Interested in fiddle and banjo music, crafts, galleries, small towns and Americana? You'll find them on The Crooked Road, about 250 miles along Virginia's southwest corner, from the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge west to the coalfields region, through the valleys and peaks of the Appalachian mountains.
I flew into Roanoke, a lovely city with a compact, walkable historic city center. After a few hours roaming around the town, I got in the car and started the drive. The Crooked Road signs lead you all along, and each big town has comfortable lodgings, good local food and friendly folks.
Floyd Country Store hosts musicians throughout the world who come to play or just sit on the folding chairs and enjoy weekend bluegrass jams. There's popcorn, lemonade and possum (?) in a can. Nearby County Records is worth a visit just to read some of the thousands of music catalogs. At the Arts and Crafts Center, up the road, students learn local traditions including blacksmithing, quilting and painting. You can tour and buy.
Just outside Floyd, Harvest Moon Store offers well-priced, exceptional folk art as well as groceries, garden goods and delicious coffee and pastries. The region is filled with crafts and folk-art stores.
On the way to Galax, at Blue Ridge Music Center Grayson/Carroll County, a museum just off the parkway, you can talk to talented luthiers who create fine guitars, banjos, mandolins and other instruments on site. If you're lucky they'll play for you. But if you want a custom instrument, get in line. Guitarist Eric Clapton had to wait 10 years for his!
The town has dozens of early 20th century buildings. Don't miss the Friday night radio show at the Rex Theatre. The venue is a former movie house, and the blue- grass music so toe-tapping that people often get up and dance in place. Try to meet Stevie Barr, a great young banjo player, at his folks' music store downtown. He's friendly and fun -- and may even do some incredible pickin' for you. The New River Trail State Park runs along here, with bike and hiking paths.
The drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway from here is especially beautiful, with picturesque old Mabry mill, and vineyards where you can take rest stops. Abington Wineries offers tastings and fine food.
Centuries old buildings abound here. Most special is Barter Theater, the State Theater of Virginia, and the second oldest continuing drama venue in the country. Legend says there's a confederate ghost on premises. The Historic District is perfect for a self-guided walking tour.
The state line runs through this town, known for railroads, car racing and, especially, as "Birthplace of Country Music" because of the 1927 RCA recording sessions here of the Carter family and Jimmie Rogers, the first ever for the regional music. The historic Paramount theatre downtown is the site of frequent concerts. You can learn about the past and present at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
For lovers of mountain music, Saturday nights mean a visit to the Carter Family Fold. Top musicians perform in a new amphitheatre, with people flat-foot dancing through the evening. Next door is a small museum, and the original cabin where the family lived. The house of the late June Carter and her husband Johnny Cash are nearby; they spent part of the year here.
The Stanley brothers put soul into bluegrass, and the new Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center honors the legendary Grammy-winning musician. He was a consultant on the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou, which is filled with music of the area. I was fortunate enough to hear Dr. Ralph perform in Bristol. In his 80's he was still a superb musician, and his son and grandson carry on the tradition.
FACTS: A long weekend will give you a taste of this special region and a chance to attend weekend shows in Galax and Hiltons; a week would be relaxing, and allow more time for poking around. If you fly into Roanoke, you can rent a car and drop it off in Bristol, where you can fly out. Try to spend Friday night near Galax, and Saturday night near Bristol/Hiltons to enjoy the nearby concerts.
LODGING: Roanoke: The Hotel Roanoke, historic and grand, near center -- Galax: Cabins; deluxe, with kitchens, whirlpools, some lofts, on New River; Doctors House B&B; fab breakfasts, friendly hosts -- Abingdon: Martha Washington Inn, historic; great location -- Bristol: many motels to choose from.