I am in Galax, Virginia, near the North Carolina border in the far southwestern snout of the state. I am far from my home, eating a “busted onion” (which is more commonly referred to as being “in bloom”) and meatloaf with garlic mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables in a restaurant called Bogey’s. I am here with a group of travel writers, our Virginia Tourism Corporation minders, and assorted locals. Sitting across from me are Spencer Strickland and his wife, Leah, who are both 22. Spencer is a second-generation bluegrass musician, and I am attempting to talk to him about music. Spencer plays guitar as well as the mandolin, so I ask him what he thinks about Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. He doesn’t, apparently. I try to come up with music that has a little more twang, and ask him if he likes the alternative country band Wilco, or the White Stripes. He looks at me blankly, until Leah reminds him that the guy from the White Stripes recently made an album with Loretta Lynn. “Oh yeah,” Spencer says of Jack White’s effort. “That was all right.” I throw more names at him—Cole Porter, Ryan Adams, Mozart, Eddie Van Halen—but the reaction is about the same. Then Spencer, who looks like Beaver Cleaver and won Best All Around Performer at the Galax Fiddlers’ Convention when he was 19, tells me that Chris Thile from Nickel Creek is the greatest musician alive. Nickel Creek is a huge-selling progressive bluegrass band whose members look like poster children for Young Life, and whose music is not exactly an MTV staple. Spencer turns and looks at Tamra, the flak for Virginia Tourism, who has her Blackberry sitting next to her plate. “Look at that phone,” Spencer says. “You’re like Paris Hilton!”
I’m on a State-sponsored media junket—three days traveling “The Crooked Road,” Virginia’s official Heritage Music Trail. The Crooked Road extends through Southwest-ern Virginia from Rocky Mount to the Kentucky-hugging town of Breaks. Two-hundred and thirty-five miles long, it runs largely along Route 58 through 10 counties and 45 cities and towns. The Crooked Road winds through some of the earliest centers of bluegrass and old-time music around, and traveling its length involves, in a very real sense, tracing the birth of American music. It is, in actuality, pretty damn crooked.
Virginia’s musical heritage encompasses a lot of strange and wonderful things. On the first day the six of us gaze at the one stoplight in all of Floyd County, at the corner of Main and Locust. In Floyd we meet Woody Crenshaw, local artisan and owner of the Floyd Country Store, whose Friday night Old-Time Jamboree regularly packs in hundreds of people. Woody is wearing Versace glasses, and will leave for the south of France the day after we meet him. We stop at milepost 176 to look at Mabry Mill, the most photographed site on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and duly photograph it. (Mabry Mill is so over-imaged that other states use it on postcards.) We meet someone who is a distant cousin of Reese Witherspoon. And we visit the Blue Ridge Music Center, where we meet Spencer and Leah.
What most of us now call bluegrass (and what was once called “hillbilly music”) was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The term “hillbilly” comes from a Virginia band called The Hill Billies. Bands from in and around Fries, circa 1923, made the first hillbilly recordings. In the 1920s those crooked mountains were filled with more hot bands than Seattle in the 1990s—bands like The Powers Family, whose two daughters, Ada and Orpha, captured in scratchy black-and-white photographs, are the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, from Carroll County, had a 44-year music career, and his music has been recorded on every type of media—from Edison wax cylinders to CDs. There were even black hillbillies, like Carl Martin from Big Stone Gap, who eventually made his way to Chicago and played for Al Capone, and who could still be seen in the 1970s at folk festivals wearing a medallion the size of a grapefruit around his neck.
The type of music that is found in Southwestern Virginia is called, variously, bluegrass and old-time, and the difference between the two terms is vague and probably not terribly important to most of us. Basically, old-time was a name given by record companies to the music being made in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1920s, and it tends to connote music made for dancing. Bluegrass was a term coined for the music Bill Monroe began playing around 1945. With its rapid-fire solos and aggressive beat, it is more often seen as concert music.
The basic instrumentation is the same for both: banjo, guitar, stand-up bass, mandolin and fiddle, with no drums or amplifiers. The sound is probably somewhat familiar to most: the fast, bouncing, plink-a-dee-plink of the banjo, the scraping, panicked crow’s shriek of the fiddle, and the crooked-jawed, stuffy-nosed hillbilly keening of the voice.
