Virginia Home to Rich Musical Traditions
Today the southwestern region of Virginia -- considered part of southern Appalachia and stretching from Roanoke southwest to the Kentucky border -- is gaining overdue recognition for its long-held traditional mountain and bluegrass music. The plaintive songs heard in the hills and hollows years ago spawned a uniquely American genre that grew into a multimillion-dollar country music industry.
Recently the success of the movie, "O Brother Where Art Thou," featuring the music of Virginian Ralph Stanley, generated a nationwide, sold-out concert series, "Down from the Mountain Tour."
Travelers from around the United States and foreign countries come to Southwest Virginia for fiddle conventions, live country music performances in down-home settings, spontaneous jamborees and flat-foot dancing. For those who love live music, whether played on the autoharp, hammer dulcimer, fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin or bass, this corner of the commonwealth provides an earful.
A logical place to begin a tour of the heritage of mountain and country music is in Bristol, located on the Virginia-Tennessee line. Bristol sports country music murals and monuments along its downtown streets and has been called the "birthplace of country music." In 1998, Congress made this designation official. Bristol was the location of the first countrymusic recordings made for national distribution in 1927.
The Birthplace of Country Music Alliance Museum in Bristol preserves and promotes the musical and cultural heritage of the region. It provides a forum for live performances and features collections of instruments, records and awards from country music legends such as Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Bristol native "Tennessee" Ernie Ford.
Permanent exhibits focus on the 1927 Bristol sessions as well as several of the radio stations that helped launch mountain music to regional and national audiences. The museum recently moved to a new location, allowing for larger exhibition space for the photographs, memorabilia and recordings of the legends of mountain and traditional music.
The Carters, a noted Virginia family, was one of 19 musical groups recorded at the 1927 Bristol recording sessions. Today, A.P. and Sara Carters daughter, Janette, keeps the family traditions going by operating the Carter Family Fold in tiny Hiltons, just 20 miles northwest of Bristol. Every Saturday night, musical performances -- with acoustical instruments only -- are held in the 1,000-seat concert shed built into the side of a mountain. Janette herself, now in her 70s, emcees the show, performs and brings in musicians from the region and surrounding states. Other Carter family relatives including Janettes brother and son -- also perform at the Fold when in town. Janette stages a large August music festival at the Fold as well, which sometimes features relative June Carter Cash and her husband Johnny Cash.
Another Virginia living legend, Ralph Stanley, makes his home in nearby McClure. Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys tour throughout the year, but he always makes time to appear at bluegrass festivals in the area. His own Ralph Stanley Festival is held each spring, not far from Coeburn. The 75-old singer won 2002 Grammy awards for best country male vocalist performance and album of the year.
Another ideal spot to soak up the rich culture of the region and its music is the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in Ferrum. The institutes website, www.blueridgemusic.org, offers a wealth of information on the history of Blue Ridge music, the instruments and a comprehensive listing of musical events throughout the region. The museum exhibits often highlight a particular aspect of the musical heritage of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Past museum exhibits topics have included old-time musical instrument-making, early Virginia African American recording artists, Virginia ballads and "Southwest Virginias Recording Legacy, 1923-1943."
The institutes very own Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, held each October, features three stages ringing forth with continuous gospel, ballads, blues and old-time string band music. Performers have included Janette Carter, Larry Sigmon and Barbara Poole, Wayne Henderson & Friends and numerous other regional groups. Festival-goers can nourish their souls on foods as well, all prepared in traditional ways, and watch crafts demonstrations and farm-animal competitions.
In the tiny town of Floyd, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Friday Night Jamboree attracts folks from near and far for live bluegrass music and dancing. What started out as a practice session for local musicians quickly turned into a Friday night institution attracting locals and visitors who got wind of the down-home goings on. Held in the 1930-era Floyd Country Store, the jamboree brings in a variety of bands and performers and is so popular the crowds sometimes spill out onto the street.
Bluegrass music, broom dances, cake walks, clogging and other performances take place each Saturday night in the new Country Cabin II near Norton. This new log structure seats approximately 200 and also serves as the site of the annual Doc Boggs Festival, held the second Saturday in September. Owned and operated by former bluegrass musicians, the Country Cabin II attracts performers from a four-state region.
Galax is officially called the "world capital of old-time mountain music," and a visit to this scenic town in the Blue Ridge Mountains proves why. Galax is well-known worldwide for its Old Time Fiddlers Convention, held each August in Felts Park. Tens of thousands of musicians and onlookers flock to the convention for performances, impromptu jam sessions and flat-foot dancing.
The renovated Rex Theater in downtown Galax, built in 1938, holds "Blue Ridge Backroads Live" every Friday night, featuring traditional string, bluegrass and old-time music performed by local and regional musicians. The show has continued to attract nationally known bluegrass and old-time musicians such as The Kruger Brothers from Switzerland and Grammy winner Dan Tyminski, who appeared in June 2001. A favorite local musician, world-renowned for his guitar-picking and craftsmanship, Wayne Henderson, performs regularly throughout the year at the Rex. Since 1999, radio station WBRF-FM has broadcast "Blue Ridge Backroads Live," one of only just three live bluegrass and old-time radio shows in the country.
Just 10 miles outside of Galax on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the new amphitheater at the Blue Ridge Music Center holds Saturday night concerts featuring bluegrass and traditional artists as well as some top-name country music performers. The 300-seat amphitheater is phase one of the complex that will include a museum, an instrument-making shop and interpretive center where classes in musicianship and instrument-making will be held when completed in 2004.
Visitors to southwestern Virginia will be awed by the rugged beauty of the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains. Natives and those whove moved here provide a warm welcome accented with genuine hospitality. The venues for pure bluegrass and mountain music reflect the simplicity of the music and the acoustic instruments that produce it. Following the musical trail through these parts is a journey of discovery of the real America.
Janette Carter, in her autobiography "Living with Memories," could be describing any number of musicians nurtured in the hills of southwestern Virginia who sang, strummed and performed their music for the love of it: "The Carter Family never realized what an impact they had on the music world. All they were trying to do was to provide for their families, but they brought happiness beyond measure to millions of people, both here and the world over."
For more information and for a free "Virginia Is for Lovers Travel Guide," contact the Virginia Tourism Corporation by calling (804) 932-5827 or visiting www.virginia.org.
Blue Ridge Travel
Heart of Appalachia
Galax Tourism Department
Grayson County Tourism
Birthplace of Country
Music Alliance Museum
Blue Ridge Institute
& Farm Museum and Blue Ridge Folklife Festival
Fourth Saturday in
Blue Ridge Music Center
A Sampler of Major
Bluegrass Music Events in Southwest Virginia
Every Friday night
Carter Family Fold
Fairview Ruritan Club
Ralph Stanley Bluegrass
Memorial Day Gospel
Memorial Day Gospel
Bluegrass in the Park
Galax Leaf & String
Scott County Old Time
Wayne C. Henderson
Music Festival & Guitar Competition
Grayson County Fiddlers
Fire on the Mountain
Fourth of July
Summer Gospel Sing
Tazewell County Old
Time Bluegrass and Fiddlers Convention
Fries Fiddlers Convention
Labor Day Gospel Sing
Adwolfe Old-Time and
Bluegrass Fiddlers Convention
Dock Boggs Festival
Festival by the New
Autumn Festival and
Baywood Fall Festival
Mountain Foliage Festival
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