The Crooked Road – A Majestic Music Odyssey
The mountains of the southern Appalachia have long been recognised as a breeding ground for traditional music. The earliest settlers brought their instruments and musical traditions, which were fused together to form country, blues, folk and other styles of American popular music.
The Crooked Road is Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, a 333-mile driving route through the Appalachian Mountains from the Blue Ridge to the Coalfields region, following U.S. Route 58. It skirts along Southwest Virginia, just above the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee, and just under Kentucky.
The trail connects major heritage music venues in the region such as the Blue Ridge Music Centre, Birthplace of Country Music and the Carter Family Fold. The traditional gospel, bluegrass, and mountain music heard today was passed down from the generations and lives on through a wealth of musicians and instrument makers along the trail. Annual festivals, weekly concerts, live radio shows, and informal jam sessions abound throughout the region.
How I came to be here was a little accident and a little fate. Often these are how the best things happen.
I was in Raleigh, North Carolina for the IBMA’s (International Bluegrass Music Association) annual bluegrass conference and festival. The Conference included an exhibit hall and one of the vendor stalls was promoting The Crooked Road.
I had a few days to spare and the drive from Raleigh was not far. This is how I got to experience first-hand how music is woven into the rich tapestry of tradition in American music. This is how I got to visit the majestic Blue Ridge Mountain area. This is how I got to further my knowledge of the deep roots of traditional music. I am delighted to be sharing this experience with you.
The trail as presented here is traveling from the extreme east of Virginia (Ferrum) and ending up in the north west of the state.
1. Blue Ridge Institute and Museum Ferrum VA
Ferrum College created the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum (BRI) in the early 1970’s to document, interpret and present the folk heritage of the Blue Ridge region. Since that time, the Institute has grown steadily, expanding its work throughout Virginia and Appalachia while maintaining an emphasis upon the western portion of the state.
The BRI provides a lot of activities. From festivals and concerts to exhibits and publications, it offers educational and entertaining programs. The Institute’s audience spans all ages and backgrounds, enhancing Ferrum College’s educational mission. The major programs of the Institute include:
- The Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, held every fourth Saturday in October, which is Virginia’s largest annual celebration of regional folkways, and is now in its fourth decade.
- BRI Museum Exhibitions—heritage exhibitions for museums around the state.
- The Blue Ridge Farm Museum – living history on an 1800’s Blue Ridge farmstead.
- The Blue Ridge Heritage Archives – the permanent repository for folklife-related recordings, photographs, and documents.
- BRI Recordings – nearly a century of Virginia folk music in Grammy-nominated compilations.
- BRI Internet Resources – on-line exhibitions, archive resources, and travelers’ guides for heritage fans and researchers.
2. The Floyd County Store & County Sales, Floyd VA
The Floyd Country Store is renowned as a place to experience authentic Appalachian music, and is home to a group of musicians, flatfoot dancers, and cloggers who are carrying on the tradition of their families—to make music, to dance, and to have fun. There is music in the store every weekend year-round and on warm Friday evenings it spills out into the street.
There’s the Friday Night Jamboree, the Americana afternoons and the Floyd Radio Show, plenty of experiences not to be missed. It’s also a real country store – you can’t miss the barrels of old-fashioned candy at the front of the store, and if you explore further you can find everything from old-time toys to eco-friendly cleaning products to hard-wearing bib overalls. The store also has the The Jingle Tap Café, serving homemade soups, sandwiches, salads, baked goods and more.
Another key feature in Floyd is Country Sales which prides itself on having the world’s largest selection of old-time and bluegrass music. The stock includes CDs, books and DVDs.
3. Blue Ridge Music Centre
4. Barr’s Fiddle Shop and Rex Theatre Galax VA
The Blue Ridge Music Centre celebrates the music and musicians of the Blue Ridge. Established in 1997, the Centre includes an outdoor amphitheatre, an indoor interpretive centre/theatre, and The Roots of American Music, an interactive exhibition highlighting the historical significance of the region’s music. You can trace the history of Blue Ridge Mountain music through local artists back to the creation of the music generations ago by persons from Europe and West Africa. It shows its continued influence on many forms of folk, rock, and popular music made today.
