The amphitheater is packed, warmed by wood stoves and hundreds of bodies. (In the summer, the sides are removed and blankets and lawn chairs dot the hillside.) We take a seat and watch the VW Boys entertain the crowd with bluegrass and banter. Every up-tempo number draws dozens of dancers, while the rest of the audience enjoys sodas and butter-spotted bags of popcorn.
Up on stage, the old woman sitting behind the band is Jeanette Carter, A.P.'s daughter. Her brother, Joe, regales the crowd between sets with jokes and impressive imitations of various barnyard noises. Though it's larger than the Floyd Country Store -- the size of a small concert hall -- the atmosphere is still intimate. One performer dedicates a song to a persistent fan. "She left me four messages on my answering machine today asking me to play this," he drawls. "Is she here?" A chorus of "No's" floats back from the crowd. He rolls his eyes.
Dancers twirl at the Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store.
(Photos Julian Smith)
A.P. and Sara eventually divorced, but their effect on American music echoes through the work of artists such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, who married Maybelle's daughter, June. (The couple died within four months of each other last year.) The Carters were the first to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and their influence lives on in the Fold.
After a beautiful a cappella hymn, the VW Boys rip into a Jimmy Martin song. I've never seen teenage girls dance so unself-consciously, sporting contagious grins. This isn't magazine-cover Shania Twain country; this is the real thing -- somber and joyous and humbling in turn, like life. At certain moments the dancers' shoe taps combine into something larger, like a fast heartbeat, and the momentum becomes timeless and irresistible.
GETTING THERE: Floyd, Va., is 280 miles from Washington, about 60 miles southwest of Roanoke on I-81 and Route 8. The Carter Family Memorial Music Center (the Carter Family Fold) is three miles from Hiltons, Va., which is 22 miles west of Bristol on U.S. Route 58.
STAYING THERE: It's about a three-hour drive from Floyd to the Fold, so it's easiest to sleep near Floyd on Friday night and in Bristol or Abingdon (a more interesting town) on Saturday.
The Old Spring Farm B&B (7629 Charity Hwy., 276-930-3404, www.oldspringfarm.com) is a working 25-acre farm about 30 minutes from Floyd, up and over the Blue Ridge Parkway in Woolwine. Comfortable rooms in the 1885 farmhouse or outbuildings are $105 to $135 a night. In Abingdon, the Shepherd's Joy B&B (254 White's Mill Rd., 276-628- 3273, www.shepherdsjoy.com) is a working sheep farm in town with rooms in the Queen Anne home for $110 to $125.
EATING THERE: You can find a classic pre-jamboree meal at Mama Lizardo's Pizza, across the street from the Floyd Country Store. The Chateau Morrisette Winery (540-593-2865, www.chateaumorrisette.com) is close by on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Milepost 171 on Winery Road. Its restaurant has great views and serves lunch and dinner (weekends only). In Abingdon, the Tavern (222 E. Main St) dates to 1779 and offers fine dining for dinner in a suitably antique setting.
WHAT TO DO: The Friday Night Jamboree happens weekly at the Floyd Country Store (206 S. Locust St., 540-745-4563, www.floydcountrystore.com). Admission is $3, and the show starts at 6:30 p.m. Nationally famous country and bluegrass acts play most Saturdays for about $15.
The Carter Family Memorial Music Center (on A.P. Carter Highway, 276-386-9480, www.carterfamilyfold.org) has shows every Saturday at 7:30 p.m., unless roads are closed by bad weather. For more music, check out the Blue Ridge Backroads bluegrass show Friday evenings at the Rex Theater (115 Grayson St., www.therextheater.com) in Galax (between Hiltons and Floyd), broadcast live on WBRF 98.1 FM.
The Blue Ridge Music Trails Web site (www.blueridgemusic.org) is an excellent guide to live traditional music and dance performances in southwest Virginia and western North Carolina.
INFO: Floyd County Chamber of Commerce, 540-745-4407, www.visitfloyd.org.