Virginia’s hills are alive with country music

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Glenda C. Booth

Southwest Virginia’s hills are alive with the sound of country music.

Way down in the southwest corner of Virginia, I returned for the night to the white-frame, century-old Nickelsville Hotel at 11 p.m. to find three musicians strumming and singing around the kitchen table. Trapped, I fell into bed three hours later with mountain tunes ringing in my head.

When I stumbled out bleary-eyed the next morning, I was treated to a soothing bluegrass breakfast.

Infectious music seems to spring up out of the hills and hollers of southwest Virginia. Squeal around a hairpin curve on Bear Wallow Road in Nickelsville (population 420), and you may happen upon a pack of pickers plinging out lightning-speed bluegrass, the sounds zinging off the front porch or popping out of the VFW hall.

As a lady from Gate City told me, “You never know when you’ll have to dance,” explaining why she always carries her clogging shoes in the car, ever ready to click and clack.

A mountainous, musical trail

The Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail is a 253-mile, mostly two-lane road along U.S. 58 that winds around southwest Virginia west of Roanoke. It crosses the Piedmont plateau, the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and twists through the coal fields.

“Everything takes an hour to get to because you have to go around the mountain,” explained Diana Etherton, proprietor of the Nickelsville Hotel. Virginia designated it a driving trail “where America’s music began and continues.” The National Trust for Historic Preservation named it a “2010 Distinctive Destination.”

Hotspots of traditional music abound — bluegrass, country, gospel, old-time fiddle, clawhammer banjo, dobros, autoharps and more. Much of it is rousing, foot-stomping music. Some is a whining longing for days gone by or tales of coal field miseries. It is music born of the mountains.

“It sounds different when you sing up here on the ridge,” country singer Gillian Welch has observed. The region has spawned some of the greatest names in country and traditional music, including June Carter Cash.

But it’s not all listening; there’s much to do and see here, too. You can roam the mountains, valleys, forests, limestone ledges, rippling streams and small towns through a landscape of split rail fences, graying tobacco barns, churches of every ilk and rural vistas backdropped by the Blue Ridge Mountains. You’ll also find delicious down-home cooking and many friendly, “Hi y’alls!”

Going west from Roanoke, try as an introduction to mountain folklife the Blue Ridge Institute and Farm Museum on the Ferrum College campus. Exhibits describe the folkways of farmers and mountain clans, like the exploits of the region’s infamous moonshiners.

Within an hour’s drive west in Floyd is the Floyd Country Store, circa 1913. Every Friday night there’s a rollicking jamboree of bluegrass, old-time and gospel music. Pick up some preserves, rolling pins, bib overalls, sweet potato biscuit mix and Darn Tough socks.

Cloggers show off their skills at the Old Fiddlers Convention held every August in Galax, Va. Galax is part of the 250-mile Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail that winds through southwestern Virginia.
Photo by Glenda C. Booth

An homage to the Carters

Be sure to plan a Saturday stop at the Carter Family Fold in Maces Spring — a living memorial to this legendary “first family of country music.”

Virginia folklorist Joe Wilson wrote that A.P. Carter, the father of the clan, “stands with Irving Berlin as a major force in American composition” and his wife, Sara, was the “greatest female country lead singer of all time.”

The 900-seat, barn-like structure tucked into the hillside has a cement clogging floor. The Fold is a name derived from the Bible meaning a gathering place for the faithful, and Wilson says it is “as unpretentious as a bowl of pinto beans.” Johnny Cash, husband of June Carter Cash, performed his last two shows here.

The scene explodes every Saturday night when all ages, from kids to octogenarians, singles and couples, sweep onto the floor to waltz and flatfoot, their jingle-tap shoes sounding like thousands of synchronized crickets pulsating to ditties like “I Got a Mule to Ride” and “Wildwood Flower.”

Next to the Fold is the 19th century cabin where A.P. and 10 others were born as well as the Carter Family Museum, showcasing handmade performance costumes, including the dress and suit June and Johnny wore when performing for President Nixon. The Carters’ theme song, “Keep on the Sunny Side,” echoes throughout, acoustically and otherwise.

Continue on to Wise County, where Country Cabin II has music and clogging lessons every Saturday night.

Coal’s legacy

While exploring coal country, its blotches and beauties, watch out for loaded coal trucks barreling down narrow, serpentine roads. You’ll wind along sharply rising, kudzu-carpeted walls and creep around switchbacks, as coal trains chug their black bounty down the mountain.

The countryside is dotted with plain country churches of every stripe. Examples: Missionary Baptist, Liberty Church of Christ, Holy Penecostal, Primitive Baptists, Church of God, Freewill Baptist, Church of the Gospel of Jesus.

In Big Stone Gap, start at the visitor center — an 1870 Pullman railroad car that didn’t last long “because it was mahogany and it waddled down the tracks,” the volunteer on duty told me.

