And it really is crooked, that western portion of Virginia’s US Route 58, tightly weaving through the mountains and hollows of Grayson County and on west through Washington and Scott. The modern road obviously follows Indian paths and the wagon roads of early settlers; modern road engineers still unable to easily move mountains.
About ten years ago some smart folk with a passion for the region and its musical heritage, not to mention a flair for tourism promotion, realized that spread loosely along the path of Rt. 58 in southwest Virginia lie some of the region’s -and America’s- most important points of musical history and interest. In those mountain hollows and on the ridge tops of Virginia’s Appalachia are found some of the deepest roots of American country music. Whether blue grass, old time, or country, much of its origins can be traced back to the region. From the original homelands of its 18th-century immigrants -England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Germany for instance, combined with the rough living conditions and raw beauty of their new home places came the drive the early settlers felt to make their unique, soulful sounds. The music they created was unlike anything else the world had ever known before. It strikes us now, as then, as emotive and evocative at its core.
Bristol’s State Street is unique. It straddles the border between Virginia and Tennessee. I would think that there would be distinct advantages one way or another in terms of business location, but there seems to be equal representation of going concerns on each side of the street. We’re exploring the town, peering in shop windows and wandering. There’s a delightful variety of business on State, from dusty old junk shops to a paddleboard emporium tended by a friendly smiling woman with spiked hair. And then there’s the Burger Barn, a decades-old institution that serves up Americana-on-a-bun like nobody else. Our real objective in visiting Bristol, however, is to visit the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a recently-added jewel along the Crooked Road.
The museum is all about what has come to be known as the Bristol Sessions, breakthrough music recordings made in 1927. Also known as the “Big Bang” of country music, the Bristol Session recordings were made by a Victor Talking Machine Company scout over a 10-day period and featured 19 different acts performing 76 songs. Besides the stunning nature of the music itself, a combination of technological advancements were responsible for the success of this Big Bang, such as the recent availability of gramophone record players and the resultant demand for music recordings. And state-of-the-art 1927 microphone technology greatly expanded the potential horizons of the Bristol Sessions. The recordings of seminal acts such as the Carter family -AP, Sara, and Maybelle- Jimmie Rogers, Earnest Stoneman and others brought “country” music to the forefront of the American music business and profoundly affected its direction. The core, elemental sound of the vocals and guitar, fiddle, banjo, autoharp, and mandolin was thus brought out of the “hollers” and into homes from California to New York.
And the Birthplace of Country Music Museum covers the whole story.
Hiltons, twenty miles west of Bristol along the Crooked Road route, is home to the Carter Family Fold. Really it’s more than that; some call it the center of the country music universe. But it’s modest; don’t expect Dollywood. The town of Hiltons is tiny and unremarkable, and A.P. Carter’s store is as it was sixty years ago. It’s situated in a quiet valley, and a cool breeze flowed from the mountain backdrop on the fall evening that we visited. We filed into the rustic performance hall adjacent to the old store with other visiting pilgrims. Barn doors open up the sides of the hall and let in the night air and the sounds of crickets and cicadas. Until, that is, those sounds are replaced by the rhythm and scratch and sometimes-haunting vocals of the visiting bands. The night we visited, luthier -guitar maker- and performer Wayne Henderson and Friends were the headlining act. The place came alive with the music, not only the flat footers iryresistibly drawn to the sound as well as the foot-tapping audience, but the old building itself, the timbers resonating with the spirit and soul of it.
There are lots of other things to see and do along the Crooked Road, places associated with names like Bill Monroe and brothers Ralph and Carter Stanley, towns steeped in character like Galax and Floyd. But there that night at the Carter Family Fold our cup was running over and -for the time being- our traditional music thirst was quenched. We soaked in the sounds and sights and feel of the place, not just the music Wayne and his friends brought to the hallowed place but the lingering essence of all that had come before.
After all, the Crooked Road leads not just west into quaint towns tightly nestled in shady hollows; it’ll take you on a musical journey back in time.