A Musical Road Trip

The Floyd Country Store is the place to be on Friday nights for the weekly jamboree, when bands take the stage and admission is only $3. Musicians also jam outside the building.
The Floyd Country Store is the place to be on Friday nights for the weekly jamboree, when bands take the stage and admission is only $3. Musicians also jam outside the building. (By Richard Robinson For The Washington Post)
By Richard Harrington
Friday, September 22, 2006

Dedicated in 2004 as Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, what has come to be known as the Crooked Road is long -- 253 miles of highways and back roads -- and definitely crooked, winding through 10 southwestern Virginia counties and highlighted by the eight primary landmarks we recently visited. Those places honor and explicate regional traditions that have deeply influenced American music while showcasing a culture that stubbornly insists on its place in the contemporary world.

Ferrum to Clintwood isn't just a journey through exotic locales, of course, though it traverses the western slopes of Franklin County and the coal fields of Dickenson County, a hauntingly beautiful region bounded by the Blue Ridge, Allegheny and Cumberland mountains. It's also a passage through the place where American music took root centuries ago as Irish, German and African strains blended into mountain music, which evolved into old-time, bluegrass and country, though that last is probably least around these parts.

"Virginia has the deepest history of music, and people are unaware of it," says Joe Wilson, chairman of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, manager of the recently opened Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax and author of a new book, "A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail" (John F. Blair Publishing). Paul Bunyan-like, the 68-year-old Wilson also helped build the Crooked Road. According to Wilson, it's not the ancient history of Williamsburg or Jamestown that the Crooked Road champions but living history "in one of the places America invented its music," birthed when the African banjo was brought here by former slaves after the Civil War and paired with the European fiddle to produce some of the most exciting instrumental dance music ever heard -- then and now. String band music ruled the region pre-mass media.

But records and radio took the music nationwide: Seminal 1927 recording sessions in Bristol helped make Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family the father and the first family of country music. A third generation of Carters keeps the family legacy alive every Saturday in Hiltons, while bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley often can be found in a wonderful new museum that bears his name in Clintwood, just miles from where he has lived most of his 79 years. These are the Clinch Mountains, but they also cling.

For years, folks have come from all over for southwest Virginia's fiddle conventions and bluegrass festivals, for lively dances in down-home venues and for spontaneous jams just about anyplace. For anyone who loves live music, this corner of the commonwealth has never been common, but it has always had a great wealth of uniquely American music that's not that different from its roots. Music doesn't change much when it's passed down through multiple generations of families, friends and neighbors. It's why these tiny rural communities scattered along the Crooked Road have produced an abundance of extraordinary musicians and instrument makers, testimony to traditions that not only survive, but thrive.

To explore it, just follow the Crooked Road's yellow banjo-emblazoned signs, spaced every seven miles; they should keep you from getting lost (though not totally, I admit). Common sense dictates that weekends are the best time to plan a Crooked Road trip: Fridays offer regular events in the Floyd Country Store and Galax's Rex Theater, with Saturday night action farther down the road at the Carter Family Fold and the Country Cabin in Norton. Remember, it's always best to get to these places early. Many are small venues -- and always popular -- and ridiculously inexpensive, with admission ranging from $3 to $5. That is not a typo, folks.

There are also several culturally focused museums and a lot of regular, mostly free weekday jams -- Wilson's book lists many, and you can get up-to-date information at the Crooked Road's own site ( http://www.thecrookedroad.org/ ), Blue Ridge Music Trails ( http://www.blueridgemusic.org/ ) or the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance ( http://www.birthplaceofcountrymusic.org/ ). The last is a terrific source of information on concerts, events and exhibitions, with streaming audio featuring thousands of songs by regional artists, both historic and contemporary.

The Crooked Road is actually many linked roads, notably U.S. Routes 221, 58 and 23 and Virginia Routes 40 and 83. Some you can travel at a decent clip, though you might want to snake over to Interstate 81 from Floyd via Route 8 for a straighter, speedier shot to Bristol (at 106 miles, the biggest gap between major Crooked Road stops). From Bristol, you might want to jump ahead to the Ralph Stanley museum in Clintwood to double back to Saturday night music and dance events in Norton and Hiltons.

By the way, crooked doesn't begin to describe the tight S-curves, steep inclines and dramatic drop-offs on Route 72 leading into Clintwood or Route 860, a.k.a. Shooting Creek Road, a treacherous shortcut from the Blue Ridge Institute in Ferrum to Floyd.

Traveling the Crooked Road

If you want to embark on the Crooked Road at the site closest to Washington (about 275 miles), head for the Blue Ridge Institute (540-365-4416; http://www.blueridgeinstitute.org/ ) in Ferrum. This impressive repository of rural and mountain culture, on the campus of Ferrum College, is home to the Blue Ridge Heritage Archive (holding thousands of recordings, images and documents reflecting Virginia's folk culture) and offers several valuable online services: Blue Ridge Music Trails lists hundreds of traditional music and dance events along the Crooked Road and throughout Virginia, and the institute's online exhibit, "Deathly Lyrics: Songs of Virginia Tragedies," is pretty self-explanatory. (Hear "The Battle Song of the Great Kanawha's" exhort "Ye daughters and sons of Virginia / Incline your ears to a story of woe.") The gift shop has a dozen or so institute-produced "Virginia Traditions" CDs and tapes chronicling different aspects of the state's musical heritage -- white and black, secular and sacred -- good driving music, of course.

The institute's current gallery exhibit is "White Liquor, Blue Ridge Style." This comprehensive exhibit on moonshine was funded by a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities & Public Policy, so it must be legal; in any case, there's a sign saying, "Thank you for asking, but we do not have any samples nor do we know where you may find any to take home." You'll find several types of stills (turnip, submarine, steam, even a cute vintage toy still); a souped-up, jury-rigged 1951 Ford pickup used until the '70s to deliver jars of moonshine over bumpy roads; the restored coppersmith shop of Abraham Lincoln Gussler (who worked for moonshiners and built copper instruments); and videos and texts explaining everything you might possibly want to know about moonshine. The exhibit focuses on Franklin County, which in the '30s was dubbed "the Moonshine Capital of America" for its corrupt law enforcement and numerous illicit distilleries -- hence "stills" -- operated by folks unwilling to pay those pesky liquor taxes. The institute's galleries are free and open Monday through Saturday from 10 to 4:30.

This year's Blue Ridge Folklife Festival (Oct. 28 from 10 to 5 at Ferrum College) will feature a moonshiners' storytelling stage but, alas, still no samples. The festival is the largest in Virginia celebrating regional music and crafts, folkways and food ways; there will be two stages for Crooked Road musicians and such additional delights as coon dog water races and coon mule jumping. Admission is $9.

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