Journey starts in the heart
By Ralph Berrier Jr.
Part 1 of a six-part series
Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times
||Lewis Pruiwt (left), and 10-year-old Jonathan Dillon (right), participate in a bluegrass jam at Bernard's Carpet Shop in Rocky Mount . Dillon plays fiddle, upright bass, banjo, mandolin and guitar.
ROCKY MOUNT I am standing at the grave of my grandfather. A summer storm is gathering in the west beyond the Blue Ridge. A bronze flat headstone rests in the grass. It reads with the directness of a soldier's dog tag.
There's more to his life than could ever be told on a cold grave marker. I won't tell it here, none of it. Not the poverty, the fatherless childhood, the fighting and killing he saw even before the war, the preaching of the Gospel, the long slog toward old age and the end.
S/Sgt. U.S. Army
World War II
May 4, 1919-April 22, 2003
However, I will tell you a little about his music. Music is what brought us here.
*High-speed connection recommended
Photographer Kyle Green, videojournalist Seth Gitner and I have traveled like an old-time medicine show along the Virginia Heritage Music Trail, a series of linked roadways that traverse a 250-mile course between Ferrum and Clintwood deep in Southwest Virginia. The trail is a tourism initiative created to spotlight the mountain music traditions and history of Southwest Virginia. Franklin County is either the first stop or the last, depending on which direction you travel, of eight sites sanctioned by the Commonwealth of Virginia as primary landmarks on the trail that is already better known by its nickname, The Crooked Road.
We began our musical odyssey in May by meeting the regal Ralph Stanley at his very own museum, and later enjoyed the revelry of the Friday Night Jamboree in Floyd, savored the sounds and tastes of Galax and witnessed an unexpected emotional scene at the Carter Fold. We met nice folks who happen to be exquisitely talented as well.
And we ended here, at my grandfather's grave in Franklin County. No, the cemetery is not one of the trail's primary tourist attractions. But it holds the reason why I love old-time mountain music.
Ferrum might seem an odd place to begin your musical tour. Unlike most stops on The Crooked Road, Ferrum's Blue Ridge Institute doesn't feature year-round music events. The place is primarily a museum and repository of rural and mountain culture. Because of that, though, it's a good place to learn about Virginia's music history and to pick up a few CDs for your journey. The institute also maintains a fancy Web site called Blue Ridge Music Trails that charts more than 400 music events along the Blue Ridge Parkway (check out blueridgemusic.org).
"We don't just deal with music," said Roddy Moore, the straight-talking, charmingly cranky director of the institute. He's been in Ferrum for 32 years and has devoted his life to documenting and promoting the authentic ways and culture of rural Virginia.
"We're interested in architecture, occupations, food ways. . . . The eight stops are just the high points. The Crooked Road is really what's in between."
We knew that. Our traveling party hit the main stops -- the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, etc. -- but we also stopped by Ralph Stanley's festival, met fiddlemaker Arthur Connor in Floyd County's Copper Hill, admired Gooch Harmon's off-beat museum in Carroll County and ate approximately 8 pounds of barbecue from Galax to Rocky Mount.
When we arrived at the Blue Ridge Institute for our last day of reporting, I did what I always do when I go there: I headed straight for the CD display rack and annoyed my companions with facts about my family connections to the recordings.
The institute released a series of acclaimed albums in the 1970s and '80s, each titled "Virginia Traditions," that chronicled specific genres of Virginia's musical heritage, from field recordings of work songs to horrible tales of murder and distress to the blues and secular music of black Virginians.
I pull out the "Early Roanoke Country Radio" CD from 1988 and point out two long, 1940s-era radio shows featuring Roy Hall and His Blue Ridge Entertainers and Tommy Magness and the Orange Blossom Boys.
"My grandfather was in both these bands!" I proudly proclaim, perhaps to the great indifference of my companions.
Familiar names populate the "Native Virginia Ballads" album: the Stanley Brothers, the Carter Family, the Stonemans, Willard Gayheart. In the past six weeks, we've met these people or their descendants.
The kind of songs on these CDs was dusted off and remade for the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack in 2000, an album that stunned the music industry when it sold millions of copies, topped both the country and pop charts, won the Grammy for best album and earned Ralph Stanley his first Grammy. Of all the factors that inspired regional leaders and state officials to promote Southwest Virginia's musical heritage, the success of "O Brother" was paramount. The album's mainstream appeal introduced the songs of the Stanleys and Carters to a vast audience.
The album's signature song, however, was "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," sung by Dan Tyminski, who won a Grammy for his version of the old tune. Until finally lured away to Nashville very recently, Tyminski lived in Ferrum. So, if The Crooked Road was born of the newfound popularity of old-time music, and if old-time music profited from the success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," and if "O Brother" was carried to success by Dan Tyminski from Ferrum, then Ferrum is as good a place as any to begin our series.
As we leave Ferrum, I ask Kyle if we can stop by my grandfather's grave, since it's just a few miles north of Rocky Mount on the way back to Roanoke. As we leave Ferrum, I switch the radio to Rocky Mount's great country station, WYTI-AM. Within a few minutes they play "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow."
Even Kyle, the guy who just moved here from Oregon, knows the words.
My grandfather's life was so full, he had to share it with a twin for nearly 80 years. Clayton and Saford Hall grew up in a rough patch of weeds in Patrick County called The Hollow. The first music they heard was from a neighbor's Victrola that blared the scratchy songs of old-time bands such as Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, J.E. Mainer and the Carter Family. They learned to play fiddle and banjo from their mother, a country midwife who never needed a husband to help raise 10 children.
Champion fiddle player Rafe Brady was the boys' cousin, and the twins occasionally lucked out when Rafe and his buddy Jumpy Shinault would pass out stone drunk in the woods, leaving their instruments propped against a tree. The twins would steal Rafe's fiddle and Jumpy's guitar and carry them to their one-room cabin and play those high-quality instruments until Rafe would show up days later and ask if anyone knew the whereabouts of his fiddle.
Clayton and Saford eventually made it all the way to the rarified airwaves of Roanoke radio, starring in the best hillbilly music bands these parts ever heard in the 1930s and '40s. The twins never stopped playing, even after their professional music careers were 50 years past. The Blue Ridge Institute even helped them record a cassette of their favorite old country and western songs in 1992. The album was recorded at Doobie Shea Studio in Ferrum, where Dan Tyminski used to record with his old group, the Lonesome River Band.
My own personal crooked road runs in a circle, a ribbon of music that binds together generations of my family. Clayton taught my brother Ricky to play guitar. He showed me a few fiddle licks in his final years, helping me learn an instrument I wish I had picked up years earlier.
I occasionally stop by his grave to pay my respects, but the real tribute to Papa Clayton's legacy comes when I take Uncle Saford's fiddle and play "Soldier's Joy." That's what I call eternal life. The journey may be over, but the road never ends.