The names have changed at the old store on Floyd’s Locust Street, even the business name. Pickers, singers and dancers have come and gone. Owners have, too. But no matter the situation, the Friday Night Jamboree has remained an institution at the Floyd Country Store.
On Saturday, the community that has gathered around old-time music and dance at the venue will celebrate the jamboree’s 35th anniversary.
What started as an after-hours bluegrass jam at a general store has become a family-friendly tradition of dancing, socializing and old-time music that packs the Floyd Country Store to its capacity of about 270, and when it’s nice outside, a couple hundred more are outdoors, listening to other bands that have set up in the country store’s gravitational pull.
The venue will celebrate its anniversary Friday, naturally, with acts including the jamboree’s founder, Freeman Cockram. As usual, it will be a mix of ages — elementary, middle and high school-age children will be on the floor, along with millennials, generation Xers and Baby Boomers, even the occasional octogenarian.
“You watch people that don’t know how to dance and they go out there for the first time, and everybody brings them in and spends some time with them,” the venue’s co-owner, Dylan Locke, said. “It’s a really nurturing, welcoming group of people.”
Locke and his partner, Heather Krantz, last week celebrated five years since they bought the store. Locke, a bassist, and Krantz, a banjo player and singer, often perform on the jamborees, and were onstage Oct. 25 with Mac Traynham and Friends.
“We’re super excited that people turn off their TVs and get away from a lot of that sort of thing, and come be in a space together,” Locke said as Krantz and Traynham continued to pick after their set, on a truck bed outside the store. “We’re focusing a lot on … in these times, [that] there is a place that really is safe and friendly and people are happy. Seems like the right thing to do.”
Locke and Krantz are the store’s fifth owners in these 35 years. The century-old building was called Cockram’s General Store when its namesake owner kept the business open on Friday evenings for people who wanted to hear the music that was going on inside. Janet Turner, 78, from Floyd, was among the first musicians to join in, singing and playing autoharp. Turner still plays the jamboree regularly.
“I didn’t have a band back then; I just played with different ones,” Turner said. “We didn’t play out on the street. We just mainly played in the store. It kept growing and growing as time went on.”
The music and dancing on Fridays wasn’t enough to keep the store going, and Cockram declared bankruptcy. Hubert Roberson, who was among the pickers, bought the store in 1994 and named it the Floyd Country Store, stocking work boots, dry goods, sodas and novelty cans of potted possum, according to a 1998 story in The Roanoke Times. He kept Cockram on as manager, but let him go when Roberson put the store on the market in ’98.
Early the next year, a pair of North Carolina-based lawyers, Bill Morgan and Mike Brough, bought the store, with plans to continue the jamboree and add even more events. By the time they sold it in 2005, the store was only open on Fridays, for the jamboree, Locke said.
Roberson, then Morgan and Brough, had bought the place to keep the music and dancing going. When Woody and Jackie Crenshaw bought it in the spring of 2005, they recognized that it would need more TLC and a better business plan to survive. Parallel to the store’s newfound status as a major venue on The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, the Crenshaws got a community development grant from Virginia and oversaw long-needed improvements.
They bought the site next door and used the expanded space to build a new, acoustically tuned stage set farther back from the storefront, where they sold clothes, kitchenware, books about the area and its music, CDs and other items that weren’t just for the typical store consumer, but for the tourists coming in from around the world. They added a soda fountain counter where customers could order food, and they built a small kitchen. And in a change that had been years in coming, they improved the restrooms.
Locke and Krantz came from the concert promotion world, running DLP Concerts. Locke was artistic director at Jefferson Center, and Krantz, who had worked at the country store for the Crenshaws, was facility administrator at the nearby June Bug Center when they took over Floyd Country Store. In their five years of ownership, they have expanded the kitchen, added a soda shop in the space they owned next door and bought County Sales, which they moved to a building they rent right across the street, further solidifying their section of Locust Street as a core of Appalachian old-time and bluegrass music and culture.
With the work that the Crenshaws, then Locke and Krantz, put into the business, “it’s just been wonderful to have such a good place to come and play and get together,” Turner said. “The dancers, they have such a good time. Most of them don’t have to go too far to come to the store. It’s such a wonderful thing to have in Floyd.”
Many do come from far away, though, every week, Locke said. Each Friday, Krantz takes the microphone to ask who has come from farthest away to visit the jamboree. On Oct. 25, 73-year-old Max Robb and 71-year-old Lyn Robb, from Christchurch, New Zealand, received a cap with the store logo, over people from Turkey and Florida.
