Banjos and Barbecue
True music lovers shouldn’t really travel anywhere without sampling some local sounds. So it was that I found myself recently in the Rex Theater, Galax, southwest Virginia, listening to bluegrass courtesy of the Slate Mountain Ramblers. In many ways it was more than I could have imagined.
Family brought me on a visit to Galax from England (my niece is a local teacher ), otherwise the chances of my showing up there would be pretty much nil. It is a town of around 7,000 people in Appalachia (pronounced appalAHTCHia, not appalAYSHia, because it is in the South). Pretty much in the middle of nowhere, to be honest, which is not to say that that is a bad place to be.
I knew about Galax even before my niece did. I have an old vinyl record called “New River Jam”, which I bought in the 1970s. It was pressed in Galax and features a lot of bluegrass from a festival held there. Galax is home to the Old Fiddler’s Convention. It is also on something called The Crooked Road, which winds through 10 southwestern Virginia counties from the Kentucky border to Rocky Mount (and vice versa, I guess). I have not done it, but it takes you though a living history of U.S. mountain music, including where the Carter Family came from.
So, back to the Slate Mountain Ramblers evening. To be frank, they were entertaining rather than great. They are the real thing all right — English me could barely understand what they said between songs — but at this gig they lacked the long banjo and fiddle breaks that can make bluegrass exciting. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was half the audience getting up and flat-footing, which is obviously related to British clog-dancing. Some of them, particularly a lady with spoons, were great. What was really nice, however, was to see that the ages of the dances ranged from old to very young — so the tradition is being carried on.
The Rex Theater, meanwhile, is probably worth a visit on its own. It is an old-style, renovated picture house, now home to the bluegrass concerts that are broadcast on WBRF 98.1 FM. You — or should I say y’all — can listen to it here. Hearing the compere thanks in the local sponsors was like Prairie Home Companion, only real. My memory fails me, but I swear I heard that Knuckles Pharmacy has been serving the community for 150 years.
Diverging slightly from the music, I have to also mention my meal at Squealers Barbecue. Now, we are not talking here about slapping a burger on a grill. That is a barbecue. This is barbecue — slow-cooked pork in a vinegar-based sauce. There were also ribs. And beer.
Not West Virginia, but all in all, almost Heaven.