The Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail
By Ralph Berrier Jr.
FLOYD -- A lively jam session raged outside the Floyd Country Store on a recent Friday night. More than a dozen players of traditional mountain music played up a storm, lost in the music, as a female singer's voice rose in a chorus.
Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times
B. J. Cherryholmes, 17, of the group Cherryholmes, practices fiddle backstage during the Ralph Stanley Festival in Clintwood, Va .
Goin' down the road, feelin' bad
Goin' down the road, feelin' bad
Goin' down the road, feelin' bad, Lord, Lord
And I ain't gonna be treated this way
Nowadays, though, lovers of mountain music from Floyd to Bristol are singing a new song about the road, this one with a much sunnier outlook. This summer marks the first travel season for Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, a winding corridor of several Southwest Virginia highways and backroads that snakes through 250 miles of fertile mountain-music country between the foothills of Franklin County and the coalfields of Dickenson County.
For musicians and fans, the appropriately nicknamed "Crooked Road" could bring new attention and appreciation for mountain music and its various categories, forms that have often been marginalized and shunned by mainstream popular culture. For local leaders, state politicians and tourism officials, the road leads to an economic future in which music-loving travelers spends millions of dollars in areas that have suffered from the meltdown of the traditional manufacturing and mining industries that fired the region's economic engines for generations.
Whether the tourists and collateral economic windfall actually come remains to be seen. What no one debates, however, is that Southwest Virginia's rich musical tradition is getting national and international attention like never before.
"I think Virginia has the deepest history of music and everyone is unaware of it," said Joe Wilson, director of the National Council of the Traditional Arts, headquartered in Silver Spring, Md. "They think that all the music comes from Nashville or Branson, Mo., and not from the Commonwealth. They think all Virginia history is kept in Williamsburg or Jamestown, when the history is really kept in Southwest Virginia."
And much of that history is set to music. From traditional ballads that came over with the earliest immigrants, to the old-time fiddle and banjo tunes that married divergent cultures including European and African into an all-American sound, to modern-day bluegrass bands that tour and make records, Southwest Virginia boasts a music history as rich as any coal seam or captain of industry.
"The music is here," said Tom Barr, whose fiddle shop in downtown Galax is prominently highlighted in The Crooked Road's marketing materials. "It's part of our culture. The music came over 200, 300 years ago and it stayed. You don't learn it from a book or a CD. The way you learn music is to play it with people and learn what they're doing. That's why the music is still here."
Wilson likes to repeat a saying he heard from the late Greg Hooven, a champion old-time fiddle player from Pipers Gap in Carroll County, a place that produced at least 31 bands that made records during the last 70 years.
"I asked Greg the reason why so many musicians came from Pipers Gap," Wilson recalled, "and Greg said, 'I think because we like music better than football.' "
The Crooked Road was born on a snowy night not fit for traveling in January, 2002, at perhaps the most fitting place to hatch such an idea the Carter Family Fold, the homey amphitheater that holds bluegrass and old-timey concerts every Saturday night.
Six representatives of Southwest Virginia localities met at the Fold to brainstorm tourism ideas, one of which was the notion of a heritage music corridor.
"Everyone was excited," said Debbie Robinson, the Galax tourism director who received the first grant to kickstart the trail. "Pretty soon, communities were knocking on the door."
The idea came at a time when old-time roots music was undergoing a huge popularity surge thanks to the success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack. The album featured updated versions of Depression-era songs and sold more than six million copies and dominated the 2002 Grammy Awards. Southwest Virginia's stake in the CD's success came through the inclusion of Stanley and bluegrass star Dan Tyminski, formerly of Ferrum. The time was right to capitalize on the newfound popularity of old-time music.
The General Assembly approved the trail concept in 2004. The road highlights eight main attractions, plus numerous side trips. Rocky Mount marks the trail's eastern terminus. Traveling west, the road marks the venues like notes on a musical scale as it rolls past the Floyd Country Store, where hundreds of folks pack the one-stoplight town during the Friday Night Jamboree. The trail zips past Galax, where nearly 60,000 visitors will invade the city Aug. 8-13 during the Old Fiddlers Convention, which turns 70 this year. It winds through the majestic mountains of Grayson County, where music has been part of the local culture since the 18th century. It rolls through the homeplaces of the first family of country music, the Carters, and rises right up to the doorstep of the museum that honors bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
In addition to Floyd, Galax and Stanley country, stops include the the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Galax, the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, the Country Cabin in Norton and the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College.
Numerous other festivals, concerts and smaller venues are also featured along the route, which includes Virginia 8, U.S. 58 and Virginia 23 among its linked roads.
"Southwest Virginia has the greatest tradition of old-time string music than anywhere else in the world,"said Roddy Moore, the Blue Ridge Institute's executive director. "The eight spots are just the high points. The Crooked Road is really what's in between. I would take the sidetrips off the road and see the landscape and meet the people."
