On Virginia's Crooked Road, Music Lights the Way
Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times
By SARAH WILDMAN
Published: May 22, 2011
IT starts with a well-worn fiddle, held in equally well-worn hands above a tapping black cowboy boot. Then in comes the banjo, plucked with steel finger picks, followed by the autoharp, the mandolin, the percussive beat of an upright bass. Another banjo grabs the melody, and suddenly the room is bursting with knee-slapping, country-porch music. A man in a crisp checked shirt gets up and starts to dance, bouncing out a complicated bumbumBAM bumbumBAM with his feet, moving as smoothly as a Martha Graham dancer, hitting the floor on the downbeat.
It is Thursday night in Fries (pronounced freeze), Va., population 600, on the wide New River. In the century-old Fries Theater, the silk wallpaper, once a glorious aquamarine embossed with gold ferns, is faded. A sign promises movies for 10 cents, 25 cents on weekends, but there hasn't been a film here in years. The Fries high school closed in 1989 after the cotton mill that gave birth to this hamlet in 1902 shut down. But where the economy has faltered, the local music culture is thriving. Take a drive through the dozens of one-stoplight towns that are planted along highways that twist through this region's blue hills and green valleys, and you'll find that music is the manna of the community.
Fries was my first stop on the music trail known as the Crooked Road - an official designation of the state of Virginia since 2004. The heritage of the path can be found in this dance, in that tune, learned by ear from house to house and passed down through generations. The Road isn't one single highway - it's a roughly 300-mile series of interconnected two-lane byways and long stretches of Route 58, which skims Virginia's North Carolina and Tennessee borders all the way to Kentucky. The sound here is Appalachian: mountain music. Joe Wilson, who wrote a book on the Crooked Road, calls the area the "pickle barrel" of American music. "You know you can't make a good pickle by squirting vinegar on a cucumber," he said. "You have to let it sit."
Over five days in April, I rambled along part of the Crooked Road and towns around it, from Fries up to Ferrum and Floyd, back to Galax and out to Marion, dipping down toward Abington, and back to Galax again. With my partner, Ian, his parents and my 2-year-old daughter, Orli, I drove down roads that curve so dramatically that locals joke that you can see your own taillights as you round the bends. The drive cuts through pastures dotted with cows and horses and weather-beaten barns, some abandoned and left to splinter. Many see the land they sold in recent decades now covered in Christmas trees, a boom industry that has changed the landscape. Churches rise up one after the other: Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist. "Google Doesn't Satisfy All Searches," reads one church sign. "Can't Sleep? Try Counting Your Blessings," says another.
We traveled 370 miles in all, what with switchbacks and retracing our steps to hear just one more tune. We were following the songs that had blown this way and that like so many dandelion seeds across the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the foothills of Appalachia. Our lodgings included everything from a Hampton Inn to an eco-minded auberge decorated by local artists, to a Ragtime-era hotel, recently restored to its former glory.
ALONG the way we stuffed ourselves with buttery biscuits, farm eggs and smokehouse Southern flavors that somehow taste different south of the Mason-Dixon line. Orli loved every minute of it; her affinity for the music was immediate. When she ran onto the dance floor at the Floyd Friday Night Jamboree, the man next to me caught my arm. "Let her be," he said. "We're mountain people - we'll take care of her as our own." She woke each morning singing the twang of the banjo.
If there ever was a place where musical authenticity was born and nurtured, "raised up" as the people around here say, the Crooked Road is it. From the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons (the site of Johnny Cash's last concert) and Clintwood, deep in coal country, to the farms near Floyd, music is still being made on fiddles and banjos, mandolins and guitars, dulcimers and autoharps. Every night you'll find pick-up jams on front porches, performances in theaters and quartets that pack storefronts, an old courthouse and even a Dairy Queen. In summer the area is awash in festivals, from Dr. Ralph Stanley's Memorial Day bluegrass festival in the mountains of Coeburn, Va., to the venerable Old Fiddlers Convention held every August in Galax.
This region is where old-time and bluegrass was born. Old-time is dance music, simpler and older than bluegrass. Bluegrass is filled with vocal harmonies, many made famous by (relative) newbies like Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. It is suited more for seated audiences than the foot-stomping dance I saw in Fries, which is known as flatfoot. Both genres evolved from tunes brought by Scotch-Irish and German settlers who traveled down the wagon trails from Pennsylvania. They brought dulcimers and fiddles and later picked up the banjo from former slaves.
"It wasn't real practical to bring a piano or an organ till there was a train," said David Arnold, a Fries native whose wild white beard reached mid-sternum. I met him at a jam. It turned out he was the chairman of the Music Heritage Committee at the Grayson County Heritage Foundation in nearby Independence.
Our nights were spent looking for music, but during the day there were farms to explore and hikes to be taken through gorgeous parks. But even there, you'll find music. For instance, in June, at the Grayson Highlands State Park, home to herds of photogenic wild ponies, the annual Wayne C. Henderson guitar festival draws some of the best guitar players in a region packed with prodigies.
