Welcome to Virginia's Crooked Road music trail, where the scenery's fine, the people are friendly and the songs are toe-tappingly good
Afternoon sunlight pours into the little room at the Blue Ridge Music Center, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, illuminating a scene that could have taken place a century ago. Eight musicians sit in a circle playing various stringed instruments and taking turns leading their favorite traditional folk tunes. Just outside the circle, about 15 visitors settle on folding chairs to listen, tapping their feet, sometimes humming along and, in the case of the 74-year-old woman next to me, playing a Jew’s harp in accompaniment.
“I have traveled far and near, but the land I hold so dear is my home where the mountain laurel blooms,” one of the fiddlers sings. Gradually the other musicians pick up the tune on fiddle, banjo and guitar, and layers of music fill the room with an ode to the Blue Ridge.
“We are so lucky,” the elderly woman next to me whispers. “People just don’t know how lucky we are.”
Welcome to The Crooked Road, a series of musical heritage sites throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwestern Virginia, where festivals and concerts attract thousands of visitors year-round, but where small gatherings such as this, with friends and neighbors making impromptu music together, are the real secret pleasure.
These are folks who grew up playing music in kitchens and on front porches, people who know all the words to “Little Liza Jane” and “Wildwood Flower” the way most of us know “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” It’s a way of life, and they’re gracious enough to share it.
The Crooked Road loosely follows U.S. Route 58 along more than 300 miles of winding highways and back roads at the highest part of the Blue Ridge. Established in 2003 as a way to bring tourism and redevelopment to the region, it shines a light on a bit of Americana that is literally off the beaten path.
Even before it was marketed as a “road”—a figurative reference only—the area was recognized by musicologists as having a disproportionate number of musicians and a rich tradition of jam sessions. Nine major sites, including the Blue Ridge Music Center, explore the roots of country music and mountain lifestyle through museums and concert venues. But there are also 58 smaller sites, including a Dairy Queen that hosts a popular jam session every Thursday morning from September through May, music shops, community centers, Ruritan service clubs and country stores.
During a three-day visit one weekend last fall, I base myself in Floyd, population 404, about 32 miles west of The Crooked Road’s eastern gateway. It’s within easy driving distance of three main music venues, with a fourth, The Floyd Country Store, right in town.
Like so many spots along The Crooked Road, the rolling, green hills and piney woods around Floyd are breathtakingly beautiful. But the warmth and inclusiveness of the area’s residents, many of whose families have lived in Floyd County for generations, are what have lured many people to visit and even stay. During the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s, a large cohort of hippies settled in the area. In later years, a healthy contingent of artisans and a new influx of young farmers joined them. It’s “the new age and the old age,” says Woody Crenshaw, who owns The Floyd Country Store.