We're Off To See Appalachia: The Crooked Road Links Rural Music Communities

Aug 7, 2015
Originally published on August 7, 2015 9:13 am

In the isolated regions of Central Appalachia, music was once the only form of entertainment. It's still alive today thanks to The Crooked Road, a driving trail that connects music venues in Southwest Virginia. It stretches from the Blue Ridge to the Cumberland Mountains for 333 miles, crossing some of the poorest areas in the country.

Making a living in those areas has never been easy, as guitarist Greg Ward knows. He's a native of Floyd, Va. — population: 432.

"You know, it was a rough life," he says. "It was a hard life."

For Ward and his family, music drew people together and forged a sense of tradition.

"My great-grandfather and my great-uncle Charlie played on the front porch on Saturday — and I mean, it would start Friday night maybe, and it might not end 'til Sunday," he says.

In 2013, the poverty rate in Appalachian Virginia was 3 percent higher than the national average. Stewart Scales, who teaches Appalachian Geography at Virginia Tech, says the region has depended on lumber and coal. When the energy industry changed, the local economy suffered.

"With the companies leaving the mines, they're also leaving the area in general, so that's leaving people without jobs," Scales says. "The big question is, what happens next?"

Scales says The Crooked Road offers a different approach to getting people and money into the region. Woody Crenshaw agrees: Until recently, he owned the Floyd Country Store, one of nine main stops along the trail.

"We really saw that the music was this huge untapped, unappreciated asset," Crenshaw explains. The music he's talking about is what's called "old-time," "early country" or bluegrass.

The idea for The Crooked Road came from the late musicologist Joe Wilson and Todd Christensen of the Virginia Department of Housing in 2003. By the next year, the governor declared it Virginia's Heritage Music Trail. The town of Bristol is another stop along The Crooked Road, where Leah Ross is the Executive Director of Bristol's Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

"There's probably not a month that goes by when someone doesn't stop in our office and says, 'We're following The Crooked Road,'" Ross says.

Museum curator Jessica Turner, who's from the region, says the European violin and the banjo, with its origins in Africa, met in Southwest Virginia. They took root in the mountains along with settlers in the 18th century.

"In this region, there's such a great interaction of cultures," Turner says. "You've got African-American spiritual songs that become influential. You've got certainly a Native American music tradition that is influential. You've got fiddle tunes from Western Europe that became influential, too. And all of this mixes together to become, really, what is distinctly Appalachian."

These tunes continue to be passed down from parents to their children today — as they did for Eric Marshall and his 12-year-old son, Ben, who have performed at the Floyd Country Store. Eric has been playing bluegrass for 17 years, but he didn't force it on his son. It was when his band was short a player that Ben offered to fill in.

"We were at Galax Fiddler's convention, and there wasn't no bass playe. And I was like, 'Daddy, can I play the bass?'" Ben Marshall says.

They've been playing together ever since. Eric Marshall says their relationship lends itself to musical compatibility.

"We think a lot about the same way to do it," he says. "And to write songs with him, get on stage and record songs with him is something I couldn't have wished for."

Marshall and his son came to play on The Crooked Road from their home in North Carolina. As local musician Ward says, the Appalachians aren't lacking for musicians.

"It's very easy to pull together four or five absolute strangers," says Ward. "Now, you're not just playing music together but you know, you're swapping lives and you're laughing and all the other things."

This is a family, Ward says — a sentiment echoed by Floyd's Woody Crenshaw.

"We're here building a community for ourselves," Crenshaw says. "We're not designing this to attract other people."

Nevertheless, it has attracted visitors, and it hasn't hurt: In 2008, a study of The Crooked Road's economic impact found that it generated over $13 million that year alone. This influx of tourism has also given locals a sense of pride, and Crenshaw thinks it offers a sense of optimism.

"A lot of communities which felt like they just didn't have the assets, didn't have the opportunities, didn't have a direction, I think The Crooked Road has offered some hope. I really do," he says.

It's also attracted the attention of tourism officials in Tennessee, who contacted Crenshaw asking to come visit. The home of Nashville, Beale Street and Graceland wanted to know how to harness creative energy in its smaller communities, just like Floyd has done.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the isolated regions of Central Appalachia, music was the only form of entertainment in years past. And that's still alive today thanks to The Crooked Road, a driving trail that connects music venues in Southwest Virginia. It stretches from the Blue Ridge to the Cumberland Mountains for 333 miles, crossing some of the poorest areas in this country. And as part of our coverage on live music venues this summer, Desire Moses traveled The Crooked Road and has this story.

