposals). Her answer, “I married the love of my life and he is gone. He can never be replaced”.
Photo: Crystal, Greg, Lois and Jonna, 2013
Photo: Lois, Greg and Crystal Guthrie in 2018
In October, 2017, to commemorate what would have been Mac’s 100th birthday, a few of the family members met in West Virginia to view the fall colors and walk the ground that Mac did. Lois and Greg took an epic road trip from Texas (reminiscent of Mac’s cross-country adventures) and Crystal flew into Pittsburgh with her partner, Bryan. They visited around New Martinsville, grabbed a Pasco’s pepperoni roll for a nostalgic lunch, and went out to see the family land and the house that Mac built, which was still standing. It was getting dark, and time to make their way on the winding mountain roads back to where they were staying in Morgantown. They stopped off at a little store in nearby Wileyville to pick up some drinks for the hour-long drive. Greg was paying for the drinks, and decided to chat up the lady behind the counter (who appeared to be in her 70s). She said “You aren’t from around these parts, are you?”. Greg responded, “Well actually, we lived here but moved away. Have you ever heard of Mac Guthrie? I am his son”. The woman gasped and then yelled to the back of the store “Clarence, get out here! You’re not gonna believe this– Mac Guthrie’s son is in the store!”. Everyone started laughing and chatting, telling stories such as Mac sitting on the bench outside the store, playing his fiddle and waiting for the fellas to show up for the meeting at the VFW. Bryan, Crystal’s partner, was stunned. He had heard the stories, but seeing this happen in a little store over 35 years after Mac passed away and the family had moved out of state was amazing. Mac left an impression on many people, and his legacy proves that music is meant to be shared.
If you’d like to hear a song that Bryan wrote about meeting Crystal and hearing the stories and music of Mac Guthrie, go to Spotify (or your preferred music platform) and listen to ‘West Virginia’ by Rockwatcher. The photo art for the song, shown below, was captured looking out from the house in West Virginia, across the creek where Mac, Greg and Crystal all learned to swim.
Photo: View from Guthrie Family land, Wetzel County, WV