The Crooked Road is long, its venues far-flung, but its art and the people who love it are interconnected.
Go to Galax in early August, and you’ll see and hear traditions preserved yet given new life through generations of performances at the Old Fiddlers Convention. Families reunite there annually, and new families take shape there, too. A few blocks away at the Rex Theatre, a weekly radio show features pickers passing along their knowledge to younger performers who are up to the task. Just outside town and off the fabled Blue Ridge Parkway, the amphitheater and indoor venue of the Blue Ridge Music Center shows off multiple musical traditions in a gorgeous setting.
Northeast from those towns, on U.S. 221, the Floyd Country Store has a near constant lineup of music from touring acts and local musicians, with music education opportunities for people who want to learn the old ways and mix them with the new. Just down the street, though, a bit of sadness looms, as another Crooked Road venue of long standing, County Sales, has announced plans to close early next year.
State highways 637, 860 and 40 take riders east on ways crooked as advertised to Ferrum College, where the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum houses relics from decades of Old Fiddlers Conventions, along with archival recordings and photos of performers from all over Southwest Virginia. The institute puts on its own annual Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, with music, farming, moonshining, old cars and work animals on the last weekend of October. Some 10 miles farther east, the traveler reaches the end of The Crooked Road — or is it the beginning? There, at the town’s Dairy Queen, bluegrass pickers and singers gather for a regular morning jam that features amateur pickers and road-seasoned pros.
Roanoke Times photographer/videographer Heather Rousseau and I spent time over the past two years hitting multiple spots on The Crooked Road. For the final installment of our three-part series, we look at the venues that are closest to home. Like the ones that lie farther southwest, they offer a depth of this region’s music, as well as ways to explore its history.
Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia’s governor 13 years ago, gave The Crooked Road its official designation by signing legislation sponsored by then-Dickenson County Del. Clarence “Bud” Phillips. The idea sprang from the work of the late folklorist Joe Wilson and community developer Todd Christensen, said The Crooked Road’s executive director, Jack Hinshelwood. Wilson and Christensen started pitching the idea in 2003, and the next year, it was a reality.
“I still think of it as an example of the kind of can-do spirit,” Warner said in an interview last month. “Nothing happens in government that quickly. There was just this spirit of we’re gonna do this and cut through the red tape, and it happened.”
It couldn’t have happened so quickly if major elements weren’t already embedded in Southwest Virginia’s way of life. The Old Fiddlers Convention was nearing its 70th go-round. The Floyd Country Store, in a building that opened in 1910, had hosted its flagship Friday Night Jamboree for going-on three decades, even when the store itself was closed for business in the late 1990s. The Blue Ridge Institute is younger, having opened in the mid-1970s, but its researchers and field workers quickly built a treasure trove of an archive that can funnel into engaging public exhibitions.
“The music traditions have been going on here for so long that it is just embedded in the culture here, the way people live, the way they recreate,” Hinshelwood said. “It’s just what people have been doing for so long. It’s essentially in every community.”
Old Fiddlers Convention
Back in 1935, the concept of the Old Fiddlers Convention was to keep the mountain music alive. Galax’s Moose Lodge No. 733 was new then and trying to raise funds along with its profile. The mission continues, 82 years later — the old tunes made new by musicians who continue adding their own personalities to the mix.
The heart of the festival is competition. Players young and adult vie to win on every type of old-time and bluegrass instrument. Dancers, bands and songwriters are in on the week’s worth of action, too. Hundreds of audience members in lawn chairs near the stage or sitting up in the grandstands each day hear such old-time numbers as “Wildwood Flower,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Alabama Jubilee,” “Cluck Old Hen,” “Mississippi Sawyer,” “New River Train” and “Jerusalem Ridge.”
Competitors form a line behind the stage at Felts Park, slowly making their way up for a quick number. During one of our visits, in 2016, Nancy Sluys, a North Carolinian transplanted from Connecticut, stood in the back of the line with her banjo.
Sluys, 61, said she had been coming since 1974, missing only two years. She has won the banjo competition three times. On this day, she was going to clawhammer her way through “Durang’s Hornpipe.” She wound up finishing 10th.
“You do the contest to show your style,” she said. “But really, you’re here because of the jamming and the reunion aspects.”
The event has led to more than one romance, and more than one marriage. Elizabeth Baker, 22, and Taylor Baker, 24, met there in 2009. They have been married for about four years now, and have two children.
Elizabeth, a fiddle and banjo picker, and Taylor, a mandolinist, said they look forward to seeing friends that they only get to see at Galax. Nothing much will hold their crew away from the convention, the Winchester couple said.
