Travelling The Crooked Road Music Trail

Josephine Matyas & Floyd Tourism

There are some destinations that get under your skin and you find yourself asking: How come I didn’t know about this place? The Crooked Road through Virginia is like that.

 

By Josephine Matyas and Craig Jones

The 480-kilometre route dives directly into the heartland of America’s traditional music, following two-lane highways across southwest Virginia, showcasing music evolved from the cultures of the people who settled here: the Scots-Irish, Anabaptist Germans and African-Americans.

Old-time music – where the European fiddle meets the West African banjo – and bluegrass, with its concert style solo playing and tight vocal harmonies, are so baked into the culture here that they say you can tell which town a player comes from by his style of play. Music is the accent along The Crooked Road.

We followed a part of this heritage music trail, visiting some of the highlights and connecting with local players and luthiers (makers of stringed instruments). Call ahead or stop by their shops and you’ll find a warm welcome, insightful conversation and – always – music.

 

RELATED: GREAT MUSIC TRAILS OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHEAST: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

 

Virginia_fridaynightstreetFloyd

“There’s 15,000 people in the county of Floyd and 430 people in town. And one stoplight,” laughs musician Dave Fason. “We’re starting to have ‘rush minute’ at 4:30. It’s terrifying.”

Floyd may appear small but it’s overflowing with music. Friday nights, it’s standing room only at the century-old Floyd Country Store, when owner Woody Crenshaw clears out a dance floor, sets up the stage and opens the doors to the regular weekend jamboree. The overflow crowd spills onto the sidewalk and musicians set up in alcoves along the main street.

Floyd is an audio education; an absolutely grassroots, immersive experience. Visitors can live out a dream and stay with musicians like Fason, taking lessons and booking time in his studio. Or sign up for master classes with Mike Mitchell at the Floyd Music School (he teaches reading, tab and ear).

Mike suggests coming to Floyd at the end of July when the region is awash with festivals. “You can’t do it all. It’s like the Disney World of music.”

Don’t miss:

  • The world’s largest archive of bluegrass and old-time recording at County Sales.
  • Local favourite, traditional biscuits and gravy at the Blue Ridge Restaurant.

Virginia-fiddle-shopGalax and Fries

In Galax, Barr’s Fiddle Shop is a magnet for local players and musical pilgrims. There’s a guitar being restrung on the front counter. Four young members of a Canadian bluegrass band are seeking advice about fiddles. Father and son, Tom and Stevie Barr, are hopping but always seem to have a minute to talk about the music of the region.

Tom does a quick calculation. “I’ve made over a thousand musical instruments. I learned how to make fiddles from Albert Hash. Albert told me to take a piece of wood – anything that doesn’t look like a fiddle, cut away.”

Just up the road in Fries, old-time fiddler Eddie Bond still lives in the home he was raised in. “I grew up on Albert Hash’s music – the music of the Whitetop Mountain Band. This part of the country has everything Nashville has except the commercialization. And I hope we never do.”

It’s a warm afternoon and Eddie gives Craig a workout on a classic old-time tune, Cacklin’ Hen.

Don’t miss:

Virginia-dog-guitarRugby

There are two names that everyone knows along The Crooked Road: the late Albert Hash and the luthier he mentored, Wayne Henderson of Rugby (population: 7). Wayne is widely considered the country’s best luthier – he’s the subject of the book, Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument. Yes, he did build for Eric Clapton, but he made the guitar great wait a decade, just like everyone else.

“It’s remote here,” says Wayne as we sit on his front porch, “but when I was a kid, more so. It was a way of entertainment – you jammed and picked.”

As a teen, Wayne decided he wanted to make a guitar but the only tools he had were a pocketknife and a few farm implements. “I learned you hit a piece of wood and it makes a certain sound. Put a cut in the wood and it changes the sound.

“I once rebuilt a Martin D-28 that had been run over by a car and was nothing but splinters. When I looked inside that guitar I could study it right down to the sanding marks. You can tell a lot about a piece of wood by how it’s been cut and sanded.”

For Wayne, the peak of guitar perfection was a 1939 Martin D-18. “When I build an instrument I try to make it sound like one of those, and I’m happy.”

Visiting Wayne at his shop? Call ahead to make sure he’ll be there. Order a guitar? Not so simple – the line is 10 years long and more than $25,000.

Other must-do stops along the route:

 

 

About the writers: This is an experiment in creating a lifestyle: Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby), a window of six weeks and a yearning to follow and write about the great music trails of the Southeast United States. There’s a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” (we prefer the maps).