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Alive on the Crooked Road

Virginia's Heritage in Music

You may be teaching your kids to stay on the straight and narrow, but you’ll be surprised how much fun you’ll have traveling together, down the Crooked Road…

The musical heritage trail highlights Southwest Virginia’s entertaining mountain culture, with old-time, bluegrass, and traditional country music. The trail’s exhibits provide background while events bring the culture to life. Here, communities open their doors to visitors, welcoming them to shindigs that, for most of the residents, are just a part of everyday life.

As the family vacation planner, it was always my challenge to book both enrichment and fun into our vacations. A setting like Southwest Virginia makes that easy. The Crooked Road winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains, where invigorating outdoor activities plus a variety of dining and lodging options can fill out any family trip.

Though only a few hours from Richmond, the mountains of Southwest Virginia are home to a distinctive culture, both folksy and accomplished. Music thrives as performance and as lifestyle, with frequent jam sessions and dances open to all. The Celebration of sounds and values is an integral part of the community.

For the region’s children, music provides a playground, a stage, and an incubator. Including kids in music has always been a part of the culture, and family bands are commonplace. Crooked Road venues like Heartwood in Abingdon and Blue Ridge Music Center at Milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway feature youth front and center. Last month’s jamboree at the New River Community College featured teen fiddling sensation Adam Larkey with his sister and their father. The headliner was family-based Whitetop Mountain Band, performing nationally and internationally since the forties.

With a little planning, seeing talented young people perform can be a part of any trip along the Crooked Road, winding for over 300 miles across the mountains, ridges, and valleys of southwestern Virginia.

So where to begin? A great place to launch your family’s exploration is Heartwood: Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Gateway. The new 30,000-squarefoot gallery epitomizes the region’s creative culture in a modern building reflecting the area’s rural roots. Exhibits explore the local music, crafts, and foods, with special attention to the creators. Alongside the informative displays are carefully chosen arts and crafts for sale, plus a restaurant, local wines, beer, and coffee.

A little deeper into the heart of the trail is the Blue Ridge Music Center, an easy stop along the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway, operated by the National Park Service and the National Council for the Traditional Arts. The outdoor amphitheatre hosts concerts, jam sessions, and other festivities, while indoor exhibits trace the roots of the region’s music and its contemporary soul, including the families who keep it alive. Hands-on exhibits at this small museum provide an Enjoyable way for kids to better understand the music: a mixer to experiment with sounds; a sturdy dulcimer for curious fingers; and word wheels for lyrics play.

The Center’s Next Generation Concert on May 26 offers a glimpse into children’s place in this culture. Teenage performer Adam McPeak began his musical career with his father’s band, the McPeak Brothers, and formed Mountain Thunder at 13, bringing other teens into the band. The Fiddlin’ Carson Peters Band centers around 8-yearold Carson, who has been playing the violin since he was three-and-a-half, accompanied by his father.

To witness the importance of kinfolk firsthand, take a drive, way back into the hills, to the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons. A small museum pays homage to the Carters, an influential family in the development of early Americana music, but the main attraction is the performance hall. Every Saturday, old-time and bluegrass musicians perform while audience members fill the dance floor.

The highlight of Friday nights in Floyd County is the Floyd Country Store Jamboree, for standing-room-only performances and dance. People spill out onto the sidewalk up and down the street. Jam sessions pop up in the barbershop and other businesses, as well as outside. Four hours from Richmond, a few minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Floyd makes it easy to stay for a spell. The mottled background of the county – overalls, white collars, and tie-dye shirts – creates an eccentric mix. Within a few blocks are notable restaurants like Oddfellas and Dogtown Roadhouse, serving creative, locally sourced food and craft beers and hosting a diversity of live music.

Another stop worth scheduling on the Crooked Road is Abingdon, the oldest town west of the Blue Ridge, and home of the historic Barter Theatre. Known as the State Theater of Virginia, Barter Theatre was established during the Depression so actors and playwrights could barter a performance for a ham. Enjoy classic and contemporary shows, including musicals, comedies, and dramas with casts that rival touring companies from Broadway.

Abingdon is also home base for one of the region’s most well-known outdoor treats: the Virginia Creeper Trail. Built On an old Norfolk & Western rail bed, its 34 miles stretch from just past Whitetop Station, down past the Green Cove Station (immortalized on film by photographer O. Winston Link), and through Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The shared-use trail is suitable for bikes, hikes, and horses.

Outfitters will tote you and your bikes – or rent you some of theirs – to Whitetop or another of the nine trailheads for an easy downhill ride along well-maintained paths, over railroad trestles and flowing streams, shaded forests, pine stands, rhododendron, and mountain laurels.

For an amazing array of family activities in a luxury mountain setting, visit 12,000- acre Primland Resort near Meadows of Dan. Resort staff can help you experience recreational tree climbing or geocaching, ATV tours or horseback riding, mountain biking or hiking. True to its rural heritage, Primland also offers sporting clays, guided wild game sport hunting, and fishing, open to kids as well as adults. Also available are swimming, tennis, golf, a game room, a spa And dining. The night sky comes alive at this remote location, in the dazzling view of the stars and in Primland’s Observatory Dome, where a powerful telescope provides glimpses of celestial objects like nebulae and faraway galaxies.

All along these winding roads, the Blue Ridge Mountains host abundant outdoor recreation. Water buffs can enjoy easy floats, challenging rapids, boating and jet skis, swimming or fishing. Trails through national and state parks and forests provide peaceful settings for biking, horseback riding, or hiking. Eighty miles of the Appalachian Trail meander through the region, as do several rails-to-trails pathways. If you don’t bring your own equipment, local outfitters can set you up. Lodging options in the region include historic inns and B&B’s as well as campgrounds, cabins, and modern hotels. You can dine on elegant repasts, good old country cooking, or quick bites.

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from a trip along the Crooked Road is the reminder of the beauty of diversity. After all, why take the highway, when a few twists and turns can make life – and your next Virginia vacation – so much more interesting?

Annie Tobey is a Richmond-based freelance writer and editor. She is the mother of three - twin sons and a daughter - and enjoys running, hiking, and kayaking.
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