Song and Dance
A journey along Virginia’s Crooked Road finds folksy mountain towns where old-time music is alive and well, and the grass is always blue.
Afternoon sunlight pours into the little room at the Blue Ridge Music Center, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, illuminating a scene that could have taken place a century ago. Eight musicians sit in a circle playing various stringed instruments and taking turns leading their favorite traditional folk tunes. Just outside the circle, about 15 visitors settle on folding chairs to listen, tapping their feet, sometimes humming along and, in the case of the 74-year-old woman next to me, playing a Jew’s harp in accompaniment.
“I have traveled far and near, but the land I hold so dear is my home where the mountain laurel blooms,” one of the fiddlers sings. Gradually the other musicians pick up the tune on fiddle, banjo and guitar, and layers of music fill the room with an ode to the Blue Ridge.
“We are so lucky,” the elderly woman next to me whispers. “People just don’t know how lucky we are.”
Welcome to The Crooked Road, a series of musical heritage sites throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwestern Virginia, where festivals and concerts attract thousands of visitors year-round, but where small gatherings such as this, with friends and neighbors making impromptu music together, are the real secret pleasure.
These are folks who grew up playing music in kitchens and on front porches, people who know all the words to “Little Liza Jane” and “Wildwood Flower” the way most of us know “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It’s a way of life, and they’re gracious enough to share it.
The Crooked Road loosely follows U.S. Route 58 along more than 300 miles of winding highways and back roads at the highest part of the Blue Ridge. Established in 2003 as a way to bring tourism and redevelopment to the region, it shines a light on a bit of Americana that is literally off the beaten path.
Even before it was marketed as a “road”—a figurative reference only—the area was recognized by musicologists as having a disproportionate number of musicians and a rich tradition of jam sessions. Nine major sites, including the Blue Ridge Music Center, explore the roots of country music and mountain lifestyle through museums and concert venues. But there are also 58 smaller sites, including a Dairy Queen that hosts a popular jam session every Thursday morning from September through May, music shops, community centers, Ruritan community service clubs and country stores.
During a three-day visit one weekend last fall, I base myself in Floyd (population 404), about 32 miles west of The Crooked Road’s eastern gateway. It’s within easy driving distance of three main music venues, with a fourth, The Floyd Country Store, right in town.
Like so many spots along The Crooked Road, the rolling, green hills and piney woods around Floyd are breathtakingly beautiful. But the warmth and inclusiveness of the area’s residents, many of whose families have lived in Floyd County for generations, are what have lured many people to visit and even stay. During the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s, a large cohort of hippies settled in the area. In later years, a healthy contingent of artisans and a new influx of young farmers joined them. It’s “the new age and the old age,” says Woody Crenshaw, who owns The Floyd Country Store.
They all come together at the store’s Friday Night Jamboree, known locally as “Friday Night.” Three bands take turns on the small stage inside, and it’s standing room only as dancers of all ages stomp and twirl to old-time music. In warm weather, clusters of musicians gather out front or down the street while visitors crowd around to listen and children play freeze tag in a grassy field nearby.
On this particular Friday, a seasoned guitar picker offers a crisp rendition of “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew” on the sidewalk out front. Across the street, I join a group singing “take a load off Fanny” (or is it “Annie”?) Either way, the harmonies from The Band’s well-known tune, “The Weight” sound spot on.
The jamboree has boosted other businesses by attracting visitors to town. Indie and bluegrass bands perform at Dogtown Roadhouse, a wood-fired pizza restaurant where organic chocolate chip cookies and craft brews are sold alongside Pabst Blue Ribbon. And Oddfella’s restaurant features locally grown food and folk music. A bonanza of recorded traditional music can be found at the County Sales store, a smaller Crooked Road venue in Floyd. There are art galleries and craft shops, as well as noteBooks bookstore and the Black Water Loft above it for coffee. During my frequent visits to the area, I usually grab a bag of organic Red Rooster coffee from the roaster behind the bookstore and coffee shop; it’s run by the bookstore owner’s daughter.
