Stroll down Main Street in Madison on Saturday, September 3 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Stop by the booth manned by the volunteer fire department and try one of their famous steak sandwiches. Head over to the bandstand and hear old-time mountain music and 21st century mountain music—they call it “country”—and the marches and show tunes of Madison County High School’s Marching Mountaineers. Check out the dozens (and dozens) of craft tables, tour a 19th century mansion, and treat the kids to pony rides and magic shows.
You can do all this and a whole lot more at Taste of the Mountains, the annual festival celebrating, carrying on and extending the musical, artistic, and culinary traditions of 18th and 19th century Blue Ridge Mountain culture. Back when it was first held in 1993, Taste was mostly a local affair. Not anymore. Not since a mere six years later in 1999 when it was named one of the top 20 festivals in the southeastern United States by the Southeast Tourism Society. The hay ride-style transport from the parking lot at Madison County High School may have given way to buses to accommodate the natives, the nostalgic, and the curious flocking to a few short downtown blocks, but Taste is still the day that little Madison shows off.
History and Heritage
Madison County was chartered in 1792 and named for a family—the same that gave the country its fourth president—which owned land along the Rapidan River. It was largely settled by families of German, English and Scots-Irish descent whose own descendants remain in the area today. President Herbert Hoover liked the area so much that he bought land along the upper Rapidan in what is now Shenandoah National Park and established Camp Hoover, which served as his country retreat throughout his presidency.
Today, most remarkably, the tiny little town of Madison, the county seat (0.2 square miles; population 229 in the 2010 census) has six structures on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Madison County Courthouse, which dates to 1828. The Greek Revival-style Kemper Residence (circa 1852) was built by Confederate Major General James Lawson Kemper, Virginia Governor from 1874 to 1877. It has been restored and furnished in period style, and will be open to visitors. Civil War re-enactors on the mansion’s lawn will portray Company C of Kemper’s own 7th Virginia Infantry Unit.
Eat, Shop, Play
Area restauranteurs including Bavarian Chef, Honey BBQ and Sweet Springs Ice Cream will welcome festivalgoers with food trucks, and Madison County’s wineries will offer samples in a tasting tent. Local small businesses, like furniture makers E.A. Clore Sons and artisan showcase Mad Arts, will display their wares at some of the Festival’s 170 booths; other booths will be occupied by out of state artists and craftspeople who think so highly of the event that they return year after year. As always, The Fredericksburg Antique Auto Club of America will exhibit its cool vintage cars, while kids will enjoy games, pony rides, and a magic show.
Madison’s own Dark Hollow Bluegrass Band plays traditional mountain music in the style of Charlie Moore, The Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and Charlie Waller. “We are known for the way we dress,” says singer and banjo player Paul Fincham. “We dress up like they did back in the 30s, with the fedora hats and the vinyl black and white shoes.” The band has played Taste for the past half dozen years, and Fincham is looking forward to doing it again. “Anything you’re looking for,” he says, “you’ve got it up on Main Street.”
Madison singer Jessica Weaver played on the Katie Couric show and won Martina McBride’s Blackbird Country Contest—the $25,000 prize came with a recording session in McBride’s Nashville studio. Weaver and her band Silver Linings are Festival favorites and will entertain again this year.
Professional athlete turned rapper Jon James is known for a stage show that mixes rhymes with extreme sports. “Music is the canvas of my life,” James says. “I like to inspire the listeners to follow the voice of their own soul instead of the clustered noise of the outside world.”
David Gilmore hails from Culpeper, honed his chops in Nashville, and has played Taste “for at least the last 7 years.” He’ll sing originals and cover songs ranging all the way from The Doors hit “Light My Fire” to the George Jones classic ‘’He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Bennie Dodd is from Nelson County but makes his home near Waynesboro today. He and his band will play his own blend of old time country, bluegrass and rock classics “with seasoning in between.”
“Madison is a real quiet neighborhood,” Fincham says. “They treat you real good. It’s just a little town that welcomes everybody in.” Madison native Tracey Gardner agrees. “When I was a teenager,” she says, “I couldn’t wait to get out. I went into travel and tourism and quickly realized what we have: it’s a sense of peace that you get when you come home. We call it ‘Madison Pride.’”