Galax, Floyd and Other Crooked Places

A little more than ten years ago, I read an article about music in Southwestern Virginia. About two months ago, I found it again, but this time, I decided do more than read and file the article in my “someday” folder. I decided to go, and see what The Crooked Road was all about.

Had I known, I would have first picked up Joe Wilson’s excellent and truly helpful book, A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail. And I would have paid more attention to Barry Mazor’s book, Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music, sent to me for review in 2015. As I traveled, I caught up along the way, learned a lot, listened to a lot of wonderful music, figured out some of the history, and met some wonderful people along the way.

Let me begin at something approximating the beginning. Or what I thought was the beginning. Target: Bristol, which may be in Virginia and may be in Tennessee, depending upon where you happen to be standing at the time. Bristol calls itself “The Birthplace of Country Music”–but it’s not. It is one of the places where Ralph Peer, then a producer and A&R man, visited in the 1920s when he realized there was untapped opportunity in recording, and releasing, records made by, and for, local populations. Initially, he worked for Okeh Records, then for Victor, then for RCA Victor after RCA acquired the smaller label. (Nowadays, all of this is owned by SONY, but, remarkably, Peer’s own successor company (peer music, founded in 1928) remains independent, and a major force in the music industry. More about that in a moment.)

Bristol is about as far you can go heading west in Virginia before running into Tennessee. It’s near North Carolina, and an hour south of the part of Kentucky that was recently devastated by flooding. A few blocks from the warehouse where Ralph Peer and his recording engineer set up their portable, traveling studio, there’s a museum that tells the local story. Even better, you can drive about 40 minutes up the road to pay homage to The Carter Family, who recorded at the famous Victor Bristol sessions in 1927. The site is called the Carter Fold. The hillside location includes a one-room museum (previously the family-owned grocery store), and a lively amphitheater. That’s where they hold the annual memorial concert—with an ample, active dance floor. The distinction between old-time and bluegrass music isn’t always clear, but who cares? Spending an afternoon watching, and listening to local, live music is a wonderfully satisfying experience—this is the real thing, not a studio production, but music that’s been made around here for a century or more. Featured: Crooked Road Ramblers, Whitetop Mountain Band, and Hogslop String Band. All terrific. All captured on CDs that I now own. Along with a well-regarded Carter Family book, a biography of a complicated family that includes June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, Roseanne Cash, and the fire chief who is married to a family member and helped me extract my car from a muddy parking lot.

It’s not easy to figure out where this mountain music began because it probably started in a lot of places in Virginia, West Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Texas, and lots of other places. Sitting and listening in and around Galax, home to a prestigious annual fiddle festival, and to The Blue Ridge Music Center, where the midday breezeway concert might feature the Fisher Peak Timber Rattlers. It’s fun to watch them because they are talented performers in a small and informal venue, but also because they bring the Music Center’s terrific museum to life. (Unfortunately, we missed The Steep Canyon Rangers in the adjacent outdoor theater—with local BBQ—the night before.)

We couldn’t stay all afternoon. We were on our way to Floyd. This is one of many towns, villages, hamlets with a regular weekly community jam session. (To learn about many other community get-togethers, check The Crooked Mile book.) The Floyd Country Store is busy from Friday night (starts after 10pm, goes on well past midnight), Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon, and more. The weekly jamboree—with plenty of dancing—is the big deal. We caught the Sunday afternoon show. Relaxed, informal, fun, players of all ages, each one choosing the next number, endless improvisations, lots of love.

Floyd is a one traffic light town (in fact, the traffic light is the only one in the entire county), and the store is a community gathering place. There’s a lovely little cafe (try the apple or key lime pie), a candy store from barrels, of course), and a gift shop. Two doors down, there’s a good brick oven pizza place with, yes, another busy performance stage. After the community jam, the store re-arranged the chairs, and we watched another band—High Fidelity, with an orientation toward bluegrass old time gospel—evocative of an earlier era, but completely fresh and modern. That night, the crowd was a bit thinner than usual because Fries, Virginia was running another popular music festival, Galax was starting its big summer event the very next day, and Clifftop, in nearby West Virginia, was just winding down.

I could easily spend an entire summer meandering from one place to another, just listening, taking pictures of old farm buildings and mountain landscapes, getting to know each local community and the people who live there. It’s tempting to look around and make assumptions about people’s lives, to discount modern times, but that’s unreasonable. The history is rich, and very much alive, but the 21st century is as much a part of life in Damascus or Independence, Virginia as it is in Chicago.

Which brings us back to Ralph Peer, and now, his son, also named Ralph. Dad brought roots music to a much larger audience. He started with blues (then called race music), then mountain / hillbilly music (including an early popular act called the Hill Billies, from these parts). Then, as variously music publisher and manager, for the Carters, Jimmie Rodgers, but that’s just the beginning. He published and produced Mexican and Latin music—working closely with Walt Disney, who became a personal friend. Lots of Latin music was featured in Disney films, MGM musicals, and other mid-century Hollywood features, with Ralph Peer’s handiwork evident through. Peer’s story includes Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Louis Armstrong, The Rolling Stones, classical composer Charles Ives, and many more contemporary artists. The company’s current work includes Lizzo, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Sofia Reyes… the list goes on and on.

Driving The Crooked Road means driving through stunning mountain scenery, hardscrabble farms, fast food sprawl, crossroads with tumbledown buildings and possibly the only gas station for many miles, no place to eat lunch and spectacular farm-to-table cafes in out-of-the-way places. One Confederate flag in 500 miles of roads. Lots of Baptist churches. People of all ages enjoying the music. Family farms, double-wide trailers, some places with no cellular service, people who could not be more helpful to a stranger in need. People who volunteer because the music matters, so they spend all day lending a hand to the current generation of Carters, keeping the legacy alive. The occasional entrepreneur, too, who sees big opportunities in this music, as Ralph Peer did 95 years ago. As he dreams of what could be, I want to stay close to this story.

Comments

  1. Jesse Norris says:

    Great story and what a great place we live in!!! Thank you

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