Back at the country store, the Friday Night Jamboree has been so popular that management has scheduled music for Saturday and Sunday, as well. The small diner there is a homey spot for a quick bite (it’s open Thursday through Monday), or you can take advantage of the “store” part of the Country Store and shop there for everything from recorded music to locally made apple butter, and from books on raising pigs to overalls just like the ones on that farmer you saw getting out of his pickup truck down the street.
After a Friday Night in Floyd, I head the next day to the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum at the college in Ferrum, a great place to learn the difference between bluegrass and old-time string bands, and to discover where the banjo originated and when country music got its start. The answers unfold in photographs and informational displays, in artifacts, old instruments and vintage film. Rotating exhibits introduce visitors to the “Crooked Road Royalty”—including the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family, who grew up in this region—and “Crooked Road Music Styles,” which locals can distinguish as being from one holler (valley) or ridge rather than another.
Other mountain traditions are on display here, too: Past exhibits have explored quilts, pottery and the history of the “Moonshine Capital” right here in Franklin County, where thousands of stills were destroyed during Prohibition, though the trade continued into this century. (I’ve seen jars of moonshine at parties in Floyd County, though surely not of the illegal variety.)
During the summer months, a reconstructed 1800s-era German farm on the grounds of the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum attests to the immigrants who’ve populated these mountains. Costumed interpreters demonstrate open-hearth cooking, blacksmithing, oxen driving and other farm chores.
The best time to visit Ferrum, though, is during the October Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, when locals demonstrate everything from butter churning to dulcimer making, from mule jumping to molasses making. My favorite event involves coon dogs, which are still widely used for hunting. Hounds with names such as “Boone” and “Dixie” take turns howling at a raccoon-scented rag hanging from a tree. The dog that barks the most wins, though the loser who lifts a leg to the tree and then walks away still earns enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
On day three of my Crooked Road tour, I head toward Galax, 40 miles west of Floyd along U.S. Route 221, pausing at a few wayside exhibits—highway pull-offs where you can tune your car radio to The Crooked Road music station and read the posted information on the region.
When I finally arrive in Galax, I discover that the town shuts down for the day on Sundays. Most folks are at church, leaving only The Galax Smokehouse open. A burly young waiter there who calls me “Sweetheart” serves me “Brunswick stew,” a regional dish of chicken, lima beans, corn and tomatoes. It’s real good by itself, he tells me in a thick Southern accent, but it’s even better with one of the three hot sauces on the table. He’s right on both counts.
The Smokehouse, which also serves mountains of barbecue, is a popular choice for dinner before a show at the Rex Theater across the street. A major venue on The Crooked Road, the 450-seat theater hosts “Blue Ridge Backroads Live,” a Friday night radio program on WBRF (98.1 FM), and is the site of old-time music and dance on the last Saturday of the month.
A few blocks away, Barr’s Fiddle Shop attracts musicians who are looking for new or used instruments or an impromptu jam session. The Hill Billies, who are credited with popularizing country music radio, got their start at this one-time barbershop back in the 1920s.
On Tuesday nights, musicians jam at the Stringbean Coffee Shop while locals play Rook, a regional card game, at the tables. They’ll let you join in if you know how to play. But watch out, says Galax tourism director Ray Kohl, who plays a bit of Rook himself: “Some of those ladies can be aggressive.”
In August, Galax holds a weeklong Old Fiddlers’ Convention. Children as young as 6, along with teens, adults, old-timers and family bands, play fiddles, mandolins, guitars, Dobros, Autoharps and banjos, vying for prizes on stage or jamming late into the night at the campground.
After lunch at the Smokehouse, I head to the Blue Ridge Music Center, about a 10-minute drive or “just two songs away” on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There, among the vintage songbooks, old vinyls, Edison cylinders and early banjos, I linger at the oral histories, listening to late bluegrass legend Doc Watson describe his dad making him his first banjo out of cat skin.
