It’s Thursday night in Fries, a lonely little, old mill town in Southwest Virginia with a population of 484 souls. I’m with my wife and two boys at the old Fries (pronounced FREEZE) Theater listening to a jam session with a room half full of senior citizens. Admission is free, donations are accepted and hot dogs go for a buck and a quarter at a makeshift concession stand in the corner of the room.
There are 15 musicians sitting on plastic chairs in a circle under harsh fluorescent lighting, most of them senior citizens, and as they tear into their first tune – a catchy little instrumental number powerful enough to wake the whole slumbering town – I realize that there is nowhere in the world I’d rather be than right here in this old theater listening to a room full of soulful country folk playing the music that’s in their blood.
I’ve paid big bucks in various corners of the globe to see famous musicians whose entourages are bigger than this whole room, but I can’t recall ever enjoying an evening of music the way I’m savoring every melodic moment of this one. My sons introduce us to Ray Vaughan, a 76-year-old house painter wearing a mesh John Deere hat who is showing them how to dance. Vaughan tells us that Fries is the birthplace of Henry Whitter, the first musician to record a country song on a 78 record. His grandson still lives in town.
Vaughan tells us that people in Fries live, breath, eat and sleep music. He’s one of 11 children and each played an instrument.
“The young kids around here mostly go for other types of music,” he admits when I ask why there aren’t any young people in the room. “They’ll pick it up as they get older though. This music here won’t ever die ’cause the songs are just about livin’ the way life is in this area.”
We chat with some of the musicians and learn why they sound so good: they jam here every Thursday night and look forward to it all week long. I ask a few of them, all in their 70s, why they do it and each has essentially the same answer: it keeps us young and it’s who we are.
On Friday, we venture an hour further southwest to Floyd, a delightful small town with country flair and an artsy vibe and make our way to the Floyd Country Store to check out their famous Friday Night Jamboree. The place is, as its name suggests, an old general store with ice cream, food, music and other products for sale. But the place is full with an eclectic mix of locals and travelers, some from as far away as Scandinavia and Australia, to listen to old time music and dance to their heart’s content.
After a gospel outfit completes a pleasant, hour-long warm-up set, a band called Roscoe P and Coal Train takes the stage and electrifies the crowd, which packs the compact dance floor. Everyone wants their photo with Leo Weddle, a regular who wears bib overalls and has but three teeth left.
“I’m pretty much famous,” he tells us. “I’ve danced with people from all over the world. You can’t imagine how many people have taken my picture.”
Weddle tells us that his wife died of cancer four years ago, and he had a rock removed from his gall bladder in 2009. The worst part of the debacle was that he wasn’t able to make it to the jamboree for a good six months. He says that he now has to get kidney dialysis three times a week, but he never misses a Friday night at Floyd’s Country Store.
“Old Time music is in my body,” he says. “I was raised up with it. It’s in my bones. We’re born that way.”
The music is so infectious that we join the crowds on the dance floor and even my little boys practice their flat-footing with a little help from the locals. I wonder why the band we’re listening to isn’t famous and why it costs just $5 to get in. But maybe that’s exactly why the scene and the night are so unforgettable. If I had just one night left on earth, this is exactly where I’d want to be.
On Saturday, we head west on the appropriately crooked Rt. 58 west through a delightfully pastoral landscape to Hiltons, a tiny little country settlement just a stones throw from the Tennessee state line for a concert at The Carter Family Fold. The Carter Family is more or less royalty in the world of country music and the Fold was established next to the old family homestead in 1979.
As we step into the Fold and pay our $7 cover charge, I gravitate to a snack bar that’s manned by a pair of blue-haired volunteers. For $1.50, they serve me the best slice of coconut cake imaginable, and the night only gets better when The Whitewater Bluegrass Company, a terrific five-piece from Asheville takes the stage. The crowd at the Fold is a bit more local than in Floyd and a few of the seniors in the audience have blankets draped over their laps to ward off the autumn chill.
Children flood the dance floor and one woman does a waltz with her dog Opie. She tells us that he was found at the Fold nearly dead and has become something of a mascot in the place.
“He loves music,” she said. “He’s here every Saturday night.”
I can’t help but conclude that Opie is indeed a very lucky dog.
IF YOU GO: I would start a Crooked Road music tour in Fries, on a Thursday night at the Old Fries Theater, then hit the Floyd Country Store on Friday and on Saturday, I’d check out the Fold or I might look for some live music in Galax, a great little town that hosts the world famous Old Fiddlers Convention every August, right in the heart of the Crooked Road. I also recommend a stop at Heartwood, a great place to eat, drink, listen to live music and pick up souvenirs made by local artisans. It’s right off of I-81 in Abingdon.
There’s also a live show every Friday night at the Rex Theater in Galax, but if you go there, you miss the Friday Night Jamboree in Floyd. The Hotel Floyd is a great base if you can get a room there; if not the Hampton Inn in Galax is also a good option.
[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]