“Some of us have quit our jobs to come here,” Elizabeth Baker said.
Back among the campsites, a 1941 Greyhound bus was parked. Siblings Brandi and Jimmy Amburgey and other family and friends were hanging out there, as they do every year. The thing won’t even start.
“We park it in Fries and pull it to Galax” for the convention, Brandi Amburgey, 32, said.
She and her siblings went in on purchasing the bus, buying it from a family friend whose late husband used it to travel with his band.
“I remember being on this bus in diapers,” Jimmy Amburgey said.
The bus, parked by the Felts tennis courts, was apparently part of the scene at the notorious Stompin’ 76 festival, at Pot Rock. The memories were worth the $5,000 they paid.
Blue Ridge Music Center
More venues have risen in Galax to fill the other 51 weeks per year that don’t feature the Old Fiddlers Convention. The Blue Ridge Music Center is about a 10-mile drive south of downtown, near the North Carolina state line. The outdoor amphitheater opened in May 2002, with an interpretive center completed in 2005. In between, it was designated one of the original major venues on The Crooked Road.
The music center, like the road itself, was one of the late Joe Wilson’s passions. It hosts mountain music every day that it’s open, from noon to 4 p.m., along with the regional and national headliners who make regular appearances outdoors in warmer months. Among the shows there is the Show for Joe, an event to honor Wilson’s legacy. In 2016, Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs and The Whites headlined the first Show for Joe, for free, in order to help raise funds to ensure the concert would become an annual event.
“Joe’s heart and soul are in this,” Skaggs told the audience at the September 2016 show. “He fought hard for this.”
In downtown Galax, the renovated Rex Theatre is home to the weekly “Blue Ridge Backroads” radio program from WBRF-FM (98.1). It has a rock-solid tradition the Friday after Thanksgiving every year: Guitarist Wayne Henderson, of Rugby, and pianist Jeff Little, of Summerville, North Carolina, record a concert that is broadcast the next night. On Nov. 24, the pair, which has been picking, plunking and singing together for about 40 years, welcomed two teenage guests — Little’s son, Luke Little, on mandolin, and Henderson protege Presley Barker, on guitar.
Both Barker and Luke Little had competed in Galax in August. Barker, 13, of Trap Hill, North Carolina, finished first in the guitar competition. Not the youth competition, either. Henderson, the internationally known luthier, finished five spots behind him. Luke Little finished fifth in the mandolin contest (Winchester’s Taylor Baker finished 10th).
During two sets over two hours in the theater, Little played a rousing solo version of “Orange Blossom Special,” and Henderson soloed on a medley of Carter Family songs that included “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Wildwood Flower.” They featured Barker and Luke Little on “El Comanchero.” The boys were playing instruments that Henderson built, and sounding good.
Among the audience members in the packed hall were Ann Wood, 74, and Dave Stewart, 74, of Clemmons, North Carolina. The two have toured multiple spots on The Crooked Road.
“Whoever invented that for the commonwealth sure did a good job,” Stewart said.
Floyd Country Store
Heather Krantz and Dylan Locke were not strangers to the Floyd Country Store when they bought it in late 2014. Krantz had worked there for seven years before taking a job at the nearby June Bug Center. Locke, who was the artistic director at Roanoke’s Jefferson Center for 13 years, had booked concerts there for the company he and Krantz co-own, DLP Concerts.
They bought a venue on the upswing. Woody and Jackie Crenshaw purchased the century-old store in 2005, and renovated it with a community development grant from the commonwealth. They had a solid staff, but they were both 66 and wanted to sell it to people who would do right by it, so they approached Krantz and Locke.
Among the features that the couple added to the store was the Handmade Music School, which features sessions from nationally touring performers, as well as the trove of Floyd-area players and dancers. They have scheduled separate bluegrass and old-time jams for every Sunday. Mostly, though, they have listened to their customers, many of whom are longtime visitors to a venue that has been home to the Friday Night Jamboree since the 1980s.
“What they come to experience is that commonality where everyone comes together to listen and dance and to play,” Locke said. “That is something that is deeply rooted. It has been happening here for centuries and centuries, and it’s the culture that grew here from the beginning when the early settlers came here and the music and the dance was core to their happiness.
“And what we get to experience is that it is still exactly the same as it was, centuries later.”
Krantz, during her years working at the store, saw how The Crooked Road and its marketing brought more people from more places into the business, particularly on Friday nights.