The pair and a couple of friends from New Zealand had been in the states for weeks, hitting such spots as Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee, hearing lots of regional music styles along the way. Driving up the Blue Ridge Parkway in a rental car headed toward a D.C. area airport that would start them toward home, they made a visit to another Crooked Road destination, the Blue Ridge Music Center. There, an employee told them about the Floyd Country Store.
The music, Lyn Robb said, is “fantastic. Very, very good.” And the dancing is wonderful. “We’ve never seen anything like it before,” she said.
Friendly locals were a bonus. “We’ve been very impressed by how nice the people are,” Max Robb said.
They made friends with the leader of the Mark Templeton Band, which played a set of gospel bluegrass to start the night, as is the jamboree tradition. They wound up scheming to bring Templeton’s band to Christchurch, Max Robb said.
As Traynham and his band began playing, a young woman took to the floor. She stayed there as the band played a square dance number, following the calls with other dancers. A group of her friends had walked into the store and were pointing her out, cheering her on as she danced.
“Country queen! Country queen!” they said as she joined them after the song.
It was 19-year-old Sidney Munk’s first time there. The Virginia Tech student from Chesapeake said that a couple of friends had turned her on to the old dancing styles, and a professor had suggested she go to Floyd Country Store.
“If I hadn’t met them, I’d have no idea what I was doing right now,” Munk said. “This is like another level, I guess. It’s a lot of fun.”
One of the dancers asked if she was new, as he hadn’t seen her before, she said. Soon, she was making new friends on the dance floor.
“Oh my gosh, I really want to come back,” she said. “It’s such a small town tradition, it seems like. ... It’s very homey, small town, and I love that stuff.”
Before Traynham’s set was done, Munk’s friends were on the dance floor with her.
Growing up Floyd
Ben Harman, 82, of Floyd, used to dance a lot, but these days, he dances a little and listens a lot, he said. He’s been coming to the jamboree since Cockram got it started, but he’s been coming to the store since he was a boy.
“When you were a kid, you got that one pair of shoes each year, and one pair of bib overalls, and this is where you got ‘em,” Harman said.
It was quite the scene in Floyd when the jamboree started, he said.
“I used to could dance over here a little while, then I’d run over to the fire department, and they’d have a band,” he said. “I was young enough to run someplace then. It was something. It’s been quite interesting through life, really.”
As bluegrass music styles moved away from dance music, old-time bands that kept driving tempos became the dominant performers at the jamboree. Aside from that, not so much has changed on Friday nights, he said.
“It seems like they’ve got it better, some way or another,” he said, trying to describe an intangible feeling. “It’s actually better right now.”
Locke, in an email conversation, said they haven’t changed much, aside from small tweaks to the sound quality, and giving the musicians a raise.
“I think the main thing is that we listen to what the regulars want,” he wrote. “We have an annual meeting, with food and music, where we spend time making sure everything is going well. And if it isn’t, they are able to voice their concerns. I think that goes a long way towards ensuring the Friday Night Jamboree stays strong and folks have confidence in us. We also love it deeply and have fun being there on Friday, playing music and hanging out with everyone.”
Friends and family
Hanging out with friends, watching the dancers and listening to the music are what draw Gloria Housman, 78, and her husband, Bill Housman, 81, to the store almost every week from their home in Rocky Mount. A friend of theirs with a band that played the jamboree inspired them to check out the event about 10 years ago, Gloria Housman said. The couple loves old-time and bluegrass music, and though they don’t dance, they wanted to socialize.
“When we first started going, we just fell in love with everything about it and everybody,” she said. “Now, Fridays, that’s our thing.”
She particularly appreciates the gospel music hour.
“So I feel like I’m worshiping the lord on Friday night,” she said. “A lot of [bands] … they’ll tell us to sing along with ‘em, and I love that, because I feel like I’m a part of it.”
The old-timey dance music brings her closer to the songs she grew up hearing in Franklin County. And the friendships have been valuable, too, she said. The Housmans have befriended at least 25 other couples over the decade. There may well be more of them to come, because they’ll keep making the two-hour round trip every Friday, “long as we’re able to get there,” she said.
Turner, whose music has fueled many a dance over the years, feels the same way.
“Everybody’s just so friendly,” she said. “It’s like a big family.”