The free Harry Meador Coal Museum tells the coal story. Coal is to Appalachia what cars are to Detroit, the economic lifeblood for “the men of the deep.” Volunteers eagerly explain the purpose of tools and mining machinery, like the big yellow continuous miner outside.

Big Stone Gap is famous for an outdoor play, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, running since 1964, which explores how coal affected the people of Appalachia.

The Southwest Virginia Museum, housed in a 19th century sandstone-limestone mansion, offers a tutorial on the pioneers who penetrated the wilderness — white men with guns, wooden churns and washboards. An intriguing sidelight is the mysterious Melungeons, people who did not fit any racial category. The museum makes a token nod to Native Americans.

Check out Appalachia, a town true to its motto, “Born from Coal, Survives through Spirit.” Crouched by the railroad tracks, Appalachia has a Coal Railroad Days festival the first Saturday in August with crafts (need a turkey caller?), food and a talent show.

Don’t miss the deep-fried Oreos, not to mention the deep-fried dill pickles. You might see a T-shirt sporting “I Love My Miner” or a sign saying “Coal Keeps the Lights On,” juxtaposed with the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards’ campaign fighting mountain-top removal, an industry practice that strips off mountain summits to access coal seams.

A drive through the grungy one-street town of Dante (pronounced “Daint”) offers a taste of the day-to-day struggles in Appalachia.

Clintwood’s claim to fame is the Ralph Stanley Museum, honoring one of the most beloved country musicians, whose high-lonesome, mournful, tenor voice has enchanted people all over the world. The museum has recordings and artifacts from his tours. Stanley himself, now 85, is sometimes there.

Growing up in the mountains, “music was everywhere,” Stanley has said. He sings what’s in his heart and soul, as you can tell from the museum’s recordings.

Grand Canyon of the South

For some fresh mountain air, try Breaks Interstate Park, atop the Virginia-Kentucky line. Known as the Grand Canyon of the South, its natural centerpiece is the largest canyon east of the Mississippi River, five miles long and 1,600 feet deep.

The visitor center has displays on the flora and fauna of the area and an authentic moonshine still with a “double worm.” The park has a lodge, cabins, campground and the Rhododendron Restaurant. Request a room overlooking the gorge.

Every Memorial Day the park resounds with the music of 20,000 gospel singers.

Any day is a good day to walk the trails or swim in the pool, but the pièce de résistance is stretching out and contemplating the gauzy mist slowly rising and unveiling the rock formations as turkey vultures circle.

To fans, the city of Galax means six days of down-home music the second week of August at the Old Fiddlers Convention, the oldest and biggest in the U.S.

Staged by Moose Lodge 733, it features virtually non-stop music, on and off stage, for the 40,000 who flock there for competitions, impromptu gigs, reunions and schmoozing. Devotees attend the world-renowned event year after year.

“Here, the 13-year old boy can play with an 80-year-old grandfather,” said Marc Kinley, a regular from Fort Mill, South Carolina.

“Galax is the ultimate,” said North Carolinian J.K. Godbold. “No one is a stranger here.”

Stroll Galax’s Main Street and visit Barr’s Fiddle Shop, popular for its “picking bench” and hand-made instruments, and the Galax Smokehouse, barbeque heaven.

Heading east, visit the more genteel town of Abingdon, where some buildings date to the 1700s. The visitor center staff will point you to highlights like the six-room Holston Mountain Artisans, a former jail brimming with quilts, woodwork and other crafts; the famous Depression-era Barter Theater; the Fields-Penn House, illustrating life here in the 1860s; and Heartwood.

Also known as Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Gateway, Heartwood is 30,000-square feet of interactive exhibits, artisans, musicians and many live events in an expansive building of local woods and natural lighting.

In its café, you won’t regret trying the buttermilk biscuits, bourbon baked beans, southern green beans, cantaloupe soup, banana pudding and skillet cornbread.

As you depart the great southwest, you’ll no doubt hear, “Y’all come on back.” And you’ll want to.

If you go

Visit http://thecrookedroad.org/contact.asp and select “Request Brochure” to have a guide mailed or to print out an electronic version. Other helpful sites are http://heartofappalachia.com and www.virginiablueridge.org.

Ferrum is a six-hour drive from the Washington area. You can fly to Roanoke or Bristol-Kingsport, but you will need a car once there.

Rooms at the Ole Nickelsville Hotel, in Nickelsville, start at $80 a night. There are five guest rooms in this historic white clapboard house with huge verandas. For more information, see www.nickelsvillehotel.com or call (276) 479-1599.

Here are some helpful websites for lodging, food and logistics:

Blue Ridge Institute, www.blueridgeinstitute.org; Floyd Country Store, www.floydcountrystore.com; Big Stone Gap, www.visitbigstonegap.com; Wise County, www.tourism.wisecounty.org; Carter Family Fold, www.carterfamilyfold.org; Abingdon, www.abingdon.com; Galax Old Fiddlers Convention, www.oldfiddlersconvention.com; Breaks Interstate Park, www.breakspark.com.

Glenda C. Booth is a freelance writer.

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