The Centre hosts a summer Roots of American Music Concert Series, which take place in the beautiful outdoor amphitheatre (capacity 2,500) at the base of Fisher Peak and features local, regional, and national touring performers and bands most Saturday evenings from late May through September. Just to show that this is an incredibly vibrant scene, artists that have played here include Chatham County Line, Kruger Brothers, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rosanne Cash and The Steep Canyon Rangers.
The Blue Ridge Music Centre is operated by The National Park Service and the Music Centre’s programming is coordinated through a partnership with the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. It’s open mid-May through to October, 10am to 5 pm.
When I visited The Crooked Mile trail in October 2014, I was traveling from the south, Raleigh North Carolina, and therefore decided to make my entry point to the Trail here and then venture west along The Crooked Road.
Finding the Centre proved to be a little difficult at first – the address I had was not that specific and I needed to ask directions on the outskirts of nearby Galax VA and double back a little. I eventually found my way to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The route was incredibly beautiful and I finally saw some signage and found my destination. To my surprise, The Centre seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.
I arrived relatively late that October day, at 3pm, two hours before closing. Extremely lucky for me, there was live music that day – jamming in a performance annexe. I stayed until they finished, around 4pm. The band was The Fisher Peak Timber Rattlers (aka Stu Shank and friends). A terrific experience as they jammed to traditional mountain or hillbilly music. This music to me pre-dated genres, it was not country or bluegrass. It was more Celtic, but perhaps with an African or European overlay.
Also fortunate for me was the fact that I had an hour to explore the rest of the Centre, the displays, exhibits and gift shop. It was a wonderful place and, oh, to be at one of the outdoor concerts would be a treat indeed. Here’s a link to the live concert schedule.
I decided I would stay the night at nearby Galax (pronounced “Gay-lax”), a short drive east of The Centre and be ready to explore two key music heritage features in the town in the morning.
The following day I found the Galax Visitors’ Centre (street address) and was given a good deal of information. This Centre is also very close to both Barr’s Fiddle Shop and The Rex Theatre.
Barr’s Fiddle Shop is a key point on The Crooked Mile Road and has been a Galax icon for almost thirty years. The walls are lined with fiddles, guitars, banjos and mandolins. The Barrs have been making handmade instruments for a long time – there’s also a well-stocked supply of strings, books, CDs and T-shirts, as well as electric and bass guitars, drums and amplifiers. The store is owned and operated by Tom and Stevie Barr. Stevie was in store the day I was there, looking to see what he was going to do with a mandolin he was building. There’s a picture of him as a youngster with Earl Scruggs on the wall and I later discovered he has a new CD coming out. There’s also a candy store section of the shop. You can check out more here. – check this
Another attraction in Galax is The Rex Theatre. Every Friday night, radio station WBRF 98.1 FM sends out 100,000 watts of live old-time and bluegrass music from the stage of this historic Theatre into five States and over the internet. The show is called Blue Ridge Back Roads and, thanks to a faithful group of volunteers, has become the cornerstone for the revitalization of this seventy-year old theatre. Now owned and operated by the City of Galax, the Rex continues to expand its offerings with vintage movie nights, Saturday concerts and community plays.
Galax also plays host to the Old Fiddler’s Convention, held every August, featuring old-time, bluegrass and folk music, flatfoot and clogging dancing and contests. This year the Convention’s 79th annual event!
5. Heartwood, Abingdon
Further on up the road (around 80 miles) lies Abingon and within, Heartwood. My journey from Galax to Independence, VA along The Grayson Parkway (Highway 58) was a delight. I found myself among rolling hills and undulating bends, fields with masses of pumpkins, little settlements of houses, churches were plentiful and looked to be critical meeting places for these communities. Being the middle of October, the leaves were starting to turn and the evidence was in small, but vivid patches – the colour and light were incredibly beautiful. I can only imagine the majesty of this place in a few weeks, further into autumn/fall. As it was, the leaves were all over the road and made a farewell wave behind me. Despite trying, no photographs really do these scenes justice. But here’s one anyway.
