Banjo, Folk, Country Songs - Driving Appalachia's Crooked Road
The sounds of the mountains
Appalachia here we come

Spend a weekend in Floyd or Galax watching fiddle pickers perform and you fall in love with bluegrass, the lively melody of The Crooked Road in southern Virginia. This route that’s dotted with music history highlights and performance venues overlaps much of the Blue Ridge Parkway and has really put Appalachia on the vacationists’ map.

In Floyd, Virginia’s Crooked Road Comes Alive

Floyd, Virginia has long been a musical outpost along The Crooked Road, a small town kept alive by fans of old-time (pronounced ol’ timey here). The heart and soul of Floyd is the ca. 1910 Floyd Country Store — a destination for souvenirs, food and music shop with a stage tucked behind flannel shirts and jam jars.

On any given day you’ll find farmers playing checkers, tourists sampling penny candy, or maybe a community of artisans planning the next Crafts Fair. Perhaps most important is Friday night, when this region’s cultural life is celebrated at The Floyd Friday Night Jamboree.

Doing the Floyd Friday Night Jamboree

Crowd into downtown Floyd at 3pm, leaving your car in one of the lots off South Locust Street or, if you’re going for the full experience, at the recently built Hotel Floyd.

From one angle, the concrete block motel is anonymous, from another, the psychedelic wall mural suggests the type of crowd who come and stay, sharing banjo licks and acoustic guitar riffs on the back porch. The ones who never return home are known by locals as “back-to-the-landers.” Plan ahead, submit a CD, and you and the kids might just find yourselves like the Carter Family, performing here on stage.

First stop is The Floyd Country Store to pick up $5 tickets to the evening Jamboree and check out the chalkboard to see who’s playing. Regulars stake out the wooden booths and folding chairs next to the soda fountain counter, and put in their orders for pumpkin milk shakes. Visitors shop for new jeans or work shirts, construction-quality boots or local supplies like jam, spices and bacon that make up the regional cuisine.

Explore Downtown Floyd with the Whole Family

Go for a walk along Main Street and drop into the Barber Shop, where a six-piece string band has upright basses and a sax player to accompany their gospel sing-along. This might just inspire you to pick up an alto saxophone yourself.

A gallery across the street is comprised of several stalls selling arts and crafts ranging from photographs of the Blue Ridge Parkway scenery to hand-embroidered sweaters, locally carved wood items and contemporary paintings of Bluegrass musicians.

Behind the poor man’s Victorian storefronts are music shops, ladies’ dresses and a liquor shop that stocks a large selection of micro brews and the area’s favorite wine from the nearby Villa Appalaccia winery.  

There’s a terrific wood-fired pizza oven at Dogtown Roadhouse where portobello pies and more conventional fare go down smoothly with a huge selection of local draft beers. Check out the schedule at the Sun Music Hall behind the pizza place and you might decide to stay a few days.

Here’s a video look at our night in Floyd, Virginia and what your family — hopefully three generations of you — can expect.

Blue Ridge Music Center, Galax, Virginia

Other-worldly Galax is where the annual, five-day Fiddle Fest draws thousands of visitors and musicians each August with 2014 marking its 29th anniversary. We skip the famous music festival and arrive in Galax in mid-September just as the leaves are set on fire with color. At mile marker 213 on the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, surrounded by a thousand acres of Blue Ridge Forest, we find the recently built Blue Ridge Music Center.

Within the Music Center’s modest wood structure is a priceless collection of historic artifacts, instruments, interpretive  exhibits and the music itself: minstrel songs, hillbilly, old-time, bluegrass — preserved in recordings and wonderful videos.

On arrival, the Center’s Director Erynn Marshall encouraged us to pick up an instrument, saying “You just take a windbox with some hairy strings and tree sap and away you go.” She performed a stunning rendition of “Drunken Hiccups” on her handmade fiddle before leaving for a recording session with the bluegrass band, The Smiths.

Historian Joe Wilson (author of A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail and producer of its CD) showed our very privileged press group around, mxing some of his favorite stories with tall tales from others. Wilson, then part of the United States Council on the Traditional Arts, is credited with creating The Crooked Road and designing and executing the museum’s interacive and multimedia exhibits.

At the Roots of American Music, from Minstrels to Bluegrass

The permanent exhibit “The Roots of American Music” follows the banjo-playing slaves from Africa who encountered European music and instruments of the 18th and 19th centuries. From the town of Round Peak, North Carolina to the backwoods of Virginia, there are vintage photos and stories of the men, women and children — both black and white — who played together and created a sound that would be uniquely American.

Visitors today can activate buttons to play the instrument or type of music highlighted, then use a fun mixing board to assemble their own musical style.

Historians acknowledge that it was in 1843, when a group of blackface comedians in New York went out on tour as the Virginia Minstrels, that “old-time” music with its gospel and Irish influences began to spread. After Sears Roebuck started selling cheap guitars in 1865, backwoods music became popular in households all over America. Wilson explained that the hybrid folk music known as Bluegrass today did not originate till around 1945.

Enjoying Concerts at Blue Ridge Music Center, Virginia

Visitors will have many opportunities to hear all sorts of music. The $13 million project was funded by the National Council for the Traditional Arts and is managed now by the National Park Service, who offer a Junior Ranger program in which kids earn badge for identifying which instruments make which sounds, and other aspects of Blue Ridge Parkway heritage. 

Daily between May and late October, from noon-4pm, live music is performed by NPS Rangers or visiting musicians on the museum’s patio. During the warm weather, a weekend Summer Music Series is held at the center’s outdoor amphitheatre.

At our visit, ranger John Wanstreet performed some fiddle and banjo tunes to show the audience diffferent styles of music attributed to the genre. He stars in the opening of the video, which was shot in the Luthier Shop, a workshop space that the center hopes will soon house a luthier (lute maker) and his or her handmade instruments.

Trip Planning Details for A Crooked Road Adventure

The Crooked Road is called Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail but it spans dozens of sites in several states. With the richly detailed Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail in hand, your family can drive the blue roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway across several states to experience the origins of American music.  (At this time, this treaure trove of American music is only accessible by car, and some organized tours include it in a regional itinerary.)

Distant families can most easily fly into Roanoke or Charlottesville, Virginia and begin their explorations there. Or make it a must-see stop on any southern road trip and combine it with a few days in Abingdon, Virginia, another great family getaway.  For more information and to plan your visit, take advantage of the online resources at Virginia Tourism.

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