At 9 o'clock on a Thursday morning, the Dairy Queen is jammin' with live bluegrass music. It doesn't seem to matter that most of the musicians are grizzled older men; they are twanging up a storm. And this isn't a flukey one-and-done thing; music like this happens here every week.
The next night, I'm in Floyd, a one-stoplight town 30 miles southeast of Rocky Mount, for the Friday Night Jamboree. I follow the music into the Floyd Country Store, where, without warning, an old man pulls me onto a makeshift dance floor and has me flatfooting in time to the plunking banjo and fiddle chirping of Katie and the Bubbatones. OK, I'm faking it. But this guy — he's at least 75 — is shuffling up a storm, making us look quite respectable.
Outside, the street is filled with impromptu jam sessions. The town barbershop is closed for haircuts, but there's a crowd inside toe-tapping to a circle of jamming fiddlers. It's no wonder that musicians and music lovers worldwide turn up here on Friday nights.
Rocky Mount and Floyd are two of many music destinations along The Crooked Road (myswva.org/tcr), a 333-mile cultural heritage trail that winds through southwest Virginia bordering Appalachia, spanning the Blue Ridge to the Cumberland Mountains. It links the original music venues, festivals, historic sites and towns where American music first took root, and the culture that sustains it.
Bluegrass, gospel, country and folk ballads — the music along this trail is as old as the communities where it thrives. The tunes have survived, largely because they reflect life around these parts, while incorporating age-old melodies.
"If it wasn't based upon something fundamentally authentic and indigenous, even the cleverest marketing couldn't have sustained it," says Jack Hinshelwood, executive director of The Crooked Road, and a fiddler and guitarist. "This music evolved from a culture without television and radio. Their entertainment venues were front porches, church basements, lodge halls and barbershops, and everybody participated."
Today's venues are still family-friendly: it's not unusual to see a multigenerational fiddling act and teens flatfooting with grandparents. Most events cost nothing, except perhaps a home-baked cake. Some charge a modest entry fee: $3 to $5.
There are open-to-the-public jam sessions and live music practically every night along The Crooked Road. While many venues are open year-round, summertime expands the music trail with outdoor festivals, concerts, jams and buskers. To plan my route, I consult the interactive map and event schedules on The Crooked Road's website.
Bristol, the southernmost destination along the Crooked Road, is a good place to begin. In 1998, Congress declared Bristol "The Birthplace of Country Music."
Its main drag, State Street, divides Virginia and Tennessee. Both states proudly share a rich music history here. In 1927, music producer Ralph S. Peer cut the first commercial country music recordings here. These "Bristol Sessions" included superstars Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and are credited with setting the stage for today's country music.
Authentic recordings, original instruments and photos from those sessions are exhibited at the state-of-the-art Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Bursting with interactive displays like listening and recording booths, this place is a high-tech music playground. In the karaoke room, I sing backup for gospel great Ernest Phipps, then fine-tune a Maybelle Carter song at the mixing station, and watch the film "Bound to Bristol," narrated by John Carter Cash (son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash).
In town, the Mountain Music Museum displays costumes, records and memorabilia of Bristol's most famous musicians. Upstairs on Monday nights is the Pickin' Porch Show, staging bluegrass and old-time music.
Heading west from Bristol, you come to two prominent Saturday-night music venues: the 800-seat Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va., where Johnny Cash performed his last show, and The Country Cabin II in Norton, Va., The Crooked Road's longest continuously running music venue.
But it's Monday, so I drive Interstate 81 north from Bristol to Heartwood in Abingdon. Headquarters of The Crooked Road, this visitors center doubles as an arts destination, featuring works by regional artisans and musicians, and hosting high-profile music events.
In Abingdon's historic district, I check into the circa-1832 Martha Washington Inn, featuring antiques-decorated guest rooms, spa, saltwater pool and a restaurant serving imaginative fare.
I'm here to visit Capo's Music Store, eager to learn why this small-town acoustic music shop is continuously named one of the world's top 100 music retailers. Turns out, the store is a wonderland of handcrafted guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins and dulcimers. "We have small-shop brands by master luthiers … instruments with details you can't find at big-box retailers," says owner Gil Braswell. Capo's mission is to offer a set of strings for all enthusiasts, beginner to professional, and host open-door music jams. I don't play, but I'm so inspired that I purchase a harmonica.
Being in Abingdon on a Monday positions me perfectly for several outstanding nighttime jam sessions. I decide to split the evening between the Smyth County Jam in Chilhowie and Bristol's Pickin' Porch Show.
"Howdys" and tips of baseball caps greet me upon arriving at the Chilhowie Lions Club, where folks stroll in dressed in overalls and flannel. Some are carrying cakes — once a month is cake night. Before the music begins, Larry Hogston, founder of the Smyth County Jam, and his bandmates lead us in pledging allegiance to the American flag. Then banjos start plucking and Tommy Richardson walks up to the microphone and begins crooning the jam's folksy welcome ditty:
"Ya' got cabin fever, Ya' wanna go to town, come on down the Smyth County Jam. … It's the Smyth County Jam ev'ry Mon-day Niii-ight."