Mr. Henderson himself is a local legend. He lives and makes guitars in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it village called Rugby (population 7) that's not officially on the Crooked Road, though his shop is something of a pilgrimage site. (Eric Clapton owns one of his guitars.) I met him at one of those musical nights that seem to happen all the time around there - this one included fellow guitar makers Jimmy Edmonds and Gerald Anderson performing at a community center in Galax while volunteers sold sacks of homemade gingersnap cookies for a dollar. The event was a fund-raiser for a program called JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) which aims to get local children involved in their own roots by teaching them to play music and introducing them to regional artists. A kids' string band called Loose Strings played to thunderous applause.
"It was a way of entertainment for mountain people," Mr. Henderson said of the music he grew up with. He went on to explain why he became a luthier, or instrument maker, a craft for which he won the 1995 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. "I got into making them because I couldn't afford a nice Martin. Living in Appalachia, nobody's got much money."
It's true. Galax, for one, is a depressed city. There used to be a thriving furniture business there, but lower production costs overseas closed factory after factory. At the edge of town, you'll find an Arby's, Aunt Bea's Barbecue, a decent Mexican place and a Wal-Mart, but there's less work downtown. The streets were quiet the afternoons we wandered through. Folks were around, though, once we started to look. Some were wiping their hands on napkins at the Galax Smokehouse, which is known for pork, but also serves an excellent, juicy barbecue chicken. And then there's the 1920s Rex Theater, which broadcasts live each Friday night on WBRF, a country and bluegrass radio station that provided the soundtrack to our trip.
But the liveliest business in town is Barr's Fiddle Shop. Packed floor to ceiling with fiddles, guitars, amps and all manner of music - as well as a candy-shop section stocked with fudge - Barr's hosts music sessions, curious tourists and lesson seekers. In the 1920s, the Hill Billies quartet got its start on the site - then a barbershop - and their sound, which came to be known as hillbilly music, swept the nation. "People are raised up going to the music," said Stevie Barr, a 35-year-old banjo virtuoso with a shock of surfer blond hair, who owns the shop his father opened. "You are born with it, and you are born listening to it."
I had heard that the best place to be on Friday night, to really see that generational mix, was the town of Floyd. So we bid farewell to Galax, popped a Wayne Henderson CD into the car stereo, and headed up the Crooked Road. "More dance!" Orli cried from the back seat. And then, looking out the window, "More cows! More horses!" Heaven for a city kid is driving in farm country.
BEFORE we'd gone too far, we came across Harmon's. The sign, calling it the "Boot Capitol of Virginia," was enticing and I couldn't resist pulling into the parking lot. It is a sprawling store filled with stiff Wranglers, Stetson hats and endless rows of cowboy boots. Tucked in back was a museum dedicated to regional law-enforcement: a hodgepodge of Civil War paraphernalia; news reports of a shooting at the Carroll County jail in 1912 that people still talk about; the 1920 Matewan mining massacre; and random bits, like a stuffed two-headed calf. Even here there is a music exhibit, with a dulcimer and a banjo, and records cut by local musicians in the 1920s.
I tried on a pair of boots, shot through with aqua up the shaft, rich mahogany leather at the bottom. The ladies at the cash register clucked with approval. "That'll look real nice with skirts come summer," one said. Impulsively, I bought them and jumped back in our rented Ford. And then I saw Ian with a Harmon's bag. "I bought a Western-style shirt, $21," he said, shrugging.
A few hours later we were picking up tickets for the Floyd Country Store Friday Night Jamboree - $5 each - in advance. Then we wandered down the street to Oddfella's Cantina, a cozy restaurant with mismatched furniture, for salads (a relief after all the barbecue) washed down with local Shooting Creek beer. We skipped dessert to hit the jamboree.
The night began with the bluegrass gospel group Janet Turner & Friends. Tiny and snowy-haired, Ms. Turner plays a mean autoharp that pairs well with her sweet, high voice. "When I die, hallelujah, by and by, I'll fly away," she sang. Orli stood in the footlights, playing an air guitar; she and another toddler each began to dance.
But then, within seconds of the band's closing note there was a rush for the dance floor. The audience had changed into double tap shoes, and left a sea of shoes in their wake. What had started out churchlike became a rumble and a roar. The Friday Night Old Time Band had begun. The music picked up, and the number of people in the store doubled, tripled, quadrupled. I swooped Orli up and back, away from the dancing feet. Every inch of wall space was undulating, whooping, stomping. More polished than the dancers at Fries, everyone knew how to flatfoot, and the tap shoes kept the time. A fellow in a T-shirt that read "Still Truckin' " spun me onto the dance floor. I did my best to keep up, clicking my boots on the floor.
Catching my breath, I wandered back into the store, past swirls of giant lollipops and displays of Carhartt pants and jackets. The room reeked of sweat; dancers were backed up to the ice cream counter. There I met Jackie Martin in pressed Liberty overalls. The music she said, nearly teary, has kept her going through hard times. "It's who we are and what we are," Ms. Martin said. "I'm 66 years old and I can still flatfoot!"
