Greenbrier Classic: Bagpiper playing for military tribute inspired by tragedy
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - Charleston bagpiper Jon Jones is performing a solemn duty during this year's Greenbrier Classic concert series.
Jones, 35, has been asked to play bagpipes during the Wounded Warriors Second Chance Military Tribute program taking place before the Kenny Chesney and Aerosmith concerts this week.
The program recognizes veterans and those who have been wounded in the line of service.
A critical-care paramedic and former volunteer firefighter, Jones has also asked event organizers for permission to play Amazing Grace as a tribute to the 19 firefighters who died battling wildfires in Arizona on Sunday.
"I've experienced losing one or two, but I couldn't imagine losing 19 of my brothers in arms," Jones said Thursday morning.
It was one of those losses that drove Jones to learn the bagpipes six years ago.
He was a part-time EMT with the Ghent Fire and Rescue squad in January 2007 when a propane gas explosion leveled the Flat Top Little General Store, killing four people, including two members of the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department.
One of those killed was 24-year-old Craig Dorsey, who also worked as an EMT with Jones.
Jones and Dorsey were good friends who both worked as volunteer firefighters. Jones was on an ambulance that responded to the explosion. But he said it was only by fate that he was not by Dorsey's side that day.
"Had things been just a little bit different that day, it was a high probability that I could have on that truck and on that call with him," he said.
Jones had some training in firefighter funeral planning prior to the Ghent explosion. So when it came time to lay Dorsey and the other fallen firefighter, 51-year-old Frederick Burroughs, to rest, officials asked Jones to coordinate the funerals.
"One of the things I had an issue with was trying to find bagpipers," Jones said. "There's not a whole lot in West Virginia."
Eventually, Jones found a bagpiper with the Highlanders pipe and drum band from the Beni Kedem Shrine in Charleston.
Through interacting with the group, Jones soon discovered that he wanted to learn how to play bagpipes himself, so no one else would have trouble finding someone to help pay respects to fallen first responders.
"I decided that that was my calling - that's what I needed to do to pay back the fire service," Jones said.
The bagpipe isn't the simplest instrument to learn. It involves blowing air into a large reservoir - the bag part - that then goes out through four reeds. Three large reeds make the long drone sound and the smaller one is the one the musician uses to make the notes.
Jones said it takes a lot of coordination to make sure the air blowing through the reeds remains constant.
"You can always tell new bagpipers because you get kind of like a wobble effect, like a wah-wah-wah, because they can't quite figure out how much pressure to keep on it," he said.
Jones started playing snare drum with the Highlanders while he learned how to play the bagpipes. He practiced with the group on Mondays and Wednesdays, and spent about an hour and a half practicing on his own each day at home.
By 2009, he had mastered the instrument and started playing bagpipes with the Highlanders full time.
"I was actually told that I was one of the quickest students they've ever seen," Jones said. "It came down to it that it was a desire - I had to learn the bagpipes."
It was also in 2009 that Jones began being asked to play for the funerals of fallen firefighters, police and veterans.
Jones said he has played at more than 100 various events over the last four years, 79 of which were funerals. With the majority of his performances occurring at funerals, Jones looks at his musical gift in a solemn light.
"I call it my curse because every time there's a fallen firefighter, I'm the one called usually," he said. "It's always because somebody has lost their life in the call of duty or after years in service."
Jones played recently at the funeral for slain Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum.
Though he calls it a kind of curse, Jones said he hopes answering that calling will help ease the pain of the situation.
"When I do these events, I tell myself I'm out there to honor the fallen and bring peace and comfort to the family, friends and loved ones," he said.
"My only wish is that my music brings comfort . . . so that they may begin the healing process after losing their loved one."
Each time he plays, Jones remembers Dorsey. With each note he pays tribute to a friend whose life was cut far too short. And he hopes to continue playing that tribute so long as he has breath.
"I got into it because of my friend who lost his life," Jones said. "So every time I play, no matter if it's a celebratory event or a funeral, he's always on my mind."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-4836.