May 22, 2011


On Virginia’s Crooked Road, Mountain Music Lights the Way (SARAH WILDMAN, 5/20/11, NY Times)

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.”

Posted by at May 22, 2011 6:06 PM

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