DESIRE MOSES, BYLINE: Making a living in Central Appalachia has never been easy.

GREG WARD: You know, it was a rough life. It was a hard life.

MOSES: Guitarist Greg Ward is a native of Floyd, Va. - population 432.

WARD: And that's where the music played in. My great-grandfather and my great-uncle Charlie played on the front porch on Saturday. And, I mean, it would start Friday night maybe and it might not end till Sunday.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We got a couple of dance bands coming up and some raffles.

MOSES: In 2013, the poverty rate in Appalachian Virginia was 3 percent higher than the national average. The region has depended on lumber and coal, says Stewart Scales, who teaches Appalachian geography at Virginia Tech. When the energy industry changed, the local economy suffered.

STEWART SCALES: With the companies leaving the mines, they're also leaving the area in general, so that's leaving people without jobs. You know, the big question is what happens next? And I think the advent of The Crooked Road, that's been a different take on the approach to how do we get people and money into the region.

WOODY CRENSHAW: And we really saw that the music was this huge, untapped, unappreciated asset.

MOSES: That's Woody Crenshaw, who, until recently, owned The Floyd Country Store, one of nine main stops along The Crooked Road.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Always wonderful to have Katie and the Bubbatones here with us. Let's give them a big hand - Katie and the Bubbatones.

(APPLAUSE)

MOSES: The music he's talking about is what's called old-time, early country or bluegrass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSES: The idea for The Crooked Road came from the late musicologist Joe Wilson and Todd Christiensen of the Virginia Department of Housing in 2003. By the next year, the governor declared it Virginia's Heritage Music Trail. The town of Bristol is another stop along The Crooked Road. And Leah Ross is the executive director of Bristol's Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

LEAH ROSS: And there's probably not a month goes by someone stops in our office and says we're following The Crooked Road.

MOSES: Museum curator Jessica Turner, who's from the region, says the European violin and the banjo, with its origins in Africa, met in Southwest Virginia, taking root in the mountains along with settlers in the 18th century.

JESSICA TURNER: In this region, there's such a great interaction of cultures. You've got African-American spiritual songs that become influential. You've got certainly a Native American music tradition. You've got fiddle tunes from the Western Europe. And all of this mixes together to become really what is distinctly Appalachian.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSES: These tunes continue to be passed down from parents to their children today.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

BEN MARSHALL: (Singing) Well, early on in the morning (unintelligible) dew was on the ground. Jim left his little mountain farm for a trip that day into town.

MOSES: I met Eric Marshall and his 12-year-old son Ben during their first performance at The Floyd Country Store. Eric has been playing bluegrass for 17 years, but he didn't force it on his son. It was when his band was short a player that Ben offered to fill in.

BEN: I kind of started playing - we were at Galax Fiddler's convention and there wasn't no bass player. And I was like, Daddy, can I play the bass?

MOSES: And they've been playing together ever since.

ERIC MARSHALL: For me, to get to play music with my son and we - bless his heart - sometimes I know I give him a fit about how we're going to do certain things. And to write songs with him, get on stage and play songs with him and record songs with him, that's something that, I mean, I couldn't have wished for.

MOSES: Marshall and his son came to play on The Crooked Road from their home in North Carolina. As local musician Greg Ward says, the Appalachians aren't lacking for musicians.

WARD: It's very easy to pull together four or five absolute strangers and that's a big part of it because now you're not just playing music together but you're swapping lives and you're laughing and, you know, all the other things.

MOSES: This is a family, he says, a sentiment echoed by Floyd's Woody Crenshaw.

CRENSHAW: We're here building a community for ourselves. We're not designing this to attract other people. But we felt that if we were really honest about developing the music in the way that's presented, that visitors would appreciate it. And they have.

MOSES: A 2008-study of The Crooked Road's economic impact found that it generated over $13 million that year alone. This influx of tourism has also given locals a sense of pride.

CRENSHAW: A lot of communities which felt like they just didn't have the assets, they didn't have the opportunities, they didn't have a direction, I think The Crooked Road has offered some hope for communities along the road. I really do.

MOSES: And it's attracted the attention of tourism officials in Tennessee, who contacted Crenshaw asking to come visit. The home of Nashville, Beale Street and Graceland wanted to know how to harness creative energy in its smaller communities the same way The Crooked Road has for towns in Virginia like Floyd. For NPR News, I'm Desire Moses. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.