Nevermind the barbershop, here’s Floyd’s Country Store
If there were more lawyers out there like William Morgan, all those lawyer jokes that inevitably make the rounds wouldn’t be necessary. Morgan, you see, is a bluegrass fan, and that makes all the difference in the world.
In what may amount to a whole passel of karma points, Morgan and three partners have bought the Floyd Country Store, located in downtown Floyd, Virginia, a block south of the only traffic light in Floyd County, and home of the Friday Night Jamboree.
The future of both the store and the jamboree were in jeopardy when it went up for sale last September. Now, instead of turning it into office space or tearing it down, Morgan and company are planning to continue the 15-year-old tradition of weekly live bluegrass music.
“We aim to keep it going,” Morgan avowed while supervising a soundcheck on a recent Saturday afternoon. “We’ve introduced a Saturday night concert series, but otherwise the motto around here is, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'”
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains about an hour south of Roanoke, Floyd is a funky little place that has largely escaped notice from the outside world. Sure, the hippies moved in a few years ago, but the county’s distance from a sizable urban population has kept its rural nature largely intact. As a rseult, the town of Floyd is an odd — for southwest Virginia, anyway — mixture of communities. There’s a health food store named Harvest Moon right next to the Farmer’s Foods grocery store. The Blue Ridge restaurant serves up home cooking across the street from an artists’ collective. There are communes out in the county. The barbershop, of course, is named Floyd’s.
Music — bluegrass music — is the common denominator around here, and most knowledgeable ‘grassers have had Floyd on their radar for the last few years. That’s in part due to location. Galax, home of the world-famous old-time fiddlers’ convention, is an hour or so to the south. Rebel Records was, until recently, based in Roanoke. Tim Austin (late of the Lonesome River Band) has his Doobie Shea label in nearby Boone’s Mill, and County Sales, the world’s largest distributor of bluegrass and old-time records, is located in an old theater right around the corner from the Floyd Country Store.
The store’s former owner, Freeman Cockram, started the jamboree in 1984 as an informal after-hours picking session for a few friends. Interest grew and soon the sessions were filled to capacity, with the overflow spilling out onto the street. By 1986, the jamboree had turned into a Friday night tradition, with musicians, locals and tourists flocking to the 75-year-old white clapboard country store. The music was either bluegrass or old-time, but always lively, and the store became known as the place to go for clogging and flatfooting.
“Friday nights it’s like a mini fiddlers’ convention out there, especially in the summertime,” says Morgan. “There’s a built-in crowd and most weeks it’s standing room only.”
Morgan, a native of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, who now lives in Chapel Hill, says that respect for this tradition and love of the music were the two things that attracted him initially when Brough informed him of the store’s impending sale. “I’ve been slinking around bluegrass festivals and music halls since I could drive,” he says. “It’s in my blood.”
Morgan and his law colleague, Mike Brough, quickly formed a partnership, signed a contract with the store’s current owner, and closed the deal in mid-January (they’ve since added a third set of partners, Jerry Skenderian and his companion, Rain Lutz, as on-site managers). And while it’s a partnership of equals, Morgan’s connections with the bluegrass world were what cemented the deal. He represents Doobie Shea Records, Green Acres Music Hall, and Little King Records, as well as groups such as Acoustic Syndicate and the Shady Grove Band.
“I represent people in this business because I decided that this was going to be my way to be a part of what I love. I certainly knew I was never going to be a picker,” he laughs.
The first Saturday night performance, by Wayne Henderson, was held on January 6 to a capacity crowd of 160. Since then, the new owners have had a bluegrass show nearly every weekend, attracting such acts as Jack Lawrence & Jimmy Gaudreau, the Williamson Brothers, Jeanette Williams & Clearwater, and Lost & Found.
Morgan acknowledges that running a music venue located three hours from his Chapel Hill home base will be a challenge, at least initially. The first phase of operation has been dominated by assessing the immediate needs surrounding the store’s physical structure. Morgan installed a $10,000 sound system to replace the antiquated PA; the group is also considering moving the stage to improve the room’s sightlines. At present, the one bathroom is inadequate, hovering on the verge of collapse every weekend.
Other plans include stocking the now bare shelves with Virginia-made crafts, and selling bluegrass CDs and musical accessories. They hope to tap into the summer tourist market if possible and have already advertised extensively in the region.
“In terms of the music, we want to put together unique yet natural combinations of entertainment that you won’t see anywhere else,” Morgan says. “We want this to be a little venue where you can drive into town and see something that you can’t see anywhere else.”
For now, there are no plans to change the Friday night jamboree one iota, which sits well with the dance and old-time fans. And the locals seem to have cottoned to the idea of a steady stream of “name” bluegrass bands coming to town. The Saturday night shows, too, are set up like traditional jamborees, featuring local musicians as openers and closers, with the headliner performing a two-hour set in the middle.
Jim DeHart is the heart and soul of the Floyd Country Store. A former president of the Roanoke Fiddle & Banjo Club, DeHart is the jamboree’s longtime emcee and also plays in the Blue Ridge Ramblers, the de facto house band. On a recent Saturday evening, he made a special point of thanking the new owners during his set. Then, after thanking the headliners and making a couple of banjo player jokes, he and the band ripped into “Old Joe Clark”. The old guard, it would seem, is pleased with the new setup.
Morgan and his partners may not be sitting on a gold mine, but for now, here in Floyd, they are certainly sittin’ on top of the world.
Directions to Floyd: On I-81, get off on Exit 114. Turn onto Route 8 south toward Floyd, about 22 miles away. The Floyd Country Store is located at 206 S. Locust St., one block south of the only stoplight in town. Floyd is just minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway as well.
Where to stay and eat: There are no motels except near the interstate, but there is a cozy old-fashioned motor lodge named the Pine Tavern Lodge about one-and-a-half miles northeast of town on Route 221 (540-745-4428). The restaurant there is reportedly excellent. The Blue Ridge restaurant is also a good source of home cooking (I’ll vouch for the banana pudding).
Where to kill a lot of time: County Sales (540-745-2922) has its distribution center about 50 yards away from the store and welcomes visitors. William Morgan swears he lost three hours in there one day.