I arrived at Independence (population of around 1,000) early in the afternoon. The weather had been magnificent but, within the last hour, clouds had rolled in, darkened and become more ominous. (In hindsight, I should have spent a whole day in Galax and covered all the heritage attractions there, enabling me to leave early in the morning and take more time along this part of the journey). As it was, I motored through Damascus which caresses the Tennessee border and hit Abingdon just as the rain came, luckily stumbling upon Zazzy’z Coffee Roasters, which included a book shop and crafts in what appeared to be a former hotel or guest house. It was welcomed. I had been in the car, more or less for four hours and was ready for a coffee and something to eat. Zazzy’z also had much-needed WiFi as my car GPS and phone struggled to assist to me in directions during the day. After an hour’s rest, I had my directions to the next attraction along The Crooked Road.
I found the delightfully named Heartwood just as the rain stopped. It is the headquarters of The Crooked Road Heritage Trail and is a new facility with interactive displays, music heritage information, an extensive array of CDs for sale, live performances are here, there’s local craft, wines, a restaurant and a tasteful gift shop. As the Crooked Road hub, Heartwood links musical venues, big and small, all across the region, as well as supporting the work of musicians, young and old and promoting traditional music in schools. This is a place well worth visiting and you should allow two or three hours at this stopover.
It was now late afternoon and I had earlier decided to stay the night in nearby Bristol (twenty miles away). I was now thinking of making that my base for two or three nights, and that proved to be a great decision.
6. Birthplace of Country Music, Bristol VA/TN
I’ve wondered about the references to the small town of Bristol sometimes including Virginia (VA) and other times Tennessee (TN), and sometimes both. Well, that’s because the State line runs right through the main street of Bristol, fittingly called State Street. I would’ve thought that’d be confusing, having different State laws and taxes, but I guess the folk around here have gotten used to it.
Bristol VA/TN is best known these days for its Nascar racing and, more interesting for me, the annual Rhythm and Roots Reunion music and food festival which is held every September. The town’s biggest claim to fame, though, is its place in music history.
In 1927 Ralph Peer, a record producer from Victor Talking Machine Company took the most advanced recording equipment every developed and set up a portable recording studio in the middle of Bristol, on State Street, on the Tennessee side. Over the course of two weeks, Peer recorded no less than seventy-six songs by nineteen different acts. Singers came from all over as Peer was paying artists to record. Three acts became stars as a result of those recordings – Ernest V. Stoneman, The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers – and this catalogue of songs is now known as “the 1927 Bristol Sessions”. In fact, these Sessions are regarded as “The Big Bang of Country Music”.
The Carter Family were A.P. Carter, Sara Carter, and Maybelle Carter and, during the next seventeen years, they recorded some 300 old-time ballads, traditional tunes, country songs, and Gospel hymns. They did their last radio show together in 1942, after which Maybelle continued her career with her three daughters, Anita, Helen, and June (who was married to Johnny Cash). Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash continue the family tradition today. The original Carters became known as “The First Family of Country Music”.
Jimmie Rodgers made four songs out of The Bristol Sessions and shortly after rocketed to stardom and stayed as a performer at the top of his game until his early death. He has since become known as “The Father of Country Music”.
These recordings in Bristol are the single most important event in the history of Country Music
– Johnny Cash
To cement the momentous 1927 event, the U.S. Congress officially declared Bristol the Birthplace of Country Music in 1998 and The Birthplace of Country Music Museum opened in the town (on the appropriately named Birthplace of Country Music Way on the Virginian side) in August 2014. The $10.5 million museum was built in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution.
The 24,000 square foot area features the most diverse exhibit spaces – featuring both temporary and permanent exhibitions – while also accommodating educational and interactive programming.
