Travelling the Crooked Road

From left: Jack Ingraham, Ross Peacemaker, Ronnie Toney and Jacob Wright play during the Floyd Friday Night Jamboree.

From left: Jack Ingraham, Ross Peacemaker, Ronnie Toney and Jacob Wright play during the Floyd Friday Night Jamboree.

Story and photos by Joe Rogers

Joe is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Denver, Colorado.

This road trip takes you on a musical journey through southwest Virginia.

“This one is in G,” comes a callout from a circle of musicians sitting to the front of the theatre. There’s a quick jumble of tuning before a fiddle drones in low and slow to start and then quickly shrieks into high gear. The upright bass pounds out a speedy backbeat, someone plucks a banjo with twangy perfection and another fiddle joins the melodious fray as “Yee-haws!” fill the room.

It’s Thursday night in Fries, an old textile mill town and my first stop along the Crooked Road—a 531-kilometre musical journey that winds through southwest Virginia by way of U.S. Highway 58 and an intersecting web of two-lane byways.

Outside, the streets are as quiet as the New River flowing through town, yet here inside the historic Fries Theater the atmosphere is alive with music and the shuffle, shuffle, thump of dancers finding the downbeat.

“We’re known for having one of the best jam sessions around,” a lady mentions from behind the counter where she’s serving up $1.50 hot dogs. “We’ve been blessed with a lot of great musicians in this area to keep it going.” As if on cue, a third fiddle joins in along with a mandolin and a trio of guitars. “Go on in,” she smiles. “Enjoy!”

Southwest Virginia is where bluegrass and old-time music were born. Bluegrass is spirited music full of alternating bass lines, sweetly droning fiddles, mandolins, plucked banjos and instrumental solos. Old-time music is simpler. It’s folk music centring around a combination of fiddles, plucked guitars, banjos and a dulcimer. Each genre can trace its roots back to early African, German and Scotch-Irish settlers, however. Four hundred years later, the music continues to thrive thanks to a strong sense of tradition. Musicians regularly come together to play each song, so remarkable and raw in style, like a love letter to their Appalachian history and culture.

That’s exactly what the next two hours are about as the theatre pulses with hearty laughter, dancing and music that shifts from old-time ballads to outright bluegrass fury. And it’s all led by master fiddler Eddie Bond. Bond is sort of a local celebrity who has travelled the world playing the music that has been passed down to him—a tradition he keeps alive as a local string music teacher. “We like to start the kids off early by teaching it in the schools,” he said during a short break in the action.

The idea for the Crooked Road came after a random encounter at a Creative Economy Conference in 2003 between two men, Joe Wilson and Todd Christensen. Strong community support and Wilson’s unwavering dedication to the region’s traditional music and its artists further fuelled the idea, and by the next year, the governor declared it Virginia's Heritage Music Trail. Today, the trail connects nine major venues and over 60 affiliated venues and festivals where everything from a cappella gospel to 300-year-old ballads to bluegrass is played year-round in parks, alleyways, concert halls and along street corners.

For five days, I followed the Crooked Road, driving my rental car from Big Stone Gap near the Kentucky and Virginia state line to Floyd in the central hills. I proceeded down the Blue Ridge Parkway and up to Galax, back to Floyd and west to Abingdon. Slow is the way to go I learned early on. Not just because of the route’s small-town slowdowns and frequent hairpin turns, but also to savour each weathered barn, deep green pasture dotted with hefty livestock and undulating hill, with the music up and windows down.

Many public jam sessions like the one in Fries take place at night, so it’s easy to spend time during the day doing other activities. I visited museums, hiked through wonderful parks, explored small-town life and enjoyed the annual Mountains of Music Homecoming Festival taking place in numerous communities up and down the road.

Along the way I ate almost everything in sight, loving every mouthwatering bite of it. There were absurd portions of old-fashioned biscuits and gravy for breakfast. I feasted on doughnuts at the Blackbird Bakery and hamburgers at the Burger Bar in Bristol. I ate fried apple pie at an early morning farmers market and mounds of succulent barbecue at the Galax Smokehouse. I savoured European pastries at Balkan Bakery in Abingdon and a Blue Ridge Café chicken and waffle sandwich in Floyd that was nothing short of culinary sorcery.

After deciding to give my stomach a much-needed rest, I visited Barr’s Fiddle Shop in downtown Galax. The small shop, sandwiched between Chapters Bookshop and a narrow alley along Main Street, was crammed floor to ceiling with guitars, fiddles and banjos. Tom and Stevie Barr have been creating handmade instruments for over 35 years, making the shop a popular destination for both novice and professional musicians. The store was quiet when I visited, so I walked next door into the Hillbilly Barbershop Museum. The old barbershop is where the Hill Billies quartet got their start in the 1920s and catapulted a new style of music on the nation. Their weathered black-and-white photo hangs on the wall next to a vertical display of vinyl records in commemoration of where hillbilly music was officially born.

But if Galax is where the early version of today’s music started, then the town of Floyd is where the future of it, and the Crooked Road scene, lies. At a time when tourism can really drive a region’s local economy, Floyd is doing just that with its trendy galleries and boutiques, the chocolate and coffee shop, Cocoa Mia, and with the craft beer taps of Dogtown Roadhouse. Be that as it may, Floyd Country Store is still the place to be on a Friday night. So, after enjoying a bit of bluegrass at the Blue Ridge Music Center south of Galax, I drove about an hour northeast for the store’s big Friday Night Jamboree.

And what a scene it was. Olen and Frances Gardner were playing to a packed house inside the store, while outside was even more of a party. Music was everywhere. A duo played underneath the artisan market canopy across the street. Three college-age women serenaded a group of older folks on lawn chairs down the street. Jacob Wright held down the alley with jam partners Jack Ingraham, Ross Peacemaker and Ronnie Toney. And across from them was, Nuthin’ Common, a trio playing their way through a dizzying pace of songs to an ever-growing crowd. Kids shared ice cream with their parents and danced with their grandparents. And one sandy-blond-haired young man clogged up a heavy sweat as we all sang along to “Rocky Top” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” well into the humid night. I left with a hoarse throat, feeling exhilarated and wanting more.

So with each remaining day of my road trip, chasing the music became my sole purpose. Whether it was a random Wednesday, a lazy Saturday afternoon or any other day of the week, I found it.

It was played at the Big Stone Gap Visitor Center and inside the Chilhowie VFW. It serenaded me while I was walking through the Crooked Road headquarters building in Heartwood and during an Americana Afternoon back in Floyd. While one soft-spoken woman pulled out a powerful, raspy tone to sing “Burnin’ Down the Barn,” during one jam, another was sweetly singing along as we two-stepped together to another tune. The music played over radio station WBRF as I drove at night underneath firefly-filled skies, and it resonated within the voices of everyone I talked to along the way.

Out here on the Crooked Road time goes by slowly, yet you’ll realize there doesn’t seem to be enough of it to experience every heartfelt show, cup of coffee with good conversation or dance to a “real goodard of a song.” But as I listened to a lady sing “I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter” during the last night on my journey, I sat back and smiled knowing the people will always be here, the music will always be playing, and that I will definitely be back for more.

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