Nearly $2.5 million has been spent on planning and marketing the trail, much of it from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Grants also came from Virginia's Department of Housing and Community Development, the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission (money from the tobacco lawsuits settlement in 1998), the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development agency, the localities along the trail and other sources.
The Crooked Road project is led by a collection of rotating tourism officials, public officials and Todd Christensen, a projects manager for the Department of Housing and Community Development. A search is underway for an executive director.
Marketing and promotion for the trail revved into high gear this year with the publication of a guide brochure, the posting of signs marking the route and an international advertising campaign. Early response to the promotions has exceeded expectations.
"We just took 2,500 brochures to the post office," said Geneva O'Quinn, executive director of the Heart of Appalachia, the tourist bureau that covers much of trail's corridor. Her office receives about 5,000 requests for Crooked Road information each month. "We're overwhelmed."
That is string-music to the ears of the tourism officials. According to an economic impact projection released last year, Crooked Road organizers expect more than 60,000 new visitors to come to the region this year. Using a conversion study done by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, each visitor will spend an average of $225, resulting in a net economic impact of $13.5 million.
One of the project's biggest boosters is Gov. Mark Warner, who made the Heritage Music Trail a centerpiece of his effort to improve Southwest Virginia's economy. The $15 billion tourist trade in Virginia usually ranks as the state's sixth or seventh-largest industry, but much of that sum is spent in the I-95 corridor from Virginia Beach to Northern Virginia.
"I want to see more and more state tourism dollars get spent in Western Virginia," said Warner, who chaired the Appalachian Regional Commission for two years while governor, in an interview for this story. "My hope is that The Crooked Road will fit into a bigger mix."
Warner wants the trail to lure visitors interested in music, then persuade them to stay longer and take advantage of state parks, cultural venues and outdoors opportunities.
"One area I'm interested in is the concept of asset-based development," Warner said. "How do you look at what a region already has and develop that, rather than worry and wait for people coming from the outside to bring that next company in? Southwest Virginia's assets are not as fully developed as West Virginia or North Carolina. Why do people travel to the mountains of North Carolina, or to the mountains of West Virginia, but not to the mountains of Southwest Virginia? We need to create a real destination package."
And that's where the music comes in.
"The Crooked Road . . . embodies the best of asset-based development," Warner said. "We'll take what the community has and develop it as a long-term economic driver for the region."
While much of the talk from Crooked Road planners is about tourism and economics projections, one topic occasionally gets overlooked the music.
Most of the money is being spent on marketing and improvements to the Carter Fold and other facilities. Some musicians, while enthusiastically supporting the project, wonder if they're being overlooked. Several of the primary spots, including the Carter Fold and the Blue Ridge Music Center, pay performers, while many smaller establishments do not. Some musicians wonder if local officials just assume that the musicians will play for free at many events.
"I think that needs to be addressed one of these days," said Bobby Patterson, a musician and owner of the Heritage Shoppe, a specialty outlet near Galax that sells instruments, CDs and even cake decorating supplies. He said that while big-name bluegrass bands get paid to play, many local musicians do not.
"Something will have to be talked about when it comes to the musicians," he said. "If tourists are going to be spending all this money, then something will need to be done about sharing revenue. If you're charging [admission] for an event, then the musician needs to be compensated at some point. If you're putting on an event for free, then it might be OK to ask a musician to play for free. The line has to be drawn at how many people an event draws and how much revenue is drawn off it. That's a starting place."
Musician and singer Mac Traynham has similar thoughts about payment. While standing outside the Floyd Country Store, where he had just performed for free during a recent Friday Night Jamboree, he thought it would be a good idea to earmark some future Crooked Road money for performers.
"Even just a little something to pay a little gas money," he said. "Just a little incentive, not to walk away with a lot of money in your pocket. Nobody worries about it too much, but it would be nice to have a budget to cover some expenses. It probably won't happen."
In fact, the trail has no budget beyond this year. The primary task of the first executive director will be to secure consistent funding to promote the trail and meet other needs. Some officials have said they hope the sites will become self-sustaining, but most agree that additional money will be needed to capitalize on the momentum they've built this year.
"We have a sense of pride in what we have here," said Robinson, tourism director for Galax. "We have the resources here. If we learn how to use them and grow them, then people will help us."
The results are encouraging, at least anecdotally. Barr, who says his fiddle shop's business has doubled in the last five years, senses things are improving in downtown Galax primarily because of the interest in music. The Smokehouse of Galax, a barbecue restaurant, set up shop across the street from the newly renovated Rex Theater and does huge business. A new coffee shop called Stringbean hosts music sessions that keep the place packed. Business will get even better when the fiddlers convention starts this week.
"Five years ago, there were a lot of empty buildings," Barr said. "Now, a lot of good things are happening and it's because of the music."