The Floyd Country Store may be all about tradition, but the rest of town has a nouveau-hippie vibe, evident in places like the eco-minded Hotel Floyd, in events like Floyd Fest (a summer World Music festival) and in new galleries like Troika, which features decidedly unfolksy pottery, photography, wood pieces and drawings. Owned by the potter Silvie Granatelli, Gibby Waitzkin (a paper artist), and Susan Icove (a lighting designer), Troika emerged out of a biannual gallery crawl called 16 Hands, which takes visitors to the studios of artists who have moved to the region over the last 30 years or so, lured by affordable property and lovely vistas. In the process, they have pushed Floyd toward a creative economy that has buoyed it beyond the economic hardship experienced elsewhere on the Road. (Abingdon, about two hours from Floyd, has that energy too; a regional arts center called Heartwood is due to open in June.) We visited Ms. Granatelli's studio, which is set in a swath of scenery that feels like an Andrew Wyeth painting: lazy cows on the hillside above her white clapboard house, a serene creek below.
In the morning, after stacks of hot cakes, we got on the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed an hour south to the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Virginia-North Carolina border. Run by the National Park Service and the National Council for the Traditional Arts and created by Congress, the Music Center has hiking trails, a marvelous Mid-Day Mountain Music series that runs from May through October and an amphitheater.
"History is under every rock in this area," said Erynn Marshall, music program manager at the center, as she showed me around "The Roots of American Music," a new interactive exhibition with instruments, photography and stories that trace the history and sound of the region. It was created by Joe Wilson, chairman of the National Council of Traditional Arts and author of "A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail," and designed by Ralph Applebaum, known for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In recent years, Ms. Marshall said, there has been a big push toward preserving local history and culture, and she recommended that we head to another place to see even more of that effort: the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum, in Ferrum.
The drive to the museum, we learned belatedly, was on one of the most breathtakingly twisting roads in a region of shockingly complicated driving. But on arrival, we were pleased to find a child-friendly 19th-century working farm. A woman named Rebecca was dressed as the farmer's wife; there were oxen and lambs to pet, horses, a blacksmith and a woman fiddling away on an ancient violin. At the museum, the current show, which is on display through July, is on the history of the dulcimer. Black-and-white photography in another room captures Appalachian women in the middle of the last century.
But there is another kind of history in these parts too. An hour and a half from Galax in Marion, just off Highway 81, the town's main street is darkened by the shadows of empty storefronts. On the edge of town, a Wal-Mart looms. The Lincoln Theater and the Francis Marion hotel next door are lone standouts in a time of deep economic upheaval. Built in 1929 by the furniture factory owner Charles Wassum, the Lincoln is a masterpiece of Mayan revival; it stood empty from 1977 until a renovation in 2004. The hotel hails from the same era; it was rehabilitated from a boarding house to its former glory five years ago. After checking into our neat black-and-white room, we had a bite to eat and ran into the Lincoln for its monthly event, Song of the Mountains, a collaboration between the Lincoln Theater and PBS.
The theater is gorgeous - Art Deco murals on the walls, depicting scenes of Southern history. Sweet Potato Pie, a five-woman bluegrass band, was on stage. The sound was amazing, but immediately we realized we'd made a mistake. Orli couldn't run here, couldn't dance. She was the only child in the audience. After two songs, she and Ian left for the hotel.
They missed the Carter Family Sound, the group that took the stage next and played a string of songs in homage to one of the first families of bluegrass and country music. I met the group in the lobby after their set, and they laughed that I'd brought a 2-year-old. The place for little ones, they said, is the Carter Family Fold, in Hiltons, a few hours down the road. On Saturday nights, old-time bands pack the house and children run free.
You could spend a whole summer here, I realized, going to jams every night, seeking out sit-down venues like the Fold, and the Lincoln, standing-room-only music sessions in stores, and hiking the trails along New River.
As we drove back home to Washington, I kept thinking of the song playing when we'd left the Fries session that first night. "Y'all come," Karen Carr on the upright bass had sung out, channeling Bill Monroe's country song of that title. "Y'all come see to us now and then."
And we promised ourselves that we would.
SARAH WILDMAN is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.
STOPS ON THE CROOKED ROAD: Information about the Crooked Road can be found at crookedroad.org. On the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Blue Ridge Music Center's new exhibition, "The Roots of American Music," is scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend with a full slate of nonstop (free) music. If you miss it, every day at noon in the summer there are musical performances and there are concerts on weekend nights. The center is at milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway (276-236-5309; blueridgemusiccenter.org). In Floyd the Hotel Floyd (120 Wilson Street; 540-745-6080; hotelfloyd.com) is two blocks from the Floyd Country Store; doubles start at $99 on weekends and $77 on weeknights; all woodwork was done by local artisans. From Floyd you can also visit Blue Ridge Institute & Museum (20 Museum Drive, Ferrum; 540-365-4416; blueridgeinstitute.org). The General FrancisMarion Hotel (107 East Main Street, Marion; 877-783-4802; generalfrancismarionhotel.com; doubles from $100) was built in the 1920s and restored in 2006. A bit farther down the road is the Carter Family Fold (A. P. Carter Highway, Hiltons, 276-386-6054; carterfamilyfold.org).