Band on the Run: It’s Not All Bluegrass in Floyd, VA

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.

Floyd, Virginia was good to us. It was our first time in this region and we were greeted with open smiles and eager listeners. As I round out the last week of this feature series “Band on the Run,” I’m really glad I’m going to get a chance to tell you about this place.

The town of Floyd is really small. I mean, really small. The county of Floyd is bigger, of course, but I was asking about the town’s population specifically and I found out that not even five hundred people live in the town itself. They joked that The Sun Music Hall – where we were playing – was on the “edge” of town while the Mercantile was the center of town. I smiled but didn’t really get the joke until I went outside to get something from the van and saw that the mercantile was just a few buildings over.

I laughed late, but at least I laughed!

Hugging the famous “Blue Ridge” (Low-lying Appalachian mountains that appear to be blue from a distance and represent one of the most travelled tourist roads in the United States: the Blue Ridge Parkway), this is the namesake for the well-known Floydfest. Floydfest is not actually in Floyd, exactly, but it’s nearby and the festival name stuck. Floyd, VA is also a stop on the Crooked Road Musical Heritage trail.


Our wonderful hosts – two women who had seen us play at the CampOut Festival closer to Richmond in May of 2006, Miriam and Maria – told us that every Friday night there are jamborees on this Crooked Road Musical Heritage trail. Rain or shine, every Friday night people come from all over and pull out their instruments to play traditional old-time and bluegrass music in the local country store in Floyd. When the store is too full, they spill into the streets and play outdoors. All over this Crooked Road hosts these kinds of events, at various venues in various small towns and in various buildings like storefronts, cafes, community halls. Miriam described the performers as anywhere from kids to grey-haired, long-bearded seniors plucking and stomping and jangling away in their Sunday best.

Too bad we were there on a Sunday. I would have loved to be witness to this!

All was not lost, however, because the show was great fun. Seems to me that this place is open to lots of different music despite its ties to Bluegrass and Appalachian music! We did our usual swirling blend of folk and jazz and funk and pop and rock and world. . . and the audience wanted us back for an encore. I guess it’s not all about Bluegrass on the Blue Ridge!

The show took place in the Sun Music Hall which is part of a larger organization called Winter Sun Inc. In the same building there is also a café (Café del Sol), a clothing store, a gallery, a restaurant, a venue and the offices that house those who promote the shows and also manage a few regional bands. It’s all connected and, in my estimation, shows that the overall business owners are savvy; trying to be entrepreneurs in this day and age is hard enough and so diversifying what you’re doing (sort of like artistic polyculture) is a great means to ensuring the sustainability of your business. Or, in this case, businesses!

The clothing store is particularly interesting to me: Winter Sun Fashions. It sells clothes that are fair trade and manufactured in Ecuador. In fact, the company did so well that they raised enough money to have showers installed at the factory where the clothing is made. Each worker makes higher than average Ecuadorian wages and lunch is provided by the company as well. This outlet is one of several across the United States.

Our show was warmly attended (for a Sunday night and in a town we’ve never played before) and included lots of chatting and hanging out afterwards. Those are the best shows, really. I love the chance to get to know people who live in these places so that I can get a real feel for the area. Everyone was incredibly kind.

One gentleman, a tall guy probably in his fifties with a white beard and inquisitive eyes, talked to me about biodiesel and long-range versus short-range solutions to this petroleum dependency. Another woman, just a little more around my age, noticed the reference to Chinese medicine in my album title and talked with me about health and being active. Someone even greeted me in Mandarin, having read that I had been in China for three months, and though the conversation was short (consisting of only one sentence that she had memorized), I was touched that anyone had done research on us before we arrived.

We drove away today waving out the window to our hosts and feeling instantly nostalgic for the slow southern drawl and hospitality. We’ll be back to Floyd for sure. (Or nearby, at the festival — fingers crossed!)

Hopefully overlapping a Friday so that I can attend the Crooked Tree Jamboree in these parts. Now that sounds like a party! Imagine what our music brains could learn from those old-time tunes. Sign me up. The more styles the better!