Spencer Strickland, for whom Eric Clapton does not appear to be God, is an apprentice luthier, meaning that he makes guitars and other bluegrass instruments. These handmade instruments are highly sought after and can sell for many thousands of dollars. We first meet Spencer, hours before dinner at Bogey’s, at the Blue Ridge Music Center, where he and his teacher, Gerald Anderson, sit under giant photographs of themselves and show tourists how they make guitars.
At dinner that night, I discover that Spencer has a wicked crush on Mary Tyler Moore; he watches TV Land all day while he works. Leah points out that the actress is kind of old for him, but Spencer doesn’t seem to care. He points out that Leah is a lot like Mary Tyler Moore herself, and she blushes: “You know what? I am!” I ask them if they are going to go to Floyd Fest, the nearby music festival that is starting in five days. Leah says no, that it’s not really their type of thing. “It’s a lot of, I guess you’d say, hippies. Well, the girls don’t shave their legs and they like to jump around in the mud and stuff.”
Spencer and Leah are guileless and wholly un-ironic. At 22, they have completely accepted the world of their parents and their grandparents. They seem to be entirely comfortable with life as it is around them, and, while this is perhaps a good thing, it is also somewhat frightening to see youth so willingly submerged in nostalgia.
After dinner, which is capped with coffee and a selection of pies, we go to the Rex Theater in Galax to hear a band called TrueGrass. The Rex is an old movie theater with seats that rock back so far you could win a limbo contest. Every Friday night the show at The Rex is broadcast live on the radio, and it’s free. The audience is entirely gray-haired, and they come from Virginia (of course), but also from Florida, Rhode Island, Texas and California. “What you see here is what you get,” says the emcee.
From the very first note people are getting up to flatfoot in front of the stage. Flatfooting looks like a cross between playground skipping and country clogging. It is how you dance to bluegrass and old-time, and it’s an ecstatic compulsion that gets these seemingly staid country people out on the floor.
“All good times are past and gone” the band sings. The hokiest schtick precedes songs of such unrelenting misery that it makes me think that all the emo bands in the world should just pack it in. “I’ll just pretend that I don’t love you/I’ll just pretend that I don’t care/and when I meet you face to face dear/ I’ll turn away and just pretend.”
The second day we travel to Hiltons to visit the ancestral home of the Carter Family. The Carter Family Fold, as it is called, is quite possibly the most sacred ground in American music. It is here that A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter made mountain music that helped create modern country. Maybelle’s daughter June later married Johnny Cash, and the Fold is where Johnny played his last concert, on July 5, 2003. Now it’s a museum and concert stage run by Rita Forrester and her brother Dale Jett, both grandchildren of Sara Carter.
There is a feeling I just can’t shake along the Crooked Road. Call it a sense of mummification. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes between performance and re-enactment. It seems that, in order to remember our past, we must be doomed to repeat it. After the success of the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, it looked like bluegrass and old-time would finally go mainstream. Most of the 6 million or so latté-sipping NPR listeners who bought the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film seemed to find memories of a simpler time in the music—a time they obviously felt they missed out on. But, in truth, everyone missed out on that simpler time—especially the hardscrabble hillbillies who sang “One glad morning, when this life is over, I’ll fly away.”
Nostalgia is a standard feature in this music. From its opening notes it was already mourning what was lost, never to return until Judgment Day. It is, at times, ghostly sounding—played in hills that many claim are rife with spirits, or at least The Spirit—and ghostly is exactly how most of its proponents want it to remain. But the Good Old Days were pretty rough. I’ve seen the cabin where A. P. Carter was born, and I guarantee you that few would want to trade places with him.
The dance floor in front of the stage at the Carter Fold is concrete, and the dancers kick up quite a cacophony. Serious flatfooters wear metal taps on their shoes, and when 20 or more dancers hit the floor it’s like trying to listen to the band play during a hailstorm on a tin roof. Flatfooting seems to be an integral, necessary part of the show—like a mosh pit, only with less blood and more casual conversation. If you’re wondering if I got up and danced the answer is yes—and I enjoyed the hell out of it.
On day three we drive quietly through Pound, where it’s illegal to dance. We pass by the former Carriage House Restaurant in Big Stone Gap, where Elizabeth Taylor nearly choked to death on a chicken bone when she was a state politician’s plump wife.