“It’s a good thing, and then it is a worrisome thing at the same time,” she said. “You’re trying to keep intact what makes this place what it is. The thing that makes this place so authentic is the people that make the music and come and dance and share in conversation, and without them, this place would not be what it is. We have to be very careful to care for that balance.”
She continues to follow the Crenshaws’ lead, where the regulars are concerned. The key, she said, is for them to always know “that they have a place here, and this place would not be what it is without them. So every Friday, we have a certain amount of chairs reserved for a fixture. We do things to try and make it more comfortable for them.”
Another aspect of the Crooked Road experience in Floyd has been County Sales. The hub of a mail- and internet-order CD, DVD and book enterprise that specializes in old-time and bluegrass music also doubles as a retail outlet. County Sales, which owner David Freeman started in his native New York, opened here in 1975, in a building that used to house a movie theater on West Main Street. Among its products is music from the Freeman-owned, bluegrass-centric Rebel Records and County Records, which releases old-time music.
The business’s most recent newsletter started with the announcement that County Sales will close Jan. 17, 2018.
Freeman, who was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2002, is healthy and happy, but he is 78 and has worked continuously for 53 years, his son, Mark Freeman, said in a phone interview from Rebel Records’ Charlottesville headquarters. The retirement of County Sales manager Cindy Salyer, who worked there for 39 years, left the business with only two employees in Floyd. David Freeman lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The music retail business is not as healthy as in years past, Mark Freeman said. The combined factors went into his father’s decision to retire and close shop after he couldn’t find a buyer.
“He wanted to go out on a high note,” Mark Freeman, who runs the Rebel Records label, said. David Freeman will continue to run County Records and will get to spend more time with his wife and their grandchildren.
It will be the first major venue to close on The Crooked Road.
Among more than 60 affiliated venues and festivals is an every-Thursday bluegrass jam at a Rocky Mount Dairy Queen. From 9 to 10 a.m., September to May, players such as James Guilliams are keeping a decades-long scene alive, with coffee on the side at the Franklin Street restaurant.
“I was the last one to join the group — 20 years ago,” Guilliams, 74, said, drawing laughs from his picking pals. “On Thursday mornings, business is good.”
It’s pretty much the same crowd, he said during our stop there in late 2016. “And we get some off The Crooked Road. We was out here picking before they started The Crooked Road.”
Among the regular pickers is multi-instrumentalist Gene Parker, the original (and very influential) banjo player of bluegrass band The Lost & Found.
Among the regular customers is Anna Morris, 95, who lives in an assisted living facility in town. Every Thursday, she comes to the jam, then she gets her hair set, she said. Aside from church on Sundays, it’s the only time she gets out, she said.
“I’ll be here next week,” she said.
Guilliams replied: “I’m looking forward to it.”
Ten minutes northeast is Harvester Performance Center, which is not an affiliated Crooked Road venue but draws lots of acts that have taken inspiration from the trail’s music, acts such as Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder Rhiannon Giddens, Ferrum’s Junior Sisk and Red Molly.
Photographer Heather Rousseau caught up with Giddens after she performed at the Harvester in 2015. Visit this story at roanoke.com/crookedroad to see a video that features Giddens in performance and conversation.
Blue Ridge Institute & Museum
In an important way, this major venue, on the campus at Ferrum College, ties the whole Crooked Road concept together. It’s a place where visitors can see exhibits about the early “Crooked Road Royalty,” Fries-based the Hill Billies, the Stoneman Family, the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers, and learn about their musical styles.
Visitors who make an appointment ahead of time can view items from the extensive archive, including the material gathered to produce “Southwest Virginia Blues,” a Grammy Award-nominated project done in collaboration with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. That disc includes Scott County’s Steve Tarter and Harry Gay, and Wise County’s Dock Boggs.
The annual folklife festival includes multiple musical styles, with co-directors Roddy Moore and Vaughan Webb putting together a musical lineup that in October featured one of A.P. Carter’s grandsons, Dale Jett, in tandem with Bill Clifton, who had learned directly from Carter. The festival hosted workshops on harmonica players in old-time and bluegrass, whistling, piano styles and banjo styles in old-time and bluegrass, Moore said. Other folkways on display were such animal events as plowing, sheep herding and the ever-popular coon dog open water race.
For those who can’t get to Ferrum right away, the institute has 4,000 audio recordings and 500 visual elements accessible via blueridgeinstitute.org/heritage.htm.
“We’re preservers and caretakers,” Moore said when we visited him and Vaughan last month. “It’s up to us to see that it’s preserved and passed on. And that’s what we do.”
The Roanoke Times’ Heather Rousseau contributed to this report.