On Virginia’s Crooked Road, Mountain Music Lights the Way
IT starts with a well-worn fiddle, held in equally well-worn hands above a tapping black cowboy boot. Then in comes the banjo, plucked with steel finger picks, followed by the autoharp, the mandolin, the percussive beat of an upright bass. Another banjo grabs the melody, and suddenly the room is bursting with knee-slapping, country-porch music. A man in a crisp checked shirt gets up and starts to dance, bouncing out a complicated bumbumBAM bumbumBAM with his feet, moving as smoothly as a Martha Graham dancer, hitting the floor on the downbeat.
It is Thursday night in Fries (pronounced freeze), Va., population 600, on the wide New River. In the century-old Fries Theater, the silk wallpaper, once a glorious aquamarine embossed with gold ferns, is faded. A sign promises movies for 10 cents, 25 cents on weekends, but there hasn’t been a film here in years. The Fries high school closed in 1989 after the cotton mill that gave birth to this hamlet in 1902 shut down. But where the economy has faltered, the local music culture is thriving. Take a drive through the dozens of one-stoplight towns that are planted along highways that twist through this region’s blue hills and green valleys, and you’ll find that music is the manna of the community.
Fries was my first stop on the music trail known as the Crooked Road — an official designation of the state of Virginia since 2004. The heritage of the path can be found in this dance, in that tune, learned by ear from house to house and passed down through generations. The Road isn’t one single highway — it’s a roughly 300-mile series of interconnected two-lane byways and long stretches of Route 58, which skims Virginia’s North Carolina and Tennessee borders all the way to Kentucky. The sound here is Appalachian: mountain music. Joe Wilson, who wrote a book on the Crooked Road, calls the area the “pickle barrel” of American music. “You know you can’t make a good pickle by squirting vinegar on a cucumber,” he said. “You have to let it sit.”
Over five days in April, I rambled along part of the Crooked Road and towns around it, from Fries up to Ferrum and Floyd, back to Galax and out to Marion, dipping down toward Abington, and back to Galax again. With my partner, Ian, his parents and my 2-year-old daughter, Orli, I drove down roads that curve so dramatically that locals joke that you can see your own taillights as you round the bends. The drive cuts through pastures dotted with cows and horses and weather-beaten barns, some abandoned and left to splinter. Many see the land they sold in recent decades now covered in Christmas trees, a boom industry that has changed the landscape. Churches rise up one after the other: Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist. “Google Doesn’t Satisfy All Searches,” reads one church sign. “Can’t Sleep? Try Counting Your Blessings,” says another.
We traveled 370 miles in all, what with switchbacks and retracing our steps to hear just one more tune. We were following the songs that had blown this way and that like so many dandelion seeds across the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the foothills of Appalachia. Our lodgings included everything from a Hampton Inn to an eco-minded auberge decorated by local artists, to a Ragtime-era hotel, recently restored to its former glory.
ALONG the way we stuffed ourselves with buttery biscuits, farm eggs and smokehouse Southern flavors that somehow taste different south of the Mason-Dixon line. Orli loved every minute of it; her affinity for the music was immediate. When she ran onto the dance floor at the Floyd Friday Night Jamboree, the man next to me caught my arm. “Let her be,” he said. “We’re mountain people — we’ll take care of her as our own.” She woke each morning singing the twang of the banjo.
If there ever was a place where musical authenticity was born and nurtured, “raised up” as the people around here say, the Crooked Road is it. From the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons (the site of Johnny Cash’s last concert) and Clintwood, deep in coal country, to the farms near Floyd, music is still being made on fiddles and banjos, mandolins and guitars, dulcimers and autoharps. Every night you’ll find pick-up jams on front porches, performances in theaters and quartets that pack storefronts, an old courthouse and even a Dairy Queen. In summer the area is awash in festivals, from Dr. Ralph Stanley’s Memorial Day bluegrass festival in the mountains of Coeburn, Va., to the venerable Old Fiddlers Convention held every August in Galax.
This region is where old-time and bluegrass was born. Old-time is dance music, simpler and older than bluegrass. Bluegrass is filled with vocal harmonies, many made famous by (relative) newbies like Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. It is suited more for seated audiences than the foot-stomping dance I saw in Fries, which is known as flatfoot. Both genres evolved from tunes brought by Scotch-Irish and German settlers who traveled down the wagon trails from Pennsylvania. They brought dulcimers and fiddles and later picked up the banjo from former slaves.