This is the only place in the area with live music scheduled daily from May through October, including weekend concerts in the amphitheater and on the indoor stage, and informal “Mid-Day Mountain Music” in the scenic breezeway on weekdays. On this particular day, the midday music has been moved indoors, and it’s here that I catch that ringing rendition of “Where the Mountain Laurel Blooms.”
An energetic woman with white hair coaxes me from my seat and onto the dance floor. “Can’t let good music go to waste,” she says.
Virginia Myers lives in Takoma Park, Md., and frequently writes about the arts.
If You Go
From Arlington, it’s a four-hour, 20-minute drive to the eastern end of The Crooked Road in Rocky Mount or 4½ hours to Floyd. Take Interstate 66 west, then I-81 south for both. To go to Rocky Mount, stay on I-81 for 157 miles, then go left just north of Roanoke onto U.S. 220 south. After 30 miles, take Virginia state Route 40 for about a mile toward Rocky Mount. To go to Floyd, stay on I-81, go about 22 miles past the Roanoke exits and take Virginia state Route 8 south for about 20 miles to Floyd.
Where to Stay
A number of B&Bs and home rentals are available in and around Floyd, Va. Here are a few options (for others, go to www.floydvirginialodging.com):
Hotel Floyd (120 Wilson St., Floyd; 540-745-6080; www.hotelfloyd.com) is as local as you can get. Across the street from The Floyd Country Store, one of The Crooked Road’s main music venues, Hotel Floyd features locally crafted furniture and art and its own summer concert series to complement the Friday Night Jamboree just steps from its doors. There are 16 rooms, expanding to 40 by June 1. Rates: $85.50 to $179.50; includes WiFi, in-room coffee, cable HDTV.
Bella La Vita Inn (582 New Haven Road SE, Floyd; 540-745-2541; www.bellalavitainn.com) is an Italian-themed B&B with friendly hosts, an ornate fountain, sculpture and other Italianate décor. The inviting common space features gardens and decks with rockers. Breakfast often includes locally sourced and organic foods. Four rooms. Rates: $99-$160; includes full breakfast, private bath, with private balconies or porches, WiFi, afternoon refreshments and satellite HDTV.
The Claiborne House (185 Claiborne Ave., Rocky Mount; 540-483-4616; www.claibornehouse.net) is a circa 1895 Victorian home with furnishings to match the era and a wraparound porch that’s perfect for pickin’ (the innkeepers invite guests to bring their instruments). It’s within walking distance of Rocky Mount eateries and close to jam venues. Five rooms. Rates: $120-$150; includes full breakfast (optional room service in select rooms), private bath, WiFi and cable TV.
Comfort Inn (1730 North Main St., Rocky Mount; 540-489-4000; www.comfortinn.com/hotel-rocky_mount-virginia-VA120) is an older property that was recently renovated. Located right off U.S. 220, it has a seasonal outdoor pool and 61 rooms. Rates: $65-$119; includes hot breakfast, weekday newspaper, WiFi and cable TV.
Holiday Inn Express (395 Old Franklin Turnpike, Rocky Mount; 540-489-5001; www.ihg.com/holidayinnexpress/hotels/us/en/rocky-mount/rcmva/hoteldetail) is a popular accommodation on Route 40, with an indoor pool, spa and fitness center. There are 63 rooms. Rates: $89.95-$169.95; includes hot breakfast bar, WiFi and cable TV.
Where to Eat
Dogtown Roadhouse (302 South Locust St., Floyd; 540-745-6836; www.dogtownroadhouse.com). Open 5-10 p.m. Thursdays, noon-12 a.m. Saturdays, and noon-8 p.m. Sundays. A favorite of younger locals and middle-aged homesteaders, this is a great place to grab a craft beer and a wood-fired pizza from the hand-built oven. Ingredients are locally sourced, and the menu changes seasonally. Live music is often featured in the intimate front room or the more expansive hall adjacent. One- or two-person pizzas, $10-$15; salads and starters, $3-$6; beer and wine (by the glass), $5-$6. You also can purchase wine by the bottle.