In Dickenson County everything old is new again. The coal industry is booming after years of steady decline. Every burnable thing they can pull out of the ground from now until 2008 is already sold, mostly to China. For years the price of coal had been steadily dropping, and miners have been leaving by the hundreds, but now the mines are begging for workers in one of the poorest regions in the state. Meet the new jobs, same as the old jobs.
Bluegrass seems to be booming too. Ironically, O Brother has introduced local kids to the heritage they never cared they had. Hollywood has made this music cool again, and local schools have introduced old-time and bluegrass classes to their curriculum. Later, at a reception, we watch a 12-year-old girl sing a beautiful old mining ballad, and I imagine her father going to work—just like the old days, only in new, deeper mines. And when those mines collapse, as they still do, I imagine her singing this newly relevant song by his grave.
Our final destination is the town of Bristol, which sits in both Virginia and Tennessee. Bristol is often called the “birthplace of country music.” In 1927 Ralph Peer made recordings of a whole bunch of musicians from the nearby mountains, and two of them—the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers—became country music’s first commercial stars. Bristol has live music every night but Sunday, and massive renovations are planned for the historic downtown. Folks in Bristol are working very hard to convince visitors that bluegrass and old-time music have a future—but to me that future looks pretty much like the past.
We are in Bristol to see a taping of “Mountain Stage,” a venerable NPR program that is usually broadcast from West Virginia. It features various kinds of “mountain” music, but, considering that R.E.M. once played the show, maybe it’s simply mandolins that are the unifying factor. This weekend “Mountain Stage” has come to Bristol to tape TV and radio sessions, and Bristol is pulsing with a sense of importance. Tonight’s show is the big finale, and it features Carter Family member Dale Jett and Dr. Ralph Stanley & His Clinch Mountain Boys. It is being held in the Paramount, a revamped 1931-era theatre—the interior of which seems to be covered entirely in gold.
Dale Jett steps into the stage lights. A. P. Carter’s grandson looks like a man not even remotely ready to take on the mantle of “First Family of Country Music.” He is a big man, but, as he cradles his autoharp, he seems to shrink before our eyes. His three-piece band had played the night before at the Carter Fold, but now—freed from the suffocating self-referentiality of that ancestral birthplace—they are transformed into a modern vision of the original Carter family, come to the Big City armed only with their faith and their music. They sing an old Carter Family tune, “No Depression,” and suddenly I get it. I get how this 1930s-era song can still seem vitally true today—a time of evil governments, never-ending wars and all-pervading doom. “I fear the hearts of men are failing, for these are latter days we know.”
And I get how those simple things—like Life and Love and Death and Family—are all that the people of Southwest Virginia have ever really owned, and how now, along The Crooked Road, it’s all that they have left to sell. “I’ll leave this world of toil and trouble, my home’s in Heaven, I’m going there.”
Ralph Stanley moves slowly, and with determination, to the front of the stage, leading what will most likely be the final lineup of his longtime backing band, The Clinch Mountain Boys. At 79, Stanley is easily the greatest living bluegrass and old-time legend in the world. Along with the late Bill Monroe, he is considered one of the music’s founding fathers, and in 2000 he won a Grammy for his song “O Death,” featured on the O Brother soundtrack.
With him are his son, Ralph Stanley II, and his grandson, Nathan Stanley. Nathan Stanley plays fast and furious, with tightly pursed lips, and he betrays not a hint of self-doubt. He wears a big ring on his fretting hand, and a big silver watch. He is 14.
Ralph Stanley was born in Dickenson County in 1927, and still lives nearby. He seems always to be staring at something only he can see. On the final night of this junket, he sings his a cappella dirge, “O Death,” in a tone redolent of the deepest parts of this world. “To drop the flesh off of the frame” he sings, “the earth and worms both have a claim.” Maybe the true secret of old-time music is this: It has never forgotten that the earth and the worms will one day claim us all—even Ralph Stanley, even Johnny Cash, even the music.
The Clinch Mountain Boys end with a bluegrass classic, “Orange Blossom Special,” and it is well-nigh perfect. It isn’t heavenly music—it is utterly of this earth, and these specific Virginia hills. It sounds like a freight train dancing, and it contains a nostalgia for greatness that can turn a grown man’s home into a shrine, and trap a young man inside other people’s memories like a bug in amber. It takes you back to where you came from, and then out to where you cannot see, and then back again. Just like the Crooked Road.