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