The Grass Is Always Bluer . . .

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2004

On this sweet, serene Saturday night, people have come from all over tarnation to the cultural epicenter of the Potomac Highlands -- Thomas, W.Va.

With a theater, a music hall that also shows classic films and a general feeling of creativity, this little village is alive with sophistication and surprise. Especially in the autumn, when the maples are the color of a bluegrass fiddle and the air as sharp as a silvered-steel E string.

At the heart of the artsiness is the Purple Fiddle. It's a magical oasis in a desert of nowheres -- first-class food emporium meets Internet hot spot meets smart-aleck country store meets family game room meets bluegrass hoedown heaven.

Hunched over a table, Adam Waddell, 20, and Kellee Gomomola, 23, both of Friendsville, Md., play Trivial Pursuit with Liz Salsbury, 23, who lives near Deep Creek Lake, Md. They sip on drinks and draw cards and ask questions and wait for the music. "We just," Salsbury says with a sweet grin, "like, you know, like, come here and, you know, we like . . . "

"The atmosphere!" Waddell says.

"And the fantastic grilled cheese!" Gomomola adds.

White-bearded Bob Reecer, 66, from Rough Run, W.Va., is here for the night's featured entertainment, Candlewyck, a four-person band from Charlotte. A retired computer specialist with the Library of Congress, Reecer has been to the Purple Fiddle before to hear the music. His wife, Norvell Jones, 59, who is retired from the National Archives, adds, "The ice cream is good, too."

As I watch from a table in the back, I remember last year when our family first found the Fiddle. It was open-mike night and two very young extended-family members, whose father is a labor organizer in New Haven, Conn., took the stage and belted out union songs, much to the delight of all the coal miners' daughters and sons in the audience.

This year, my wife, Jan, our 15-year-old son, Holt, and I drive the 22 miles south on Route 219 from Deep Creek Lake to Thomas to hear Candlewyck, enjoy the food and bask in, like, you know, like, the atmosphere of the Purple Fiddle.

A little after 8:30, Candlewyck tunes up and sails into several hard-core bluegrass numbers, such as "Whatcha Gonna Say?," "Crooked Creek Road" and two songs about dogs. They play numbers by Bill Monroe and the New Grass Revival.

People clap. Children dance. Old folks tap their toes. The Purple Fiddle rocks. Holt smiles and says he likes it, but I'm not sure he really likes it. It is stump-thumping twang music. But I'm delighted to be here, far from surveillance blimps and partisan sniping.

Getting to Thomas from Deep Creek Lake is no swift feat. The road wraps and winds around West Virginia like duct tape. Along the way -- after crossing the Maryland-West Virginia line -- we stop at "The Smallest Church in 48 States," Our Lady of the Pines in Horse Shoe Run, W.Va. It's a sure-enough minuscule, yellow-stone sanctuary with six pews. The church seats 12.

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