The Crooked Road is a music heritage trail that winds for 250 miles in Virginia, from the coalfields region near the Kentucky border to the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Along the way, the backroads path connects some of the region’s most vital musical treasures. The trail was birthed in 2003 to connect the region’s deep Anglo-Celtic lineage to offshoot genres like folk, bluegrass, and country. Since that time it has brought $23 million a year to an area that could always use a little extra appreciation. Here’s a guide to the trail’s eight main venues, along with accompanying outdoor opportunities nearby.
1 Ralph Stanley Museum
The Crooked Road starts in Southwest Virginia, where it pays homage to one of the last original living icons of old-time music. Opened in 2004, the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center are located in the historic Chase House in downtown Clintwood. It honors the legacy of the bluegrass hero who has been playing for five decades. The 82-year-old banjo-picking pioneer is best known for his groundbreaking work with his brother Carter in the Stanley Brothers and early incarnations of the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Local Adventure: After learning about all things Stanley, spend a day exploring nearby Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles the Kentucky/Virginia border. The 4,600-acre wild escape revolves around the steep gorge that the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River cuts into Pine Mountain. At 1,600 feet deep, this is the largest canyon east of the Mississippi.
2 Country Cabin
The Country Cabin is the oldest mountain music venue currently open along the Crooked Road. Now a National and State Historic Landmark, the log cabin in Norton was built in 1937 under President Roosevelt’s WPA program, and for years it hosted famous Saturday night bluegrass and country music gatherings. Crowds soon outgrew the small cabin building, so in 2002 a new larger facility—Country Cabin II—was built in the nearby Appalachian Traditions Village. Local pickers are still playing for audiences every Saturday night.
Local Adventure: Before catching a show at the Cabin, lace up your shoes and take a trail run around Bark Camp Lake in the Jefferson National Forest near Wise.
3. Carter Family Fold
Founded in 1979, the Carter Family Memorial Music Center in Hiltons was established to honor A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter, who purveyed some of the earliest forms of country music. The Carter Family Fold is a rustic theater that keeps tradition alive every Saturday night with live acoustic music. Little known fact: family member by marriage Johnny Cash played his last concert here.
Local Adventure: Near the Fold, you can check out Natural Tunnel State Park for a look at the 850-foot long tunnel that was carved by acidic groundwater beginning in the glacial period more than a million years ago. While you’re there, rent a canoe and paddle down the lazy Clinch River.
4. Birthplace of Country Music Alliance
Nashville has the spotlight, but Bristol has the history. The small Southern city on the Virginia-Tennessee border can boast the recordings of some of country music’s first stars including the Carter Family. Get a history lesson at the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance Museum, which features exhibits that trace the musical heritage of the region from the early influences of the pioneer settlers to the current influential players.
Local Adventure: Head east to Damascus and ride the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 34-mile rail trail with gradual elevation change that runs right through town. To get your heart pumping, try the quad-crushing climbs of the Iron Mountain Trail’s steep singletrack.
5. Rex Theatre
On Friday nights, radio listeners in four states can hear the weekly broadcast “Blue Ridge Backroads,” a live music show from Galax’s historic Rex Theater. This and the annual Old Fiddler’s Convention have led to the small town being called the “World’s Capital of Old Time Mountain Music.” At the oldest and largest fiddler’s convention in the world, which takes place August 3-8, you’ll get your fill of strings, as the region’s best musicians—known and unknown—take to the stages for some heavy competition over a full week of picking in the mountains.
Local Adventure: Before catching a Friday night show at the Rex, spend the day hiking at Grayson Highlands State Park. Pick up the Appalachian Trail at Massie Gap and explore the open meadow high country with the rhododendron in full early summer bloom.
6. Blue Ridge Music Center
Check show listings (blueridgemusiccenter.org) at this scenic outdoor venue located at mile 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The 2,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre has rolling mountain views in the background, and some of the finest pickers in the region let their sounds ring through the hills throughout the warm months. Modern bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson performs on June 6.
Local Adventure: Head east on the trail to Meadows of Dan and revisit your younger years with a tree-climbing class with Blue Ridge Tree Climbing. Advanced reservations required. blueridgetreeclimbing.com.
7. Floyd Country Store
The quaint and free-spirited town of Floyd always welcomes folks to the famous Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store. Picking circles develop in the streets in front of the Country Store in the early evening. Then things move inside at 6:30 for the world-famous jamboree that includes a gospel set, followed by old-time and bluegrass bands that induce a heavy helping of contra dancing. The festivities cost just three bucks. While you’re there, check out County Sales record store, which boasts one of the nation’s largest selections of traditional string music.
Local Adventure: Stretch your legs with a 10-mile hike on the Rock Castle Gorge Trail. The scenic jaunt starts at milepost 167 of the Blue Ridge Parkway just outside of Floyd. After a three-mile descent in the gorge, you’ll work your way back up with a seven-mile climb filled with mountain meadow views and rhodo tunnels.
8. Blue Ridge Institute and Museum
At the easternmost point of the trail, the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum—on the campus of Ferrum College near Rocky Mount—has documented musical traditions of the Blue Ridge region for over 30 years. Check out the museum during the day, and then stick around for some live tunes. Franklin County has Crooked Road sponsored bluegrass jams six days a week. Check the daily schedule for venues like the J&J Dance Hall and the Edible Vibe. franklincountyva.org.
Local Adventure: Franklin County is developing a terrific network of blue trails, including a calm eight-mile stretch on the Pigg River from Waid Park to Lynch Park. From Brubaker Park you can paddle the Blackwater River 34 miles to Smith Mountain Lake. If you’d rather play on land, bring your fat tire friend and ride the trail network at the Waid Recreation Area.