The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Musical Highway
Virginia has long been considered one of the central nests that hatched bluegrass and country music onto the American music scene and nurtured its growth from the earliest days of recorded music and live professional performance. The list of performers, music venues, luthiers, and events developed in this state is too long for any column to even summarize, but the state has provided a rich, rewarding way to get in touch with this musical heritage while enjoying its outgrowth today, from small town pickings to major performances. It’s called The Crooked Road.
Largely the creation of the late Joe Wilson (1938-2015), former executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, The Crooked Road runs from, roughly, Rocky Mount, VA, to The Breaks Interstate Park, over a twisty, mountainous series of roads and offshoots that will take visitors to some of the most hallowed music sites in country and bluegrass music as well as some of the most beautiful vistas in the country.
Map of the Crooked Road
Crossed by two interstate highways, I-81 and I-77, it is necessary to leave the well traveled roads and enter into rural America to see, hear, and experience the world of the Crooked Road. Along the roughly 250 miles of highway and byway, you will find 26 Wayside Exhibits, marked by the ubiquitous Crooked Road Logo, where there are textual highlights as well as a narrative and some of recordings of the historical music that originated in or near that place. The interactive map will also show you 60-some Affiliated Venues hosting jams, performances, and festivals in large and small locations. Finally, there are a dozen Major Venues where music history and larger music performances are featured. Since many of these venues are at their musical best on weekends, it may take you a while to see and experience all this musical, cultural wealth. That’s why we’ve kept returning to the Crooked Road time after time for years. All this takes place in a small corner of Southwestern Virginia. Of course, there’s more in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and beyond, if you wish to keep exploring.
Ferrum, VA, is the home of IBMA award-winning singer/bandleader Junior Sisk as well as the Blueridge Folklife Festival, held on the fourth weekend in October, often the height of autumn color in the region. Junior’s father, Harry Sisk, is a well-known writer of bluegrass songs and a former performer. Junior is a major touring artist who’s been leading his own band, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, for nearly a decade. His fine tenor voice and accomplished band, which can often be heard at local and regional as well as large national festivals around the country, provide traditional bluegrass in a contemporary setting. In the fall, you might find him in the woods hunting for deer to fill his freezer at home. I had a sample of Junior’s venison stew a few years ago and can’t wait for another taste.
A number of fine luthiers live and work, as well as perform, along the Crooked Road. They get together at festivals to play in groups, solo, or with other bands. Perhaps the best known is Wayne Henderson, whose home is in Rugby, VA, a dot on the map with a population reputed to be seven people. There he makes guitars of such quality that when Eric Clapton ordered a guitar from him, he had to wait for eight years to get it. Jimmy Edmonds, who lives and works in Galax, VA, has a waiting list nearly as long, with performers like Zac Brown treasuring his instruments. Jimmy is the son and grandson of famous Virginia fiddlers, and himself has won the fiddle contest at the annual Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention five times. Along with Gerald Anderson and Spencer Strickland, each a fine luthier in his own right, Henderson and Edmonds perform at festivals as the Virginia Luthiers, a name I coined after they performed at South Carolina’s RenoFest several years ago. There are too many more to even list all the luthiers to be found along the Crooked Road, but the road’s website and a book detailing stops along the road both help.
At the northwestern end of The Crooked Road, just a lovely drive south of The Breaks Interstate Park, from which parts of Virginia and Kentucky can be seen from a single point, lies Clintonwood, VA, home of the Ralph Stanley Museum, one of the finest regional museums we’ve seen. Ralph Stanley, along with his brother Carter, differentiated themselves from their rivals Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt by referring to their music as mountain music, retaining the music’s edginess and beloved by bluegrass fans everywhere. Ralph Stanley, who came from nearby McClure, VA, reached his greatest fame as a result of the blockbuster film O Brother, Where Art Thou. However, their singing and songs were models for bluegrass musicians and fans from the mid-1950s onward. Ralph Stanley died at age 89 last June.
The Carter Fold, located just north of Bristol, VA/TN, is the home of the Carter Family, best known as the foundational sound and source of country and bluegrass music. A.P. Carter met and married Sara Dougherty, who was also a cousin of Maybelle Addington, married to A.P.’s brother Ezra Carter. What was to become the famous Carter Family was first recorded by Ralph Peer in 1927 in Bristol, along with Jimmie Rodgers. Their music continues to remain popular in traditional country music and bluegrass, sung around campfires and from stages everywhere in the world. The family’s connection to Johnny Cash through his wife June Carter Cash helps continue their legacy. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, in Bristol, deserves an entry of its own. We plan to visit there in September.
There’s much more to be seen, experienced, and written about along The Crooked Road. Get off the main highways and take a leisurely drive through this interesting, beautiful, and important region celebrating part of America’s musical biography.