Bluegrass Trails | The Crooked Road, Virginia

Part of the Bluegrass Trails series, on the trail of bluegrass history & its pioneers/early protagonists.

There’s history here in Virginia, officially the Commonwealth of Virginia. Lots of it. A small Appalachian state which somehow also manages to boast a long Atlantic coastline, this is an historically diverse region that is literally the birthplace of America, where English settlers established the first permanent English-speaking colony in the New World (in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia). It’s also the oldest of the 13 original colonies, the 13 British colonies of the North American East Coast settled by the British between 1607 and 1732 and which present-day America grew from. Suffice it to say, Old Dominion boasts many an historic landmark, with the state capital of Richmond, one of a whopping 38 independent cities in the state alone (of 41 nationwide), among the country’s oldest cities. The lands here are caked in blood from America’s conception, birth and coming of age; Yorktown in southeastern Virginia was the site of the last battle of the American Revolution and the British surrender of 1781 & as the epicentre of the Civil War there are more historic battlegrounds here than in any other state.

So yeah, there’s history here alright. But there’s also music. Music history. Bluegrass music history.

The Appalachian Mountains & Bluegrass

The Appalachian Mountains occupying the whole western portion of the state of Virginia & commonly referred to as simply the Appalachians, are a system of mountains stretching for some 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) in a northeast to southwest direction in eastern North America, from Belle Isle in Canada to northern Alabama & northeast Mississippi. Formed some 480 million years ago, they once reached heights similar to those of the Alps and the Rocky Mountains before the onset of natural erosion knocked them down a peg or two. A long series of alternating ridgelines and valleys divided into various mountain subranges, these are ancient lands steeped in history, cool and misty hills carpeted in blue-green hemlock, pine, and oak trees, a picturesque ecosystem that is home to an abundance of wildlife including cougars, deer, black bears, wild turkeys, and great horned owls. A nirvana for hikers and the outdorsey type, the region is criss-crossed by craggy mountain trails, many of which combine to form the famous Appalachian Trail, the country’s longest amble – measuring 2,150 miles (3,460 kilometres), it traverses no less than 6 National Parks, 8 National Forests and a whopping 14 states.

My Grass Is Blue. Off Georgia State Route 180 of the Russell-Brasstown National Scenic Byway near Soapstone Creek, Georgia, southern Appalachia. September 22, 2016.

Bluegrass, in its earliest forms, seeped out of the Appalachian hills – those pioneers who migrated from Ireland, Scotland, and England to America in the 1600s brought with them the basic styles of a musical genre that is generally considered to be the roots of bluegrass music as we know & love it today. As the Jamestown settlers began to move west into the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, they wrote songs about day-to-day life in the new land. Since most of these people lived in remote areas, the songs reflected life on the farm or in the hills. Eventually this type of “mountain” or “country music” spread out of the mountains and into the homes of people all over the United States thanks largely to the invention of the phonograph and the onset of the radio in the early 1900s.

Appalachian bluegrass road trip. On the musical Crooked Road, western Virginia. September 25, 2016.

Historic clout aside, Virginia for us meant music. Old-time Appalachia “mountain music”. A present-day legacy of Celts – displaced from Britain & Ireland in the 17th century, they filtered into the Appalachians, mixed with the locals & created a genre of folk mountain music – today old-time music & bluegrass festivals are as linked to the Virginia hills as the dark strands of dogwood and fir trees. The state even honours this legacy via its very own Heritage Music Trail along its so-called Crooked Road, a 300-mile-long regional route connecting 19 counties, four cities and over 50 towns and communities where heritage music is celebrated year-round (although mostly in the warmer months). And to partake in an Appalachian musical celebration is what we did in the Crooked Road town of Galax, Virginia.

The Rex Theater, Galax, Virginia, home of Friday night Blueridge Backroads on 98.1 WBRF. September 23, 2016.

Just one of dozens of regional towns claiming to be a gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Galax is a quiet, quaint & prototypical old-time music-lovin’ Appalachian town of simple living, friendly locals, strong accents, and a rich musical heritage – beginning in 1935, the town is home to world’s oldest and largest competition for old-time music musicians, the Old Fiddlers’ Convention. And for one day in September 2016 the town was cordoned off to facilitate Rex Fest, a day-long celebration of regional music & dance.

Blue Ridge Backroads on 98.1 WBRF from the Rex Theatre, Galax, Virginia. September 23, 2016.

We had tickets for the following day’s Rex Fest bluegrass musical bonanza, but on its eve we got a taste of what is to come by attending a performance by Galax resident and banjo picker Stevie Barr (& Friends) in the town’s historic Rex Theater. The 100-mile-an-hour performance of premier pickin’ was awesome, but we still managed to resist the urge to do some front and centre dancin’ with the locals. Oh yes, this is old school Appalachia alright.

Stevie Barr & Friends — (l-r) Daniel Greeson (fiddle), Stevie Barr (banjo), Janette Williams (bass & vocals) & Johnny Williams (guitar & vocals) — performing in the Rex Theatre for Blue Ridge Backroads on 98.1 WBRF. Galax, Virginia. September 23, 2016.