The success of Southwest Virginia’s Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail.
Jonathan Romeo for The Crooked Toad
It’s been said that on route 58 in Southwest Virginia, where the Piedmont joins the Blue Ridge and then meets up with Cumberland coal country, you may need 20 miles of pavement to travel 10. As it follows this rolling, picturesque route, the 333-mile Crooked Road Music Trail is only getting wider and longer.“
To my mind, the heritage music of Southwest Virginia is as vibrant as it’s ever been,” says Jack Hinshelwood, executive director of Virginia’s Crooked Road Music Trail.
The Crooked Road driving tour was formed in 2003 to spur economic development and celebrate the region’s status as a seminal spawning ground for country, bluegrass and old-time music. “There are nine major venues that the road connects, from the Ralph Stanley Museum in the west in Clintwood all the way to the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College to the east,” says Hinshelwood. And a new economic analysis by the Friends of Southwest Virginia suggests that the music trail is paying off economically for participating communities like Galax (which hosts the Galax Fiddler’s Convention), Floyd (home of the famous Floyd Country Store) and Norton (where, each September, they hold the Dock Boggs Music Festival). In 2012, Southwest Virginia lodging tax revenue was $7 million, more than triple what it was before the trail was introduced, and meals tax revenue more than doubled to $35 million. Plus, the Crooked Road, as an organization, is offering up more programs and events designed to bring in tourist dollars, including a planned nine-day annual cultural festival, the Mountains of Music Homecoming, that will kick off region-wide in June 2015.
But it is not just economic benefit that has been driving the success of the trail. People here “keep a historic strand of American music with a fierce devotion that is most unusual in our nation,” writes legendary folklorist Joe Wilson, one of the tour’s co-founders, in A Guide to the Crooked Road. Along the tour, you can attend fiddlin’ contests, where the tunes often reach back centuries, or watch professional cloggers perform traditional Appalachian dances, or see a master luthier make a mountain dulcimer out of cherry wood and mahogany. Another important stop came online in August, when the Birthplace of Country Music Museum opened in the Virginia-Tennessee border town of Bristol. The Smithsonian Institute-affiliated museum celebrates the historic 1927 recording sessions where eventual superstars and legends the Carter Family (from Scott County) and Jimmie Rodgers were first discovered. “Most states would be tickled to have six museums devoted to their indigenous music. We have that just in Southwest Virginia alone,” says Hinshelwood, “every community [here], you might say, has the goods.”
But embarking on an initiative to transition from the traditional economic base of the area—coal mining and tobacco production—to a creative economy, and forging alliances among different communities to fund a regional plan aimed at music, culture and tourism, was risky. Hinshelwood credits “visionaries” for agreeing to fund the Crooked Road, including the Tobacco Commission, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Virginia Commission for the Arts, among others.
After the tour expanded to encompass a total of 19 counties and four cities in 2010, it integrated traditional music education and now sponsors a monthly youth music concert series (and an annual festival in May) at the Heartwood Center in Abingdon and provides a guide for teachers to help them integrate traditional music programs in guitar, fiddle and banjo into local schools. “We see this as encouraging the next generation of tradition bearers,” says Jonathan Romeo, the Crooked Road’s youth program manager.
A more recent programming addition has been to offer Crooked Road touring shows to events and venues outside of the area. Jeff Brown, a veteran bluegrass guitar player from Richlands, serves on the Crooked Road’s Musician’s Board and takes his band, Still Lonesome, on these touring shows.“
The tour has a wow factor,” Brown says. “It shows all the different styles of music, like traditional bluegrass or mountain ballads. We just bring our corner of Virginia, the Appalachian Mountains, to everywhere else.”