The Music Of Virginia’s Crooked Road

crooked roadIt’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.
%Gallery-170166%
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.


fries virginiaFries is our first stop on The Crooked Road, Southwest Virginia’s 253-mile music heritage trail, where old-time Appalachian music and Southern hospitality are alive and well. My boys join the seniors on the makeshift dance floor and before I know it, we’re part of the gang, tapping our feet to haunting renditions of tunes like “Ashokan Farewell,” made famous by Ken Burns and his series on the Civil War, and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.”

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.

crooked road hillbilllyOn 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.

map of the crooked roadIF 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.

crooked road map legend

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

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.

%Gallery-7539%

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!