Oddfella’s Cantina & Tapas (110 North Locust St., Floyd; 540-745-3463; www.oddfellascantina.com). Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; tapas bar 4-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday (call ahead, as hours may vary by season). Sustainable, locally grown “Appalachian Latino” food served in a bright, cozy space, with vegan selections as well as locally raised meat. (Try the “chimichanga.”) There’s also beer and wine, plus live music on weekends. Dinner entrées, $13-$22.
The Galax Smokehouse (101 North Main St., Galax; 276-236-1000; www.thegalaxsmokehouse.com). Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. A lively place serving all things barbecue, from pulled pork to ribs, along with smokehouse burgers and dogs, with sides such as fried okra, apple fritters and hush puppies. It’s nothing fancy (think Styrofoam plates), but it’s super friendly and there are vintage photos on the walls of local musicians and the town’s history. Dinner entrées (with two sides plus hush puppies or “BBQ bread”), $9 (for a sloppy Joe) to $20 (for a “pig out platter” three-meat combo).
Music and Informational Venues
The Crooked Road website lists all the venues, along with an updated schedule of music jams. There’s also information about the towns along the road, attractions such as hiking and art galleries, and links to dining options and accommodations. Go to www.thecrookedroad.org or get the brochure at one of the venues or by calling 276-492-2409. Here are a few of the main venues where you can either learn about or experience the region’s music firsthand:
The Floyd Country Store (206 South Locust St., Floyd; 540-745-4563; www.floydcountrystore.com). The store’s Friday Night Jamboree is from 6:30-10:30 p.m. year-round and features three bands and dancing for $5 admission (get there early for a seat; it’s often standing room only). Outdoor gatherings nearby, held around the same time each Friday night, are free. Details about Saturday’s Americana Afternoon show, with acoustic music showcasing American folk tradition, and about the Sunday music jam and monthly old-time radio show are available on the website. Call for holiday hours.
Blue Ridge Institute & Museum (20 Museum Drive, Ferrum, just off Route 40; 540-365-4416; www.blueridgeinstitute.org). Galleries and music exhibits in the museum are open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays (open till 4:30 p.m. from mid-May to mid-August) and 1-4:30 p.m. Sundays. Farm museum weekends are from early May through early September (call for exact dates and times). Visit the galleries for free; farm museum admission is $6 ($4 for group tours arranged in advance). Call for holiday hours.
Blue Ridge Music Center (Milepost 213, Blue Ridge Parkway, Galax; 276-236-5309; www.blueridgemusiccenter.org). There’s live music on weekends, and Mid-Day Mountain Musicians daily from noon-4 p.m. from early May through late October. The “Roots of American Music” exhibit is open during the same time frame (call for exact dates and times). Admission to the exhibit and Mid-Day Mountain Musicians sessions is free; tickets for weekend music vary but are usually $10 to $15. Call for holiday hours.
Dairy Queen (995 Franklin St., Rocky Mount; 540-483-7754; blueridgemusic.org/searchresultdetail.asp?EditRecord=37&Region=). Local jam session, mostly bluegrass, at 9 a.m. every Thursday from September through May.
Stringbean Coffee Shop (215 South Main St., Galax; 276-236-0567). Two jam sessions, one bluegrass, one old-time music, held simultaneously at 7 p.m. every Tuesday year-round.
Rex Theater (113 East Grayson St., Galax; 276-238-8130; rextheatergalax.com). Live radio show at 8 p.m. every Friday; old-time music and dance on the last Saturday of every month; other shows scheduled in various locations throughout the year. Due to theater renovations, shows are temporarily at the Galax Municipal Golf Course through April.
Galax Leaf & String Festival (downtown Galax; 276-238-8130; visitgalax.com/gfvirginia_bluegrass). A two-day festival of local music, luthiers (instrument makers), arts and crafts, held at various venues, including the Rex Theater, on June 13 and 14 this year.