Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Crooked Road leads to music -- Sept. 10, 2015 column


“Loitering allowed,” the sign outside The Floyd Country Store in Southwest Virginia reads, and that’s good because nobody is going anywhere.  

It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday, 45 minutes until tickets for the store’s Friday Night Jamboree go on sale at $5 a pop, and people are itching to get in line. Every porch chair is taken. Inside, people sit in worn wooden booths, eating sandwiches, ice cream and slabs of carrot cake. Others fill paper bags with hard candy from barrels and browse bluegrass CDs, goat milk lotions and Carhartt work pants.  

Floyd, population 432, on the Blue Ridge plateau about an hour’s drive southwest of Roanoke, may have just one stop light but it’s a major venue on the Crooked Road, Virginia’s musical heritage trail. On Friday nights and other times a week, Floyd blossoms with bluegrass and old-time music.

“Floyd on Friday nights is transcendent,” said my friend Mary, who made the trip from Pennsylvania to Floyd last year. I was skeptical, but Mary was right.

Something extraordinary is happening in Floyd and other out-of-the-way places as the world beats a path to see people play traditional tunes on instruments they love. Appalachian music, crafts and outdoor recreation are helping to build a new, creative economy in a region that no longer can depend on coal, furniture and textiles.

“This is a place where there’s indigenous music alive in just about every community,” said Jack Hinshelwood, executive director of the Crooked Road, a 330-mile route from Rocky Mount to Breaks Interstate Park with eight other major venues, including the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, and 60 affiliated festivals and venues.

The Crooked Road was incorporated a decade ago to support tourism and economic development around the region’s musical traditions. A sister operation, Round the Mountain, supports crafts. Local, federal and state officials, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and business leaders are scheduled to speak Sept. 21 and 22 in Abingdon at a conference aimed at celebrating the creative economy.

Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky also have strong musical traditions. In Alabama, the Muscle Shoals area is called the Hit Making Capital of the World and in May the birthplace of W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues, in Florence received a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

I met Hinshelwood at a Thursday night open bluegrass jam session at Heartwood artisan gateway in Abingdon. The non-profit center opened four years ago to showcase regional crafts, foods and wines, including home-smoked meats, and music. An accomplished bluegrass musician himself, Hinshelwood explained that most players on the Crooked Road never had formal music lessons and most have day jobs.

“This is a place where music by and large is recreational and cultural. It’s not about people who make their living from music. It’s very much about a recreational way of life,” he said.

Rarely have I seen shows where the musicians and the audience have such good clean fun. The Floyd store operates on “Granny’s rules”—no smoking, no drinking alcohol, no bad language and no conduct unbecoming a lady or gentleman.

At 6:30, the evening begins with a prayer and gospel bluegrass. Recently, Janet Turner & Friends – among them her daughter Leona – played for the gospel hour. Turner, who is from Floyd, is a tiny woman with a froth of white hair and a strong voice. Her Facebook page – yes, she has one – says she has been playing bluegrass music more than 30 years.

Everyone sat quietly on folding chairs until 7:30, when the Friday Night Old Time Band took the stage. Little kids, their parents, grandparents, couples and singles practically ran to fill the wood floor, all flat-foot dancing, some with taps on their shoes, some barefoot.  A third band, 2 Young 2 Old, kept the crowd on its feet until 10:30 p.m.

In fine weather, fiddlers, guitarists, banjo and mandolin players spill onto the streets of Floyd, playing impromptu concerts on street corners and alleys.

A highlight of the evening is seeing who has traveled farthest. A pull-down map magically appears and Stewart Scales, who teaches geography at Virginia Tech and plays banjo with Turner, determines the winner. The other night, a young man from Paris – France, not Texas – edged out contenders from England and Wales. It’s not unheard of for travelers from China to find their way to Floyd.

Along the Crooked Road, musicians jam in barber shops, cafes, grocery stores and festivals. Free Midday Mountain Music performances take place every afternoon on the breezeway at the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Galax. Nationally known bands play in the amphitheater.

The center’s Roots of American Music Museum, whose exhibits were curated by the late folklorist Joe Wilson, author of “A Guide to the Crooked Road,” includes historic audio and video clips and is first class. The center is open May through October.

Several veteran pickers entertained on the breezeway the other day, links in a musical chain that began years and years ago.

“You rosin the bow the same way and play the same tunes your great-great granddaddy played,” Hinshelwood said. “In this fast-paced world, there’s something anchoring about that.”

And, yes, transcendent.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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