I had contacted Charlene Baker, Director of Marketing/Communications from the Museum a couple of days earlier. She was kind enough to meet me at The Museum and take me on a personalised, introductory tour of the facility. Carlene Carter, Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley were here for the launch this August and it has a wealth of information about the famed Bristol Sessions and so many different interactive and interesting displays.
One of the many facilities here is a performance space and Charlene mentioned that there was a private concert being held at the facility the following night by Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks and I would be welcome to come along. I was indeed interested. In fact that was enough for me to settle on staying an extra night in Bristol.
Charlene left to allow me a lengthy examination of what’s on offer. Frankly, it’s amazing, the design space, the interactivity and the variety of exhibits. It would take me a while to work up a list of the music museums and facilities I’ve been to, but, simply, this is the best music museum I’ve seen.
Here’s but a taste of what’s on offer:
- an array of recording technologies
- “Bound To Bristol” film narrated by John Carter Cash, son of Johnny Cash and June Carter
- listening posts for the music that came out of the Bristol Sessions
- a film “Variety and Voice” about the technical aspects of playing instruments
- a small chapel which cleverly recreates the feeling of being in a gospel church as it demonstrates “Church and Faith in Appalachian Music”
- listening booths where you can compare later versions of songs that emanated from the Sessions – eg The Byrds doing a 1968 cover of “Pretty Polly” and “The Longest Train I Ever Saw” was reinterpreted by Nirvana as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”
- an amazing and unique Singing Station where you are guided by lyrics and able to record your own voice (I tried but hopefully the tapes will be erased by now!)
- an exhibit featuring local hero Tennessee Ernie Ford
- “The Unbroken Circle”, a wonderful immersion experience, and
- The Special Exhibit about The Carter Family (which runs through to February 2015).
The visitors’ board is unique and you can even send an e-postcard as well.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is the best music museum I’ve ever seen
Finally, there’s an excellent gift shop with a nice mixture of museum and Bristol Session memorabilia, along with local crafts – something for everyone.
After spending a couple of hours or so at The Museum, I was directed to The Burger Bar just two blocks away for lunch. It has been a classic diner since 1942 and is famously known as the last place Hank Williams, Sr. was seen alive. The decor is authentic and timeless. I had the “Hey Good Looking” burger.
I then had some time for a wander down both sides of State Street, to look at the various stores in Bristol’s Historic Downtown District. There’s plenty of history and tradition here, with specialty gift shops, art galleries, cafes, restaurants, theatre and live venues as well as antique shops. In fact, the main streets of Bristol are the site of the Rhythms and Roots Reunion music festival (it has a terrific artist list – I reckon it’s the best music festival I’ve never been to!).
Blackbird Bakery in downtown Bristol is just a block away from The Birthplace of Country Music Museum and a short stroll off State Street. It’s open 24 hours a day and has a delicious array of cakes, pastries and sweets. My banana muffin was really good. The place is airy and spacious, friendly service, good coffee and, of course Wi-Fi.
It was a perfect day. Hot sun, cotton-wool clouds and a cooling breeze. The air was clean. I found the site of The Bristol Sessions, the restored railway station (unfortunately closed) and had a closer inspection of the shops and the areas where the annual festival is held.
If you are ever within range of Bristol TN, don’t pass up an opportunity to visit this amazing town and Museum. My visit along The Crooked Road was in the wake of attending three music festivals – in Nashville TN, Columbia MO and Raleigh NC – and I was enjoying the slower pace. Bristol is the ideal place to chill out, while always having music opportunities and heritage at the ready.
Bristol is the ideal place to chill out
7. Carter Family Fold and Music Centre, Hiltons VA
The first order of business is to head to Hiltons, almost an hour away, to find The Carter Family Music Centre, a key feature on The Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail and an homage to “The First Family of Country Music”. There’s a live performance every Saturday but I’m not too sure it opens any other time. My only chance to go there, though, was this day (a Wednesday), so I determined to head there regardless, at least to see it from the outside.
