round 8:30, any Friday evening of the year, if you happen to wander off the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Roanoke and meander a few miles through steeply rolling hills into the town of Floyd, Va., you might be surprised to see a large crowd spilling out the doorways of the warmly lit Floyd Country Store and onto the surrounding sidewalks and into the alleyways.
They're here for the Friday Night Jamboree. And if you take a moment to park your car, roll down your window and listen, chances are you'll be stopping by, too, because you've just stumbled across one of the best -- and most convivial -- places in the world to hear authentic, traditional American bluegrass music. Right here in Floyd. Population 439.
At first glance, Floyd seems like any one of the hundreds of little towns that dot the Virginia map -- so small that almost before you realize you're in it, you're nearly out of it. It's the government seat for the county of Floyd, which accounts for the courthouse, the handful of attorneys' offices, and possibly also the one stoplight marking the intersection of Main and Locust (routes 221 and 8, respectively).
At Farmer's Supply General Hardware (101 E. Main, 540/745-4455), wheelbarrows and tricycles, rakes and hoses and Radio Flyer red wagons are arranged along the sidewalk out front. Inside, you can purchase salt licks, W.R. Case pocket knives, a hand-cranked coffee mill or butter churn, Diamond farrier products, an inflatable vinyl owl, a cast-iron cooking stove, rubber gardening clogs, nails, chains, paint, piping and salmon-egg fishing bait.
But then you round the corner onto Locust Street, and at the Harvest Moon (117 S. Locust, 540/745-4366), done up in wood the color of clover honey, browse the densely packed shelves for local organic produce, bulk grains, miso and tempeh and coconut milk, artisan cheeses, imported chutneys, fresh coffee and biodynamic French wine. Cross Locust to New Mountain Mercantile (114-A S. Locust, 540/745-4278) and pick up a Tibetan singing bowl, incense, a bamboo flute, fired clay totem animals, glass suncatchers and a flier advertising plans for "Floydian Scrip," a local currency printed on tree-free, recycled paper and exchangeable for goods and services within the Floyd community. There used to be an open solstice party on a local farm every year, until the crowds got so big they had to shut it down.
Somewhere along the way to the 4-H Fair, Floyd took a left turn into the Age of Aquarius.
But everyone seems to get along fine, and if the arrival of the Hardee's represents the biggest controversy anyone can remember in years, there is clearly a united interest in preserving Floyd's unique and quirky character. In these parts, "Wal-Mart" is fightin' words.
To find the true heart of Floyd, however, you need only go to the music. Music is a tradition that reaches back across several centuries to the first, mostly Scots-Irish settlers of these hills. In rural, often hardscrabble Appalachia, music has long been the current of family and community life.
"It's a huge part of the local culture. Anytime there's any kind of event or fundraiser, there are people playing," says Jeff Sebens, who builds beautifully crafted traditional string instruments, including dulcimers and the occasional guitar or mandolin, at Meadows Music, down the road in Meadows of Dan (www.meadows-music.com, 540/952-1865). And even if you don't know a thing about it, there's something deeply familiar about the music.
"There's an essential simplicity to this music; it's communal music," says David Crawford, a friend of Sebens's, a school librarian by day who plays the mandolin and fiddle. What you'll hear in Floyd is both "old-time," what Crawford calls "participation music, front-porch music," and its descendant, bluegrass, which Crawford says is "more ensemble, one person backing up another." There are no hard and fast rules for either, however; all sorts of traditional folk musics blend and borrow from each other, and the standard bluegrass and old-time instruments -- banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, upright bass and sometimes Dobro resonator guitar -- represent musical cultures from Africa to Europe, married together in farmhouses and churches and community halls of rural America.
"It's basic roots music," says Tim Austin, founder of Lonesome River Band and now owner of Doobie Shea Records (www.doobieshea.com) in Boones Mill, not far from Floyd. "People are wanting to get back to basics," he says, which may explain the mainstream success of the platinum-selling, award-winning roots music soundtrack from last year's Coen brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," on which Doobie Shea recording artist Dan Tyminski can be heard as George Clooney's singing voice. Tyminski, who just won four awards, including Male Vocalist of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), is one name in the incredible roster of local talent found down here among these hills -- talent you can catch onstage every week at the Friday Night Jamboree.
