My 6 Favorite Music Experiences in Virginia’s Historic Heartland of Appalachia

0

In the southwest corner of Virginia, aka the heartland of Appalachia, music is an important part of life. This region has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, but remember: these attractions are accessible by mountain roads and not by highways. Here are my favorite musical experiences in the heart of Appalachia in Virginia.

I visited on a guided tour, but my heart was captured by what I saw and heard.

Advertising on Crooked Road (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

1. The winding road

Many places you drive on The Crooked Road, a 253-mile trail through part of Southwestern Virginia’s music history, have signs for Wayside Exhibits. There are a series of 26 exhibits along the trail. You can turn off the road to read the signs and listen to a 5 minute audio recording of the heritage music and musicians from this location. Audio can be heard on your car stereo within a radius of approximately half a mile. They tell a bit about the music history of this place and play some of the iconic songs.

Ralph Stanley Museum.
Kathleen Walls

2. Ralph Stanley Museum

Dr. Ralph Stanley’s mountain music helped create what is known today as bluegrass. The museum opened in October 2004. It is an interactive musical journey through the career of Dr. Ralph Stanley and the mountain music that originated in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Ralph and his brother, Carter, founded Clinch Mountain Boys in Norton, Virginia. He received an Honorary Doctor of Music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, received the Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress, and won a National Medal of Arts. He was also the first artist to receive the American Traditional Music Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Going through his museum gave me a new insight into the beginnings of mountain music. Museum director Dora Wallace started us off with a brief history of Ralph Stanley and then let us walk through the museum. There are exhibits of the main instruments used in mountain music – mandolins, banjos, guitars and violins. The headsets allow us to listen to stories and songs through the museum, which does a wonderful job of telling not just the story of Ralph Stanley, but the story of mountain music and bluegrass.

Museum exhibits show how this original mountain music learned in early churches transformed into country and even pop. A sign shows the connection to musicians like songs by Loretta Lynn and Chuck Berry. The highlight of our visit was meeting and hearing Ralph Stanley’s grandson – Nathan Stanley – sing a moving ballad about his grandfather, “He’ll Always Be Papaw To Me”.

Tim White performing at Ax Handle Distillery.
Tim White performing at Ax Handle Distillery (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

3. Ax Handle Distillery

Local businesses contribute to the music scene in the heart of Appalachia. Ax Handle Distillery hosts community Friday night bluegrass picking sessions every Friday from spring through fall. Anyone who wishes can bring an instrument and participate. They also organize events with local musicians. During our visit, Tim White, a well-known bluegrass musician and host of the PBS TV concert series, song of the mountainsentertained us.

The distillery’s odd name comes from the original family business that built Appalachian-style log homes all over the country. This arm of the company is still going strong.

Carter Family Fold Concert Hall.
Carter Family Fold Concert Hall (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

4. The Carter Family Fold

Carter Family Fold is a nonprofit founded by AP and Sara Carter’s daughter, Janette Carter, with a Saturday night tradition that keeps her family’s music alive. For those unfamiliar with the Carter family, they are considered the first family in country music: AP Carter, his wife Sara and his cousin Maybelle Carter who was married to AP’s brother. One of Maybelle’s daughters who carried on the family tradition was June Carter Cash, wife of Johnny Cash. AP traveled to the region to collect ballads of old brought to this country by Appalachian settlers. Their first recordings in 1927 are considered the start of the commercial country music industry.

The Fold is at Hiltons at the base of Clinch Mountain. It is a rustic frame building built in 1976 and expanded over the years. It has garage type doors on the sides which can be opened in hot weather to cool the building. Normally only acoustic groups perform and electric instruments are rarely allowed. The band playing the night we visited was Twin Creeks Stringband, an old fashioned mountain band. They consisted of Jared Boyd on banjo and vocals, Chris Prillaman on fiddle, Jason Hambrick on guitar and vocals, and Stacy Boyd on bass. They had us and many other guests dancing to tunes like The long black veil and Cotton Eye Joe.

During the first weekend of August, the Fold hosts a festival on Friday and Saturday. There are artisans, lots of good local cuisine and — of course — music.

The cabin where AP Carter was born.
Kathleen Walls

5. Birthplace of AP Carter

The cabin that was AP Carter’s birthplace was moved to the Carter Family Fold from its original location in Little Valley, the next valley parallel to Poor Valley where the Fold is located. When I walked in, the first to greet me was a cute dog named Wilson, the Fold’s mascot. Later, I saw him “dancing” to the music with other guests on the dance floor. US Registry service dogs are permitted at concerts.

The two-room log cabin with a tin roof and a stone fireplace was built in the mid-1800s. It is furnished much as it would have been when AP was a child. There are old family photos, clothing, spices, mason jars and early 20th century furniture. The white enamel gas stove was covered with old pots and an aluminum coffee pot.

AP Carter's store is now a museum at The Carter Family Fold.
Kathleen Walls

6. AP Store

The museum that tells the story of the first country music family was once AP’s store. Alongside his musical career, he ran this store almost until his death in 1960. This is where Fold’s first concerts took place before the concert hall was built. It is a State and National Historic Landmark.

When I walked into the white-framed building with its twin-peaked tin roofs, there were all sorts of memorabilia from the Carters’ career. Clothes the Carters wore, an old gramophone, dresses Sara and Maybelle wore to a 59th anniversary performance, the Carter family tree, and more. It’s a treasure trove of musical memories.

A display of musical instruments at the Ralph Stanley Museum.
Display of instruments from the Ralph Museum (Photo credit: Kathleen Walls)

Pro tips

For accommodation during your visit to the region, consider staying in a park. Natural Tunnel State Park offers a lodge, cabins, yurts, campground, tent, and RV with power and water. There are public baths with hot showers and a dumping station is in the park. Depending on whether you’re gripping the seat bar with white knuckles like me, as you plan to hang over that magnificent 10-story gorge by a little cable, you might have hummed either Closer to you my God or rocky summitwhile enjoying an incredible view.

Breaks Interstate Park is another choice. It is one of only two interstate parks located in two states. Breaks is in Virginia and Kentucky. It has cabins, chalets, yurts, restaurants, a lodge, and all types of camping, from full-service RV sites to primitive tents.

If you prefer conventional lodging, consider The Inn at Wise. This is a historic colonial-revival inn in Wise, Virginia, built in 1910. But the rooms offer 21st-century comforts and conveniences, hand-in-hand with old-fashioned style.

Learn more about our Virginia content here, including:

Share.

About Author

Comments are closed.