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The Grass Is Always Bluer . . .
. . . on the other side of the Alleghenies. At West Virginia's Purple Fiddle, at least, offbeat mountain music thrives.

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.

On down Highway 219 is a little offshoot road to the Fairfax Stone, one of the oldest boundary markers in America. It dates back to 1681 when Charles II of England deeded 6 million acres to Lord Hopton. Lord Fairfax inherited the land in the early 1700s, and the stone became a key landmark on the western boundary between Maryland and West Virginia. The stone also sits at the headspring of the Potomac River.

While you're in the area, you might want to check out Blackwater Falls State Park, which has 20 miles of hiking trails; Canaan Valley State Park, which has fall and winter activities; Dolly Sods National Wilderness Area; and Seneca Rocks.

But if you stay on 219, you eventually wind up in Thomas, a pretty much forgotten hamlet (pop. 813) on the banks of the Blackwater River. The Purple Fiddle, in the old DePollo General Store, stands on the riverside drag along with a few other operative enterprises, including an insurance company, Picket Patch antiques, Miners & Merchants Bank (est. 1902) and Tantrums, a frisky little shop offering "wearable art for headstrong folks." A pink purse hangs in the window.

There is also activity at the Valley Ridge Theatre, where actors are performing a Shakespeare tribute. It's that kind of hamlet.

Founded in Wisconsin in 1970, the theater moved to West Virginia in the early 1990s. The 2004 season will conclude with "A Tuna Christmas" on a couple of weekends in December.

On this night, the Purple Fiddle is high-strung.

It's a great-looking three-story joint. On one side of the building, two huge wooden bears -- each with a cub crawling up a leg -- flank church-like wood-and-stained-glass doors. On the other side, a little sign reads: "Hippies Use Side Door." Owners John and Kate Bright live on the top two floors of the Fiddle.

There is a foosball table out front where people smoke and play. There is also a huge black metal safe covered with refrigerator-magnet poetry and chalk-written announcements -- "Thursday, Movie Nite, Rashomon, 8 p.m." Step inside the swinging screen front doors and you're greeted by an eclectic range of things.

For sale: handmade soaps. Purple Fiddle lip balm. Various types of tea. Jams. Jellies. Hiking guides. Old-fashioned greeting cards. Tie-dyed shirts. And magnetic poetry.

Not for sale: Old musical instruments. Antique skis. A washboard. A beautiful quilt.

Jan and I order a beer from the more than four dozen brew choices on the menu. Holt calls for a cookies-and-cream milkshake. Jan orders a salad, I ask for a beau Thai chicken wrap and Holt goes for the special: a smoked-trout cake sandwich, made with West Virginia fish, chipotle sauce, coleslaw, lettuce and tomato. The chicken wrap and the trout sandwich are subtly outstanding. Jan's salad is reasonably priced.

There is live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

Holt again says he likes the place. But I'm not sure he really likes it.

Sometime during the first set, banjoist Jon Cornatzer and guitarist Ty Bennett tell the full house that if they have come to hear bluegrass, they won't like the next song. "We might chase you away," says one of the band members.

Nobody flees. The song turns out to be a rollicking banjo-guitar-mandolin version of Boston's "Peace of Mind."

Then, later in the evening, Ty Bennett steps up to the microphone and says they want to push the bluegrass envelope even further. People start clapping and stomping as the band breaks into two of Holt's very favorite songs -- "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and "Roundabout" by Yes. On acoustic strings, the songs are challenging and oddly affective and effective.

Clapping with the beat and nodding his head, Holt turns around and smiles.

Now I know. He really likes it.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: To get to Thomas, W.Va., go north on I-270 from the Beltway. Around Frederick, bear left onto I-70 and head west toward Hagerstown. When you come to I-68, go west through Cumberland. At Route 219, go south through Oakland, Md. The highway leads you, eventually, to Thomas.

WHERE TO STAY: One of the nights we were at the Purple Fiddle (21 East Ave., 304-463-4040, www.purplefiddle.com) a University of Maryland student was taking a survey of Fiddle-goers because she's thinking of opening up a bed-and-breakfast nearby. There are a few. The most logical place is Fiddler's Roost, which is right next door (same phone and Web site). It's a low-key place also run by John and Kate Bright. Rooms are basic and down-home. There's a bunk room for the visiting bluegrass band, and a parlor for chatting and playing games but no television. You would expect to run into traveling salesman Willie Loman, except he's dead and he's fictional. On the weekend, rooms start at $69. You can also try the Ladybug Bed & Breakfast in Thomas (304-463-3362, www.ladybugbandb.bizland.com). It advertises a $100-a-night package that includes art lessons. The lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park, with reasonable rooms and suites, is only three miles away. Info: 304-259-5216, www.blackwaterfalls.com.

WHERE TO EAT: The Purple Fiddle kitchen is open 10 a.m. to midnight on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and to 6 p.m. weekdays. If you want to get away from the fine Fiddle victuals, the restaurant at Blackwater Falls State Park lodge is open year-round. Dinner entrees, such as steak, ham, meatloaf, chicken and lasagna, fall in the $10 to $15 range. The Blue Ridge Restaurant (Route 32, Thomas, 304-463-4291) at the Tally Ho Mountain Lodge is open all day.

WHAT TO DO: If you're looking to get physical, call the folks at Blackwater Outdoor Adventures in St. George, W.Va., about 30 minutes from Thomas. They can point you to the sickest canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking and caving spots in the area. Info: 304-478-3775, www.blackwateroutdoors.com. For hiking, the Purple Fiddle is at the head of a 30-mile rail trail along Blackwater Canyon, between Thomas and Elkins, W.Va. You may want to catch a weekend perfomance at the Valley Ridge Theatre on Front Street. Call ahead for curtain times (304-463-3365, www.valleyridgetheatre.org).

INFO: Canaan Valley and Tucker County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-782-2775, www.canaanvalley.org.

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