Written by Leslie Grace
Meandering along winding roads through Southwest Virginia, one can almost hear the plaintive tones of Mother Maebelle Carter and Dr. Ralph Stanley echoing faintly.
Jump in your car and start anywhere along The Crooked Road, Virginia Heritage Music Trail, for a musical journey. This 333-mile journey along the roads of Southwest Virginia is a trip back in time to the roots of traditional music and a showcase of today’s country and bluegrass music.
The trail runs from the Virginia/Kentucky line in Dickenson County, Virginia, through 19 counties ending in Franklin County. It winds through towns, cities and communities so small that you might overlook them, if you get in much of a hurry. So take your time, enjoy the scenery and revel in the music.
Let’s start at the Ralph Stanley Museum in Clintwood. His clawhammer banjo technique and haunting, high voice took Dr. Ralph around the world, but he always called Dickinson County and his beloved mountains home. The museum is filled with a collection focused on traditional mountain music’s roots and its popular successors, such as Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless. As you travel, look for Crooked Road wayside exhibits. Along The Crooked Road the pace is easy, so just pull off the road, read the panels and listen to recordings of local musicians. While you’re stretching your legs, don’t forget to gaze at some of the most beautiful scenery around. The road takes you past Breaks Interstate Park, the “Grand Canyon of the South,” and through mountain passes, past rivers and lakes, and into valleys.
After you coast down the mountain from Clintwood, stop at The Carter Family Fold in Hiltons. Hiltons is a tiny community, but every Saturday night The Fold is packed with music lovers and musicians. It seats 800, but you’re more likely to find the audience clogging and clapping their hands.
A little piece down the road is Bristol – the Birthplace of Country Music. In 1927, the Bristol Sessions revealed the traditional mountain sounds of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Ernest Stoneman and others. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum immerses visitors into that world. Step into the soundproof Karaoke booth and sing your heart out. Watch a live radio broadcast or attend a concert.
After a short trip, you’ll find yourself at Heartwood in Abingdon, the home of The Crooked Road’s offices. The deconstructed barn and silo is also host to a Virginia craft and art store, Thursday Night jams, interactive exhibits, a restaurant, and a coffee and wine bar. Abingdon is a small historic town filled with restaurants, music, craft beer and charming bed & breakfasts. Other venues on the Road are Country Cabin II, Old Fiddlers Convention and Rex Theatre, Blue Ridge Music Center, Floyd Country Store and County Sales and Blue Ridge Institute and Museum.
The Road’s 60-plus smaller locations and festivals are welcoming, unique places to sit back and listen. The folks are friendly, the musicians are jamming, and the hospitality is Southern. When the weather is warm, it’s hard to find a weekend without a music festival, particularly on the eastern end of the Road. There is a Bluegrass Festival in Ferrum, Va., Houston Fest in Galax, the Wayside Bluegrass Festival in Stuart and the Old-Time and Bluegrass Fiddlers Convention in Grayson County – to name just a few.
Try driving slowly with the car windows down; you never know when you’ll hear the musical heirs of Sara and A.P or Dr. Ralph reverberating.
You can plan your trip with an interactive map on The Crooked Road’s website.
Photography by Erica Yoon