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Chris Kompanek

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On the Culture Front: Tracing Americana Roots Through the Mountains of Southwest Virginia

Posted: 01/10/12 07:30 AM ET

I'm not sure what my expectations were when I went to Southwest Virginia for a week a few months back. The only part of Virginia I had glimpsed before was Arlington, which, as one native told me, is worlds away from the sliver of the state that's closer to Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky than to our nation's capital.

This is the South, where the Civil War is reenacted regularly and still the topic of many conversations. Surprisingly, though, I only saw one confederate flag, but many mixed feelings of what that flag represents.

We arrived in Charlottesville on a particularly precarious propeller plane and then drove about 90 minutes through impossibly winding roads to Primland, which sits in a tiny rural town, Meadows of Dan, nestled in-between the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's not an easy trip but that kind of quiet doesn't have a highway exit. The entrance to the resort itself is a zigzag 20-minute drive to the lodge. The surrounding land is filled with hiking trails, clay shooting courses, and areas for deer hunting.

I cringed when I heard that last part until they assured me that guests eat what they kill or donate the meat to organizations that fight hunger. I'm still not sure I would pick up a gun myself, but it got me thinking about the disconnect between how our food is obtained and what we eat. The lodge itself has a rugged elegance, but my favorite part has to be the terrace my room opened onto. There were trees changing all kinds of colors as far as the eye could see. Even though the air had a sharp chill, I found myself wanting to be surrounded by all that was out there.

While there wasn't any music in Primland, walking the land gave insight into the inspiration behind it -- rollicking banjos borne out of the mountains so permanent that everything that came after was built around it. The roads that twist through those mountains not unlike the Crooked Road, which snakes its way across the southern border of the state.

This is the heart of the musical attractions and includes Floyd's Country Store, which is just as old-timey as it sounds and the Carter Family Fold, the place where Johnny Cash went to get sober. Apparently, this has something to do with dryness of the venue. They do make a nice spiced hot cider though that seems to be begging for a discreet pour of whiskey from a flask.

The weekly shows draw local acts of virtuoso musicians. The thing about this region is that being a musician isn't something relegated to a few. Almost everybody seems to be able to play quite well. Even the park ranger at the Blue Ridge Museum turned out to be a blazing talent on the fiddle.

Modern culture and historical monuments from the Civil War reside side-by-side in Abingdon, where Lee's shadow still looms large -- we even saw a play about the infamous general's surrender at the Barter Theatre, a well-respected regional theater that's the cultural hub of sorts of this small but charming city. They were also putting on Kander and Ebb's classic musical about Nazi resistance, Cabaret, in the main space, which we were told was completely sold out. "Razzle dazzle" was in abundance though at the Star Museum, which is filled with one-of-a-kind items such as Clark Gable's smoking jacket and Marilyn Monroe's heels. Curator/owner Robert Weisfeld scoured the country for these rare items and is more than happy to tell the story behind each piece.

Aesthetically, Abingdon exudes southern charm. Well-preserved buildings from the 1800s line city streets, classic restaurants serve good, unfussy food, and commercialism is generally kept at bay with coffee shops that double as bookstores and their very own microbrewery, Wolf Hills Brewing Co. Most impressive though is possibly the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 34-mile expanse that can be biked or walked and passes through farms where cows, horses and other animals graze mere feet away. The only down side is however far you go you have to double back to get to your car as there isn't a subway you can hop on. One exception though is if you bike, you can arrange a van to pick you up on the other side and drive you back to where you started.

Sometimes, though, the best part of a journey is the unexpected. The best band I heard on the trip was an unsigned group called A Great Disaster, who happened to be playing in a stripped-down, two-person set up at an informal reception. Fighting for attention with the open bar and hors d'oeuvres couldn't have been the ideal atmosphere for singer/songwriter Zach Ross and his fiddlist Evie Feltmen, but the duo exploded with a self-assured sound that takes the twang of old-time and melds it with indie folk chord structures and sensibilities. I could have sworn they were from Brooklyn.