"Most of the performers live locally, and just right here in this town the depth of talent is awesome," notes Mike Brough, co-owner of the Floyd Country Store.
The Friday Night Jamboree is a year-round event, "every Friday night if there ain't snow up so high you can't open the door," according to one of the store's regulars.
"CHILDREN UNDER 12 -- FREE. CHILDREN OVER 12 -- $2" reads the sign taped up just inside the door. For $2 you get five bands back-to-back and a ticket good for the mid-evening ham raffle. A gospel group starts the proceedings at 6:30 and the music winds up sometime around 11:30. You don't dance during the gospel, but thereafter the floor opens up and never empties for more than a few minutes.
"A lot of nights you can't even get out on the dance floor," says Wendell Turpin, a Jamboree veteran. In the earlier, unstructured days of the Jamboree (which began informally in the early 1980s with one band practicing in the store after hours), he says, the music might go on far into the night. "Lord, they could play, sometimes to 3 in the morning."
When Brough and William Morgan, a couple of lawyers out of North Carolina, bought the store a few years ago, Morgan, who calls himself "a lifelong bluegrass fanatic," says, "I wanted to keep the Jamboree traditional. All we did was put in a new sound system and lights."
What they added as well was a Saturday Night Concert series, featuring regional and nationally known musicians, such as the Country Gentlemen, John Cowan and IIIrd Tyme Out, and "now we're on the radar screen of the big agents and bands and managers. The word of mouth from the artists is phenomenal. They're all wanting to play the little Floyd Country Store," Morgan says.
"There's something about that room," he adds. "Something happens in that room, and everybody who plays there feels the magic. Everyone likes that intimacy, that living-room feel."
It's 6:30, and Down Home Gospel is taking the stage. The interior of the store is spacious without being cavernous, with wood floors smoothed by generations of feet and the scent of chili dogs and popcorn in the air. Rows of folding chairs are arranged facing a low stage, with an open area in between, perhaps 16 feet square, that dancers will later pack.
Dolly Smith, whose smile commandeers all of her face, is selling tickets at the door. "I tell the men the best part of my job is stamping their hands because I get to hold them," she says, with one of those smiles.
"I've come every Friday night for 15 years," remarks one woman happily as she waits to enter.
For the gospel music, the crowd -- mostly older now -- sits and listens, as words of worship and sweet mercy and the everlasting joys of the next life wrap themselves in the music of Appalachia and fill the space.
Hermie Medley, 93, dressed in a peach-colored shirt, red tie and Friday Night Jamboree cap, comes in the door and takes up the song mid-chorus. Outside, men sit on benches in front of the store, arms folded contentedly, gazing into the middle distance and exchanging an occasional unhurried word. A grandmother guides her toddling grandson down the sidewalk. Someone strolls past with a big upright bass still in its case.
The crowd is picking up fast, because inside is only part of the story of the Friday Night Jamboree. The night is an outpouring of local talent, and while the bands are playing onstage, out on the sidewalks, down the alleys and in the parking lots across the street, impromptu performances spring up along the length of the block. At any moment, half the people outside seem to be shouldering a fiddle or unpacking a guitar or tuning a mandolin (on cold winter nights they'll move indoors and upstairs in the store itself).
"People come just to play and pick. It's like a mini fiddlers convention," Brough says.
"It's all we can do sometimes to keep the people out of the street," Morgan adds. "Our biggest crowd might top 400, but you'll get as many outside as inside, listening to the groups informally jamming outdoors.
"Sometimes, when one of the bands doesn't come through for some reason, we'll go out and recruit someone off the street. We have a standing name for that -- the Sidewalk Grass -- and people love it," says Morgan.
