GALAX, Va. — What some music historians might regard as a Big Twang Theory was sparked in a tiny Blue Ridge town. What was later segmented into country, bluegrass and Americana sounds was essentially created and fueled there.
This “old time” music was perhaps best recognized in the mainstream as it rippled through the Grammy-winning soundtrack of the 2000 movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Galax is 20 miles from busy Interstate 77 and just as close to the heavily traveled Blue Ridge Parkway. Close by, the federal parkway’s Blue Ridge Music Center attracts roughly 40,000 visitors a year — and is not the only place in these parts where the “old time” has not gone away.
Flavors of traditional folk music vary from hill to hollow.
Music on the Parkway
Ground zero may be the site of Alderman’s Barbershop, now a retail backroom in downtown Galax. There, in the 1920s, some regulars were discussing the surprising success Vernon Dalhart was having with a novelty record, “Wreck of the Old 97” — a country ballad about a Virginia train disaster. It became a million-seller, and four musicians hanging out at Alderman’s headed to New York and cashed in on this trend. They dressed as hayseeds and called themselves the Hill Billies, but their success helped open studio doors for other country pioneers.
Head to the Blue Ridge Music Center for the deep story. The visitor center’s compact museum explains how Scotch-Irish immigrants brought fiddle tunes to the backcountry and Germans introduced the dulcimer and group singing. Slaves of Tidewater settlers played a gourd ancestor of the banjo. Blended and baked over time — without percussion, without the guitar — this became the sound of the mountains and the rootstock for more.
According to Janet Bachmann, the facility’s interpretive ranger, it was envisioned as an immersive heritage site. She says “October is our busiest season” — fall-foliage leaf-peep traffic is heavy on the Parkway — followed by July.
Special floor and ceiling coverings keep each push-button, exhibit-tied audio clip from blatting into another. The behind-glass artifacts, like the interactive displays, are simple but quite effective.
Most Saturdays, mid-May through Labor Day, you can enjoy cool high-country weather listening to roots-loving national stars of country/folk/Americana in amphitheater shows ($15-$35) handled by the nonprofit Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
The museum is free — as are the spring-fall shows and jams in the center’s breezeway: Noon to 4 p.m. daily, area musicians play traditional mountain music. On a Friday afternoon in late June, for example, a dozen pickers and pluckers sitting in an informal circle played extended jams with friends and visitors. About 40 spectators watched the interplay from folding chairs; an older woman rose and gleefully buckdanced when a reel or jig kicked in. The unamplified music rode the eaves toward hillside pastures and Fisher Peak, perched high on the Virginia-North Carolina line.
The Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax is now one of the oldest and largest such gatherings, with thousands of fans making the pilgrimage to Felts Park (Aug. 5-10 this year).
Mike Seeger, noted folklorist and leading light of the folk-music revival of the 1960s, became a Fiddler’s Convention booster. Bachmann said: “The people he brought with him took the Round Peak style with them when they left.”
Rex Theater marks the spot
Friday nights in downtown Galax, the historic Rex Theater on Grayson Street has a 7 p.m. “Blue Ridge Back Roads” concert aired live on WBRF-FM. The regional acts taking the stage vary wildly in appeal, subgenre and proficiency — but for a $5 donation you can’t lose. The shows are offered year-round; crowd size varies seasonally.
On a rainy April Friday, the Rex crowd was mostly local for The Southern Gentlemen Bluegrass Band, a four-piece outfit — mandolin, banjo, standup bass and guitar. Before airtime, leader Johnny Johnson worked the auditorium and lobby shaking familiar hands. There were hugs and kisses from his cousin Ruth, whom he asked, “Any requests?”
“How about that song about your momma and dad up in heaven?” she replied. Minutes later, smoking a cigarette out in the drizzle, he asks one of the guys in the band: “Remember that song?”
When the show went live, the quartet, all wearing white cowboy hats, launched into “Carolina Blue,” a new song from their upcoming CD. Two older men left their seats to clog in front of the stage; a woman joined them for “I Quit Chasing Rainbows (I Found My Pot of Gold).” The pace slowed for “Waltz of the Angels,” a tearjerker.
During daylight, head nearby to another landmark, Barr’s Fiddle Shop, where two generations of Barrs have been selling instruments and accessories for 40 years. It’s a pickers delight, where kid and grown-up shoppers frequently sit near the cash register and try merchandise, bouncing chords and riffs off walls and doorways.
Stevie Barr says his father, Tom, built and fixed instruments at home until his wife tired of drop-ins and demanded he open a store. (Tom, 77, still custom-builds instruments, mostly lap dulcimers and banjos these days, purchased as competition awards.)
Barr, who runs the shop, said the inventory included 14 banjos, 72 guitars, 24 fiddles, 18 ukuleles and seven mandolins.
Be sure to take a look at the side room that also fronts Main Street. It once was Alderman’s Barbershop, where some local pickers dreamed of taking mountain music to the big time.
Many warm-weather festivals in southwest Virginia feature “old time” or bluegrass music. Major area events on the horizon include Fries Fiddlers Convention (Aug. 16-17, Fries, Virginia.) and Blue Ridge Folklife Festival (Oct. 26, Ferrum, Virginia.)
Weekly jams are held at Crouse Park (Mondays, Sparta, North Carolina), Briar Patch Marketplace & Café (Tuesdays, Galax) and the Old Independence Courthouse (Wednesdays, Independence, Virginia). WPAQ-AM, in Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina, broadcasts live concerts from the Earle Theatre at 11 a.m. Saturdays.
Across the street and a half-block down on Main Street from the Rex, The Galax Smokehouse has been the go-to place for affordable regional fare since 2003. The large, low-slung eatery specializes in barbecued pork, beef and chicken and takes its mission seriously. Order at your table or counter stool, and a server returns with four color-coded squeeze bottles of sauce made there from scratch that will be explained to you.
More to do
Galax is the southern terminus of the New River Trail State Park, 57.7 miles of rails-to-trails hiking and biking in four Virginia counties. Bring your bike or rent one in Galax. (Luxury rental cabins on the river are available in Galax. Chain motels are along U.S. 58, between I-77 and Galax.)
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