Who doesn’t love a bluegrass love story? Especially when it carries a touch of music royalty. How about we add in some social distancing elements and a dash of higher education?
This is the heartwarming story of a romance, long in coming, between Megan Darby and Luke McKnight. Both have dedicated their lives to bluegrass, Megan as the Director of the bluegrass music program at Glenville State College in West Virginia, and Luke, the grandson of mandolin icon Jesse McReynolds, a mando-man and singer himself, has also worked for years carting touring artists around as a bus driver. He had also been a regular member of Jim & Jesse’s Virginia Boys, where he played many times on the Grand Ole Opry.
So how did this all begin?
Their paths had first crossed some time ago, as Darby recalls from when she was only nine.
“My parents and I were at the bluegrass festival in Georgetown, Ohio in 1999. We never missed a Jim & Jesse show if they were booked where we were. That day Jesse McReynolds introduced his grandson, Luke McKnight, to the show. He was debuting his recently recorded album SUPERGRASS 2000, and he quickly became my first bluegrass ‘crush’.
I had my eye on Luke at Bean Blossom and other festivals throughout the years. But back then my Daddy would tell me, ‘that boy is too wild for you, Megan,’ but he always complimented his music!”
Then a decade later they met backstage at a Keith McReynolds Memorial Benefit concert in Gallatin, Tennessee in 2009.
“I congratulated Luke face to face on his engagement that evening. He had the whole room tearing up, including me and my Momma. I could tell through his music, stage presence, and word that he was a good man with good character. I have always wished happiness and success for him.”
Both Megan and Luke had been married, with each marriage ending without any involvement of the other. In fact, there was never even an attempt at a relationship until this year. They continued to run into other on the touring circuit, and became friends along the way. McKnight was out with a group called McReynolds Tradition, also including his cousins Amanda Lynn and Garrett McReynolds, and their uncle, Darin Lyons.
Starting in the early 2000s, Luke pursued a career as a firefighter and worked in that profession near Nashville until 2011, when music called him back.
They got to see each other occasionally through GSC, starting from when Megan enrolled there as a student in the nascent bluegrass program. Directed at that time by fiddler Buddy Griffin, who had toured with Jim & Jesse when Luke was a teen, Griffin called on him often to speak to the students and participate in projects with them.
When Darby took over the department, she continued calling on McKnight.
“Luke has always been generous and willing to share his talents and experiences for the good of our bluegrass music program. Though he was generally on the road, he made time to record with our students ,and often offered business advice.”
According to Luke, it was a recent act of kindness on his part that showed him that he and Darby might make a good pair.
“I think our relationship took a huge leap forward when we had our first face-to-face visit after almost eleven years of seeing each other. I delivered my daughter’s massive dollhouse to her little girls from Gallatin, TN to Glenville, WV. It was so big that I had to bring it on a trailer attached to my Yukon.
It was evident pretty quickly that we shared strong feelings for each other.”
And it has been the COVID-19 shutdown that brought them even closer. Megan used the flexible and revised curriculum in the Bluegrass Music History course offered this spring semester to assign each student to a music professional, who they would research and interview as part of their grade. Luke, of course, was neither touring himself nor driving anyone else, so he was able to work with students who reached out to him.
“I found his enthusiasm and availability to work with my student to be striking. I enjoyed phone conversations about his music and current outlook on the music industry during this hectic time. We began reminiscing of the old days and one conversation led to another.”
Luke agrees, saying that it never would have happened without the shutdown.
“COVID is what made our relationship possible. The virus basically put a stop to everything in the music industry, and before that, I believed she and I were too busy with our careers to even think about pursuing a relationship with anybody. This pandemic has definitely given us quality time that we wouldn’t normally be experiencing under normal working conditions. This extra time has made it possible for our relationship to progress and become strong.”
For a lifelong grasser, Megan says that their first time out was a perfect rendezvous.
“Our official first date was very special. Luke planned a trip to Jim and Jesse’s home place near Coeburn, VA. Having the opportunity to visit Jim’s gravesite and to see the world through the lenses of these legends gave me cold chills.”
Luke, who has also mastered his grandfather’s crosspicking style on the mandolin, said he knew it would have a powerful impact.
“I don’t take many people to the home place, but I wanted to take her. I knew that it would mean something to her. I knew that she would be able to take something from the experience. I know how much the history means to her personally, but I think seeing the place will help her be an even better teacher.”
Darby now says that her parents are fully supportive of them being together, since Luke is no longer a wild teenager, and Megan is likewise a responsible adult.
And Luke says that Jesse feels the same.
“I think Dedaddy is very supportive of the relationship between me and Megan. He always like to see people be happy. He also enjoys seeing good music shared and preserved. That’s a lot of what me and Megan want to do together.”
The new couple expect to do performances, mandolin workshops, and other things as a duo, both at the college and its Pioneer Stage, Bluegrass Music Education Center, located just off campus.
So the question on every mandolin player’s mind is, will Megan convert to the crosspicking style? It’s a definite maybe.
“I always told my parents I could never be in a relationship with another mandolin player. A picker, sure but not mandolin player. It’s funny how things turn out. The best part is that we are so totally opposite on mandolin styles, instrument preferences, clear down to the type of pick that we use. I really haven’t thought much about learning how to crosspick but I recognize my unique opportunity to get pointers from Luke and Jesse.”
Best of luck to Luke and Megan!