The road quickly narrowed and it was a beautiful Crooked Road indeed, pretty quiet traffic-wise and the scenery was again beautiful. Mowed meadows, trees on the turn, well-kept churches, pumpkin patches, ladies sitting on front porches rocking away. There were some beautiful sights to behold.
I was low on gas (I didn’t see a station on the way from my motel) but when I hit Hiltons itself, I was able to fill up and check directions. “You Can’t Miss It Darling!!” was ringing in my ears I strode back to the car.
Well, I did miss it. I negotiated a tricky u-turn on the narrow, winding A.P Carter Highway and finally I arrived. Luckily, the cleaner was there and I was able to go into the performance space, The Carter Family Fold. Erected in 1976, the Fold hosts shows every Saturday, where by all reports you can hear some of the best old-time and bluegrass music around – all acoustic. A surprisingly large structure, it stretches naturally up the hillside, and seats 850.
The Fold’s stage has been graced by Johnny and June Carter Cash, Waylon Jennings, Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, Tom T. Hall, John Paul Jones, Larry Campbell, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson. The shows take place year-round beginning at 7.30. There’s a festival the first weekend of August, on the second weekend in June the Fold hosts the Clinch Mountain Music Festival, a gospel concert is also held annually to honor Janette Carter, founder of the Music Centre.
Also at this site are the Carter Family Museum and the A.P. Carter birthplace cabin, which open on Saturday evenings. It sure would be a treat to be here during a live show.
8. Country Cabin II, Norton VA
The Country Cabin, with its descendant, Country Cabin II, is the oldest mountain music and cultural venue currently operating along The Crooked Road. The original Country Cabin was built in 1937 under a President Roosevelt program, as a community recreational facility and is a National and State Historical Landmark. Local musicians gathered at the Cabin every Saturday night to perform and carry on traditional bluegrass and country music. The popularity of the event soon outgrew the log cabin and Country Cabin II was built in 2002 to accommodate larger audiences.
In addition to clogging and line-dancing classes, the newer site continues to host local musicians and bands performing bluegrass, country and old-time music throughout the year every Saturday night, as well as the annual Dock Boggs Festival in September. This festival honors the lives of two extraordinary local musicians – Dock Boggs, a soulful singer and unique banjo player, and ballad singer Kate O’Neill Peters Sturgill. The festival offers local, regional and nationally-known muscians and dancers, hand-made mountain arts and crafts, and home-cooked foods.
The Country Cabin is the longest continuously running site for traditional music along the entire Crooked Road.
9. Ralph Stanley Museum & Traditional Mountain Music Centre, Clintwood, VA
Ralph Stanley and his older brother Carter formed the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. They recorded for such companies as the small Rich-R-Tone label and later Columbia, a relationship that lasted from 1949 until 1952. These classic sessions defined the Stanleys’ own approach to bluegrass and made them as important as Bill Monroe.
After the early death of Carter, Ralph and each edition of the Clinch Mountain Boys grew to be one of the most respected outfits in bluegrass. With his raw emotions and three-fingered banjo technique, this Bluegrass Hall of Fame member helped bring a mountain style of bluegrass music to mainstream audiences.
The Ralph Stanley Museum is in the town of Clintwood, about twenty-four miles north-east of Norton VA. The museum combines the career of Stanley (memorabilia and audio/visual displays), the mountains which moulded his style, together with a historical journey of traditional mountain music
Also located in the town of Clintwood is The Jettie Baker Centre, featuring concerts and plays.
The music you experience along The Crooked Road has a timeless quality and authenticity to it. It’s also communal, so don’t be surprised when you are asked to join in, as this is how it’s always been. It’s like visiting someone’s home, or their local store or community hall. All this in a majestic setting, the scenery alone is worth the visit. But there’s nothing like immersing yourself in the music, from locals to national icons, all here to celebrate the music traditions and the beauty of the surroundings.
The Crooked Road is a glorious musical journey, a joyful and educational experience that I will never forget.