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Think Floyd

Looking for the roots of bluegrass? Let your thoughts turn to this tiny Virginia burg and its neighbors.

By Julian Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 28, 2004; Page C02

Aburly man in an orange T-shirt that says "#1 Dad" grabs my girlfriend and drags her toward the dance floor. His feet clack -- he has taps on his shoes -- and Ralph Hayden and the Barbershop Grass are filling the Floyd Country Store with a lilting two-step. I have no choice but to smile as my girlfriend is twirled like a top. Funny thing is, I mean it.

This unprepossessing place, with its shelves of rusty saw blades and Raggedy Ann dolls, is slowly gaining fame as one of the best places on the East Coast to hear live bluegrass and country music (real country -- we'll get to that) in a setting so sincere that it's almost hard for a city dweller to comprehend.

Dancers twirl at the Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store. (Photos Julian Smith)

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It's Friday night, the town of Floyd is hopping and we're one stop into our roots-music tour of southwest Virginia. Thanks to history and a lingering isolation, there is a wealth of out-of-the-way places with live music and dancing in this part of the south-central Appalachians. We have only a weekend, though, so we've narrowed it down to two places: Floyd tonight and the Carter Family Fold farther south tomorrow.

"Welcome, honey," says the woman selling tickets. It's just past 7 p.m. and freezing cold outside, but people are already starting to fill the rows of folding chairs. From men in overalls almost too old to move to a fresh-faced young couple in Wranglers and belt buckles like hubcaps, it seems as though everyone in town is here -- all 400-odd of them.

Then the music starts, and most of them leap up to dance. Metal-toed shoes lend a stamping rhythm to the unadorned chord progressions and high, sweet harmonies. Both are deceptively simple; intricate finger work and a shuffle step that's harder than our salsa classes leave us breathless. Banjos, guitars, mandolins and fiddles come and go from the stage, but the tenor stays the same. Call it bluegrass, country, folk or all of the above, it's American roots music in its purest form, and there's nowhere better to see and hear it than in the mountains where it was born.

What began as a few local musicians trading licks has grown into the weekly Friday Night Jamboree, which can draw hundreds of people and spill out onto sidewalks and alleys in the warmer months. Everyone seems to know everyone else, but outsiders find an amazing reservoir of warmth.

"Do we have any first-timers here tonight?" a matronly woman asks before raffling off a ham. Many hands go up. The visitor farthest from home is Pancho Palomeque from Ecuador, here with Joey Brown, a medical student. After months of studying tropical diseases, Joey wanted to show her new fiance some American culture.

"First we went to New York City," she says. But Floyd fit the bill perfectly. "I'm from West Virginia -- these are my people, the people I want to work among." Soon an old cowboy in black is giving her dance lessons and Pancho, who arrived just as the photo-and-thumbprint rules went into effect, is beaming. No matter what's happening at the border, here it's almost impossible not to.

The next morning, at Tuggle's Gap Restaurant on the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, we find ourselves eating pie with Fred First, a former biology teacher and physical therapist who's starting a new career as a writer. His Web log, "Fragments From Floyd," details life in Floyd County, a rare and intriguing mix of rural and progressive, tractors and tie-dyes. He says "countercultural representatives" arrived in the 1960s and '70s and found the same welcome we'd experienced last night.

"Half my neighbors are farmers and loggers, the other half are artists and craftspeople," he says, gulping another coffee.

It's the peaceful coexistence of old and new that has helped preserve the jamboree, just one example of the area's musical cornucopia. On our way out of town, we pass a restaurant whose logo is a farmer, a businessman and a hippie standing happily side by side.

We continue down corkscrew roads through Galax, known for its Old Fiddler's Convention in August. Here artisans such as Tom Barr turn out gorgeous mandolins, guitars and other instruments of mountain music. As settlers from European countries poured down the Shenandoah Valley, newly available instruments eased the tough travel and grueling farm life. Fiddles, played at celebrations and contests, were joined by the banjo, whose earliest experts were slaves, and the core of the classic mountain string band was formed. Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward eventually made autoharps, cellos, dulcimers, dobros and other instruments available to backcountry virtuosos.

The most sweeping changes, however, came in the 1920s and '30s with the spread of sound recordings and radio. Suddenly the music of remote hamlets was available to millions, and fortunes -- as well as history -- were made. If this quick transition had a name, it was Carter -- specifically, Alvin Pleasant "A.P." Carter. With his wife, Sara, and sister-in-law, Maybelle, A.P. formed the Carter Family, which has been called the most influential group in American music.

Hours later, we're winding along the North Carolina line toward the adjacent villages of Hiltons and Maces Spring, where A.P. ran a grocery store in the early part of last century. The store is now the Carter Family Memorial Music Center, a museum and auditorium locally known as the Carter Family Fold. The big wooden building looms in the drizzle, flanked by hundred of cars lining the road. Every Saturday is like this, even rainy ones in January -- hundreds of music fans driving hundreds of miles to see local and national acts leavened with hospitality and family-friendly humor.

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