There's a heady whiff of garlic from Mama Luzardo's restaurant across the street, where the all-you-can-eat buffet is going for $6.95, and one of those informal ensembles has already struck up a tune. A young woman with dark hair and overalls thrums the bass and laughs when they all forget the words at the same time. Later, the guitarist takes over the bass, another guitar player joins, and just up the street another foursome is playing as a lone dancer picks up his feet and clogs on a three-foot-square board.
Back inside, the gospel music ends with a brief prayer, and it's time for the next set. For a long time, Jim DeHart and the Blue Ridge Ramblers were the stalwarts of the 7:30 hour, until DeHart, who was terminally ill, collapsed with heart failure in the store last August, 20 minutes before going onstage one Friday night.
"More than anyone else, he embraced us when we bought the store and did everything he could to help us -- and convince people we were not just a couple of city slickers who were going to tinker with their tradition," says Morgan. "It was somehow fitting that he passed away quickly, at a place he loved."
Tonight, Wildfire climbs onstage at 7:30, and now some of the people handing Dolly their $2 at the door clatter in with tap shoes on. Dancing, their arms rest loosely at their sides, following the bobbing of shoulders as their feet work the floor in fast and flashing rhythms, flat-footing. The stomping and tapping blend a wonderful syncopation in with the music.
What's the difference between flat-footing and clogging?
"I don't know, mine's got a little Charleston throwed in," says a small, lithe-footed woman as she stands waiting for the next song to start.
"In flat-footing you keep your feet closer to the ground, in clogging you're picking them up higher," says Shirley Ferris, who has white hair and white tap shoes, has been dancing 30 years and will hardly sit down the whole evening.
"In clogging, music drives the dance. Flat-footers add rhythm to the music with their feet," says Joan Levitt who, with her husband Steve, dances with the Apple Chill Cloggers. For the past six or seven years, the Levitts have regularly driven 2 1/2 hours to Floyd from their farm in North Carolina for the Jamboree.
"What's so unique here is the friendliness," says Steve Levitt. "People don't know each other but everyone is so friendly."
By 8:40 the Friday Night Jamboree is really cooking. It's standing-room-only now, and the room feels comfortable and easy with laughter and chatter, like a big family reunion, with crowds of aunts and uncles, and little kids scooting around between everyone's legs. Gentlemen of mature years and courtly smiles invite me to dance. Behind the counter they're scooping ice cream and selling chips and cold Cokes and bottled water and Friday Night Jamboree sweatshirts.
Ralph Hayden -- who by day can be found shaving and trimming and taking just a little off the top and sides in his barbershop next door -- is onstage with the Barbershop Brass, and nonagenarian Medley is out on the floor again, adroitly waltzing a young woman through the pack of dancers. A college-age boy, with earring and slouchy jeans and close-cropped, fashionably bleached hair, squires his grandmother with equal aplomb, both of them grinning delightedly.
At 9:30 the ham is raffled, and then Clyde Williams's Old Time Band launches into its set. With the front and side doors thrown wide and the ceiling fans spinning, it's still decidedly warm in the store. Flushed from dancing, people drift out for a breath of fresh air and are caught up in a cluster surrounding one of the groups playing outside.
In the store are men in cowboy hats and men in feed-store caps and men in polo shirts and tap shoes and men in Harley-Davidson and Virginia Tech "Hokies" and "Protect the Living Rain Forest" T-shirts and men with hearing aids and overalls and women with crisp white curls and gnarled hands and women with hemp sandals and gauzy skirts and women in business suits and heels and women with bottle-blond hair and snugly buttoned blue jeans, and a couple with pronounced Austrian accents and a look of half-bewildered delight, who maybe did wander into town by accident and fell surprised into the thick of the Friday Night Jamboree.
FLOYD, VA. -- At the intersection of routes 8 and 221, about 40 minutes south of Roanoke. The Floyd Country Store is at 206 S. Locust St. in Floyd; call 540/745-4563 or visit www.floydcountrystore.com.
Information about lodging, dining and area businesses and attractions is available at www.floydvirginia.com, or from the Floyd Chamber of Commerce at 540/745-4407 or www.community.floyd.va.us.