It might sound cornball, but the strumming happening on stage is serious — and this man can sing. In the next song, "T for Texas," he's hillbilly-yodeling in perfect pitch. As group after group takes the stage, a woman behind me explains that some groups got together just minutes earlier in one of the back rooms where pickers and jammers gather, but they're so in-sync I never would've guessed.
An hour passes too quickly, and I've got to get to Bristol to catch the Pickin' Porch Show, which ends around 8:30. There's no admission fee, so I hurry in to watch the Appalachian Mountain Boys.
On Tuesday, I stop in Meadowview for lunch at Harvest Table, the farm-to-fork restaurant owned by author Barbara Kingsolver, and made famous in her book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." I feast on chilled strawberry soup and a salad pizza doused in red wine vinegar on the garden patio.
Next stop: Galax (pronounced GAY-lax), which bills itself as "The World Capital of Mountain Music," and is renowned for the Old Fiddlers' Convention, said to be the world's oldest (1935) and largest fiddle festival. My first stop is Barr's Fiddle Shop, a mecca for string musicians. Luthier Tom Barr has been handcrafting string instruments here for 40 years. His son Stevie now runs the shop. An instrument-builder and musician, Stevie performed at the Virginia governor's inauguration and for the Queen of England. Heck, he even named his son Gibson.
"On Saturdays in the summer, folks just sit outside here and pick," says Stevie.
Nearby is the historic Rex Theater, which opens only on Friday evenings to host "Blue Ridge Backroads," a live radio- and Web-broadcast bluegrass and old-time music show.
Around 7 p.m., jam sessions are occupying two stages at the Stringbean Coffee Shop; one performs bluegrass, the other traditional mountain music. Both invite drop-ins to play with the regulars. Tonight, a Canadian couple and a woman from Los Angeles introduce themselves and join in, playing nonstop until 9.
On Wednesday, I'm driving the Blue Ridge Parkway north to the free music concert at the Blue Ridge Music Center performed every afternoon, mid-May through September.
Music often reflects identity. Along The Crooked Road you hear music in the place where it was born and still develops. The tunes, the instruments and the lyrics have been handed down, like treasured family relics. Listening to the next generation play feverishly alongside veteran oldsters, you understand why.
"Its about place-based assets. Wherever you live there are certain inherent aspects to that place. Ralph Stanley and the Carter Family — they're never going to be outsourced," says Hinshelwood. "All the Crooked Road did was to shine a spotlight on what is here."
If you go
The Crooked Road's closest destination to Baltimore is Floyd, Va., about a five-hour drive.
Hotel Floyd, 300 Rick Lewis Way, Floyd, hotelfloyd.com.
The Martha Washington Inn, 150 W. Main St., Abingdon, themartha.com
Harvest Table, Barbara Kingsolver's farm-to-fork restaurant. 13180 Meadowview Square, Meadowview, harvesttablerestaurant.com.
Sister's American Grill, innovative Southern fare with local brews on tap. 150 W. Main St., Abingdon, facebook.com/Sisters-American-Grill-at-The-Martha-Washington-Hotel-and-Spa-376011828351.
Smokehouse Galax, local institution serving barbecue.101 N. Main St., Galax, thegalaxsmokehouse.com.
Barr's Fiddle Shop, 105 S. Main St., Galax, barrsfiddleshop.com.
Birthplace of Country Music Museum, 520 Birthplace of Country Music Way, Bristol, birthplaceofcountrymusic.org.
Capo's Music Store, 903 E. Main St., Abingdon, caposmusicstore.com.
Heartwood, One Heartwood Circle, Abingdon, myswva.org/heartwood.
Mountain Music Museum, 626 State St., Bristol, mountainmusicmuseum.org.
Live Music and Jams:
Blue Ridge Music Center, daily noon-4 p.m., 700 Foothills Road, Milepost 213 Blue Ridge Parkway, blueridgemusiccenter.org.
Floyd Country Store, Fridays 6 p.m., 206 S. Locust St., Floyd, floydcountrystore.com.
Rocky Mount Dairy Queen, Thursdays 9 a.m., 995 Franklin Street, Rocky Mount, myswva.org/venue/dairy-queen.
Pickin' Porch, Mondays 6:30 p.m., 620 State St., Bristol, pickinporch.org.
Smyth County Jam, Mondays 6:30 p.m., 116 Industrial Park Road, Chilhowie, smythcountyjam.com.
Stringbean Coffee Shop, Tuesdays 7 p.m., 215 S. Main St., Galax, myswva.org/venue/stringbean-coffee-shop.
Old Fiddlers' Convention: Said to be the world's oldest and largest. Aug 8-13. Abingdon, oldfiddlersconvention.com.
Floyd Fest: Renowned world music and arts fest with an all-star lineup on five stages. July 27-31. floydfest.com.
Mountains of Music Homecoming: This festival spans 25 Crooked Road communities featuring mountain culture activities, arts events, indigenous food and, music. June 10-18. mtnsofmusic.com.