Travel: Virginia’s Crooked Road a trip through history of traditional music
GALAX, Virginia -- In this part of southwestern Virginia, music comes rolling over the mountains like a spring storm. But unlike Mother Nature’s sometimes harsh harmonies, those of the Crooked Road are almost always sweet.
The Crooked Road is a 330-mile historic heritage highway. The route connects some of the most significant sites and venues associated with the old-time country, gospel and mountain music born in this region. The highway mostly follows U.S. Route 58 along a twisting, picturesque route through the mountains and valleys just north of Virginia’s border with North Carolina and Tennessee.
The music on this particular night was the weekly “Blue Ridge Backroads Live” show, originating in the historic Rex Theater in downtown Galax and coursing over the mountains live on WBRF radio. I’ve always been enchanted by the immediacy of live radio performances, a kind of throwback to the days when families would huddle around the RCA to hear the music that connected farms and villages to performers, audiences and the neon lights of distant towns or cities.
The lights of the Rex Theater announced the night’s performance as “Barr & Friends.”
I had happened to meet Stevie Barr earlier in that day, at his Barr’s Fiddle Shop, a music store in downtown Galax where a jam session is likely to break out at any moment.
Barr, a banjo player, had been adjusting his instrument at the front counter while bantering with visitors who came in to shop or peruse the store’s small music museum.
Back at the Rex, I happily discovered the “& Friends” included Jeanette and Johnny Williams, popular bluegrass performers and songwriters I’ve admired for years. That’s the kind of delightful surprise in store for music lovers along the Crooked Road.
The next day, I found another: The Floyd General Store in the tiny town of Floyd. The old-time store has its own stage and hosts a Friday Night Jamboree.
I was visiting for another weekly event, the Saturday Americana Afternoon, and a performance by members of a regional songwriters association.
I grabbed an order from the lunch counter and settled in at a stage-front table to listen to the talented musicians and writers. The meal satisfied both stomach and soul.
Travelers who follow the Crooked Road will also find several fascinating museums.
The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum on the campus of Ferrum College in Ferrum includes information about the history of mountain music. Across the highway sits the museum’s living-history farm, with log buildings, farm animals and costumed guides providing a look at 19th-century life in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains.
In Bristol, the largest city along the Crooked Road, visitors will find plenty to see and do. For music lovers, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum might be the high point.
The museum celebrates the famous “Bristol Sessions,” recordings made in 1927 by a Victor Talking Machine Co. producer. The producer had advertised for mountain-music acts, and he found the mother lode in Bristol.
The recordings, today called “The Big Band of Country Music,” sparked a surge of interest in mountain and Appalachian music, which in turn helped shape American music and culture into what it is today.
The records also launched the careers of such influential musicians as Jimmie Rodgers -- the “father of country music” -- and the iconic Carter Family.
The museum offers state-of-the-art audio and video displays, including hands-on exhibits where visitors can try remixing original recordings, record their own vocals on popular traditional songs and hear the same song performed by artists from various decades.
My last stop was the one I most looked forward to, the Carter Family Fold at the foot of Clinch Mountain west of Bristol. The performance venue is on land once owned by A.P. Carter, the family patriarch and musician.
Visitors will find Carter’s old grocery store, now a museum, and his little birthplace.
But music is the reason to visit. Our host and emcee was Rita Forrester, granddaughter of A.P. and Sara Carter (who, with Sara’s cousin “Mother” Maybelle Carter, made up the original Carter Family act).
On the bill was the Jeff Little Trio. Little was on the piano, an instrument rarely associated with the music of Appalachia, but one that Little played with a bluegrass energy and virtuosity.
The crowd treated the gospel numbers with appropriate reverence. But when the music turned up-tempo, the floor in front of the stage would fill with folks of all ages -- including lots of older men -- clogging, flat-footing and buck-dancing in a joyous and uninhibited celebration of the sounds of the mountains.
-- Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.